We Are What We Drink

Just as beer cases have become filled with colorful labels and wine cellars have started to fill with more regional variety than we could ever have imagined, craft spirits are becoming alternatives to the traditional big liquor names. The number of craft distilleries jumped 16% in 2018 and 26% in 2017. In terms of what that represents to the workforce, 19,529 people now work full-time at craft spirits companies.

By far, the greatest number of craft distillers, 32.7 %, are in western states, with the South coming in second at 29.3. Third is the Midwest with 19.1% and the Northeast right behind at 18.9%. Among individual states, the leader by far is California, which has 148 craft distilleries, or nearly 10% of the total. New York State is next, with 123 craft distilleries. Washington State has 106, Texas has 86, and Colorado has 80.

Craft distilleries still represent a fraction of the overall booze market, but they’re steadily picking up sales and volume. In 2016, craft distilleries held 3% of sales. By 2017, that rose to 3.8%. On the surface that seems small, but gaining nearly a percentage point in such a massive industry point to a broader shift, just as it did with beer. Looking at the volume, that becomes abundantly clear. In actual cases, the craft industry has risen from 2.5 million cases sold in 2012, to 5.8 million cases in 2017. Interestingly, more than half of the sales for craft distillers come from customers in their home state. So craft distilling is on the rise, but why? And what does it say about marketing?

Food and drink can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow – drawn from the history and cultural patterns that create a sense of meaning. This is tied to a growing international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded. Spirits with a sense of place can be made by cultivating regionally specific varieties, along with farming and distilling techniques that emphasize a spirit’s local flavor. But this idea goes well beyond flavor.

Something craft distilleries have done, whether intentional or not, is to tap into or create a sense of history and, in some cases, a sense of mystery. Lifestyle and connectedness have a great impact on consumer behavior and brand preferences. Very often, we choose brands that are considered “appropriate” for our self-image, that fit within a specific context/mood, or are representational of an idea. As a result, we use brands as a relevant means of self-expression and drama. They are “beacons”. Identifying the contexts in which a brand finds life and meaning establishes a sense of connectedness. Tying it to a sense of place and time creates a story that we can immerse ourselves in. For any brand, that crafting of the story can have a huge impact on its longevity and relevance.

We identify and find purpose through the symbols we adorn ourselves with. Those symbols take on the shape of brands, which is probably why a wider variety of cultural expressions among brands can close the gap between the individual self and the commercial self.


Dwelling on Yogurt

Happy accidents have defined much of the human experience. The wheel, the discovery of metallurgy, the idea of fermenting olives (essentially little, bitter stones until cracked and left to cure). The development of the culinary experience in particular is riddled with these accidents and moments of inspiration. Yogurt is one such  archetypal food. While some speculate that it, along with beer, originated in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of agricultural civilization, there is no definitive way to know where yogurt began. But whoever first uncovered this metamorphosis over 7,000 years ago could scarcely have conceived of its subsequent and lasting impact.

At its core, yogurt is an innovation that elegantly deals with the universal issue of preserving a highly perishable food. In addition to food preservation, it just so happens that the process of fermentation also releases and creates constituents that make milk more digestible, nutritive, health-supporting and, in my humble opinion, delicious. 

There are countless ways of making yogurt, each recipe being different from for every other. Every maker’s technique will differ, every region has its own unique microbes. What’s more, the diversity of roles that plays in the hearts of people across the planet and the ways in which it is integrated into regional cuisines is truly astonishing. Yogurt is more than fermented dairy, it is a window into peoples’ lives.

It is this that makes yogurt so much more than the sum of all its  culinary and health benefits. The most crucial facet of yogurt is that it prolongs and deepens the relationship we have with our food. It connects us to our ancestors and allows us to become conduits between them and our descendants. And that’s what ultimately matters to people most — how they connect with your product, your innovation, or your brand.

The Decline of a Civilization, Part 2

A little reminder of recent history.  In the German presidential election held on March 13, 1932, there were four candidates: the incumbent, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler, and two minor candidates, Ernst Thaelmann and Theodore Duesterberg. 70 percent of the German people voted against Hitler.  The fanatical minority remained on the fringe and there was no indication of the subtle horrors to come.

However, since Hindenburg had not received a majority of the vote a runoff election had to be held among the top three vote-getters. With only three parties to vote for, it was little surprise to see the Nazis gain ground.  On April 19, 1932, the runoff results were: Hindenburg 53.0 percent
Hitler 36.8 percent
Thaelmann 10.2 percent. Thus, even though Hitler’s vote total had risen, he still had been decisively rejected by the German people.  When Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen on June 1 as chancellor of Germany, he immediately dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections, the third legislative election in five months.

The Nazis, determined to bring down the republic, did everything they could to create chaos in the streets, including initiating further class divisions, political violence and murder. The July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory for Hitler’s National Socialist Party. The party won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making it Germany’s largest political party, but it still fell short of a majority in the 608-member body.

On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although the National Socialists never captured more than 37 percent of the national vote, and even though they still held a minority of cabinet posts, Hitler and the Nazis began to consolidate their power.

