Beer’s Biggest Problem

Drip drip drip.  It’s been one story after another about beer’s steady market share losses to wine and spirits.  We can all point to several reasons: the failure of beer to come up with hip marketing that doesn’t talk down to women, the missed opportunities to own more drinking occasions, poor shelf displays, a weak on-premise platform, and the sense among too many young consumers that beer is somehow now too heavy and filling or – worse yet – not fast enough for today’s young drinkers who want to feel a buzz sooner.

But at a recent Bernstein Research seminar an analyst may have said it best when he said that big beer has been asleep at the wheel for the past 20 years.  Point well-taken: beer’s decline has been happening for a long time.  It didn’t just start. Happy with market shares and simple, often sophomoric marketing formulas, beer got fat and happy, and it forgot to evolve and stay current. The wave of consumer desire for smart and authentic branding, plenty of choices and richer taste profiles has been coming for a long time.  Millenials may embody the lifestyle of choice and how it plays out in flavored vodkas and hand-crafted bourbons and bottles of muscat, but it didn’t start with them. It’s been coming for a long time.

That point is an important one to take in, because when we recognize that beer’s woes didn’t just start yesterday, we can understand and grasp that beer’s problems won’t be solved in a day. It’s going to take some time. And craft beers – the one consistent bright spot of growth, innovation and energy – can only do so much. Crafts can move the needle, but only by inches.

Now faced with systemic, complex hurdles, beer also faces a much bigger challenge. In an industry long dominated by iconic leaders – August Busch III to name one – there’s a worry that there’s no one beer man or woman who is leading the industry – someone who is ready to speak up for beer and build the right coalitions.  The leadership void couldn’t come at a worse time.