How Beer Finds Meaning

Drinking is social, we all know it. Nothing new there until we start to break down what that means. Being a collective drink means that beer choices are shaped by season, the socio-cultural roles we assume in different contexts, identity, the invention of tradition, etc. “Identity” arises when an individual constructs and presents any one of a number of possible social identities, depending on the situation. Drinking is an example of cultural and subcultural practices, in the sense that it is a performance. It is an integral social, political and economic practice. It is a manifestation of the institutions, actions and values of functional culture, the creation of subculture and ethnic culture. We can be sure that beer drinking as display (a code of messages about selves and status, role and religion, race and nation) will persist as long as human beings live by symbolic communication. In other words, beer does more than quench a thirst, it signals important information about who you are to the rest of the group.

Being part of a specified group or subgroup (whether verbalized or not) and categorizing a beer in the same cultural construct shifts depending on the situation and place. This means that shifts to accommodate the contextual norm.

Guinness is a marvelous example of a company doing this. The brand taps into that sense of shared meaning with their customers by living the ideals they represent and displaying the consistency between experience and message through their advertising and company practices. A good brand in an extension of the target audience, it is not a logo, a catch phrase, or a mission statement. The audience and the brand become inseparable. Rather than being a purely transactional engagement, the consumer and the company, the brand, become part of a shared interaction. Or look at the new Sapporo ads in Canada (  Visually stunning, yes, but they also represent a visual and auditory  mythology around production, exoticism and beauty.  They don’t talk about flavor because it’s assumed the drinker is already in the know.

So what does that mean for someone selling beer? It means fundamentally rethinking the way you talk about it. Beer is more than a commodity. It is an extension of a way of life, a symbol that is adapted to the needs of a given group in a given setting. That means going well beyond the 30-second ad and incorporating a brand into the daily or seasonal rituals people have established around various types of social activity. It means understanding the rituals themselves, why they matter and how they manifest themselves.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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