For their part, the German people quickly accepted the new order of things. Keep in mind that the average non-Jewish German was largely unaffected by the new laws and decrees. As long as a German citizen kept his head down, worked hard, took care of his family, sent his children to the public schools and the Hitler Youth organization and didn’t involve himself in political dissent, a visit by the Gestapo was very unlikely. Keep in mind also that, while the Nazis established concentration camps in the 1930s, the number of inmates ranged in the thousands. It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that the death camps and the gas chambers that killed millions would be implemented.

The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation. The Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed.

Fast forward 79 years.  We are seeing a similar pattern develop in the US as Tea Party fanatics consolidate power and force their will on a majority of the population. The likes of Michelle Bachman support what amount to little more than reeducation camps for homosexuals, Rick Perry holds a national day of prayer clearly meant to exclude non-Christians (and Christians that don’t practice their faith according to the far-right ideology of fringe Evangelicals) and the entire Republican party willingly throws the future of the US economy into doubt, all to curry favor with extremists.  And sadly, the other side of the aisle buckles like Chamberlain in the misguided belief that the opposition is rational.

Hyperbole? Perhaps.  But it’s worth noting that the average German in 1932 did not see the slow chipping away of civil liberties, tolerance and the collective moral structure of the society.  The goal of fanatics is to spread discontent and fear.  In doing so the bulk of the population is primed to accept anything the regime says in the hope chaos will stop.  Even if it means murder and state-sanctioned terror.  The Party is secretly thrilled that the US saw a downgrade the other day.  They relish the thought of a new recession because it positions them to take control.


Why History Matters to Business

Henry Ford once famously said that “History is bunk.” And while Henry may have had a point when it came to mechanics, it certainly doesn’t apply to marketing and brand development.  We often jump into  things without taking the time to understand how populations came to be who they are and how that may shape their interpretations of your product and your brand.  The questions we need to learn to ask to make sense of the seemingly contradictory behaviors in the present are the same questions that historians use to think about the past. History is part of the weave of connections that provide context and meaning.  Knowing a people’s history is crucially important when you want to shape the future of your brand. History isn’t a side-item, it is a tool.

The two main complaints about history is that it is irrelevant to their job and that it is boring. And inevitably, when you ask a marketer or business development person to elaborate on how it is boring, the complaint seems to come back to a question of relevance.  It isn’t uncommon to have a business person to ask how understanding history could possibly help them.  And on the surface it is a fair question. Now, let’s step back for a moment and imagine this situation.  Imagine that you are asked by your company to research an area for possible expansion, a market in which you have no real presence. After looking for other companies that have opened or are operating a similar business in that region.  Of course you ask if it a success or a failure? You ask why it succeeded or failed? But it’s not as simple as looking at procurement models, logistics, ad dollars, etc. To answer these questions, you need some skills that history can provide. Without a solid understanding history and culture, you will inevitably have oceans of data but it won’t mean anything. Why?  Because you won’t have the ability to critically analyze that data and make it make sense. Oh, you’ll be able to speculate what the numbers mean, but you won’t be able to explain why they are what they are and, more importantly, you won’t be able to isolate the cultural variables that will lead to a successful product launch or marketing campaign.

When you understand history, you understand the underlying motivations and socio-cultural structures that shape how your brand is interpreted as it is. You will learn about cause and effect, which in turn leads to learning about how your brand or business will be received. Since history is mainly about what causes the next event or action, people can clearly understand how things are related to one another. For example, if colonialism was a significant event in the history of the country you attempting to enter, it may well manifest itself in how your brand is understood. If your plan doesn’t account for this historical element, there will probably be some people who will take the stand to fight back, possibly forming a vocal “revolution” against cultural imperialism. While we may be inclined to dismiss such language, it is in large part because we, meaning the West, have been the people in power.  We dictated policy and by extension brands and products. These associations are very real in other parts of the world and will shape everything from B2B interactions to permits for selling your products to how an ad campaign will be understood.  Why is Home Depot failing in China? Because of cultural systems that define DIY projects as representing status distinctions and weak individual economic power. Add to that the development of labor roles in Chinese history and the reasons start to emerge. Of course there are more reasons, but the point is that if you understand history as something that has direct, real application in a business context, your brand will be prepared when it enters a given market.

In addition to being armed with knowledge about the people to which you are attempting to communicate and bring into the brand fold, the ability to conduct research is another skill that learning history can provide. How? Because knowing the answers is as important as knowing where and how to find them. For example, if you were to go about researching an area for possible business growth, you would need information about the people, the market, the demand, etc. Learning history requires you go beyond business journals – it means digging through documents people in the desired region have created, looking for the interpretations of a wide range of people and pulling the various elements together into something meaningful and rich in its subtlety. Research becomes a creative act rather than something static and formulaic.

By knowing a bit about what has happened in our world, you are in a better position to account for why things are the way they are, what will happen in the future and how you can prepare your brand to succeed.  You learn to address people in meaningful, sometimes unexpected ways.