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Beer: The Next Embarrassing Millennial Branding Victim?

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Photo: deege@fermentarium.com/Flickr

Booze branding targeted at millennials really is the rash that just won't go away. This week a market research study on beer trends which stated that "engagement with younger consumers - those under 25 - is emerging as an industry imperative, as younger consumers are being drawn away from beer to spirits and wine." Uh oh.

This same imperative that, when applied to the wine industry, gave birth to brands like TXT Cellars - the producers of WTF!!! Pinot Noir and OMG!!! Chardonnay – Sanrio's Hello Kitty Wine, and Butterfly Kiss, which are meant to wrangle millennials, but seem weirdly aimed at tweens instead.

While wine targeting millenials and housewives (looking at you, Happy Bitch Wines) has completely gone off the rails, hard booze has had some, less-embarrassing success. For example, Diageo, the same company that gave us Butterfly Kiss, recently made a much smarter decision to market one of their oldest brands, Bushmills, to young people by partnering with indie bands like Chromeo and Bon Iver. If only those signs of intelligent life were less fleeting.

So what about beer? Will this imperative nudge beer marketers off the deep end?

"Beer has been marketed toward college age and above for a long time, so it's not such a drastic change in that respect," says Christian DeBenedetti the author of The Great American Ale Trail and editor of The Weekly Pint. "What's happening is that the big breweries are targeting the craft segment."

Big breweries are looking to capitalize on branding beers as "craft" or "small batch" in order to grab this slice of the beer market that has been growing exponentially over the last decade. Anheuser-Busch, for example, recently launched a series of new beers that they are calling "small batch" and tying them to zip codes around the country in an effort to appear small and local. MillerCoors has done the same with their "small batch" and "experimental" Third Shift label.

DeBenedetti also points out that if you look at beer commercials you see a fundamental shift in the vibe and message being sent. "It's gone from cartoon animals to a more earthy, earnest lets-go-camping-and-reconnect vibe," he says.

But while beer's focus on millennials has yet to venture into the embarrassing territory that wine has, its impact on the industry is potentially greater. Hello Kitty wine might prompt most of the wine-drinking community to roll their eyes, but it isn't exactly taking shelf space from small, artisan winemakers. In the case of beer, however, that's exactly what is happening. Companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are attempting to appear handcrafted and threaten to steal space from smaller brewers with much more to lose.

But the craft movement isn't going anywhere and these large companies know that they have to find a way to compete. According to The Brewers Association, there were "250 [brewery] openings in 2011 (213 net breweries when combined with closings) with the final tally at 1,989. As of early-mid July, that number increased to 2,125, a net increase of 136 breweries in just over six months."

With all of that action it's hard to imagine that there won't be more desperate attempts from the world's largest producers, but for now beer has not yet joined wine in the deep end. Stay tuned.

· All Beer Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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