Article

Craft Business Daily

Brands are More Important than Ever

August 17, 2011

Andy Thomas, new chief of commercial ops, was the star of CBA’s Q2 call today, outlining the portfolio strategy and market milieu with a swagger not usually heard through the crackling ether.

But first, chief Terry Michaelson delivered the numbers that we all read about yesterday: depletions up 6%, shipments up almost 12%, with underlying core shipments having grown at 10%. Increased commercial spend per barrel, and lots of marketing and packaging investments. And for those, Terry and Co. “expect annual results to demonstrate notable improvements in depletions, shipping and profitability.” The team believes Q3 is the first quarter that will really start to “reflect structural changes.”

On to Andy, who first acknowledged the “trying times” and “headwinds” driven by economic conditions, freight costs, and skiddish consumers. He drew upon research that suggested “fundamental changes” in the beer market, “much like they occurred in coffee and confectionary in past decade.” And consumers coming of age in a beer market where crafts, micros, nanos are not the exception, but the new norm.

CUTTING THROUGH SKUS.
You’d expect him to lament the proliferation of SKUs with such a setup. He didn’t, but did use the call to emphasize the oft-touted strength of CBA’s diversified portfolio: Their brands have history, are well-suited to their particular occasions and different price tiers, and don’t have to be all things to all people.

“Beer consumers are not confused or promiscuous or losing brand loyalty,” said the recent Heineken alum. “Their tastes are simply evolving … brands and branding are still paramount. Some would say brands are more important than ever today, even in paradoxical ways.” Consumers want variety, but they’re “still demanding reliability and consistency,” so they’re “looking to brands they already know and trust to bring them on an adventure, intro them to something new, or expand their horizons.”

BRAND HIGHLIGHTS.
In struggling Widmer, the team highlighted gains in diversifying what was heretofore a hefe-based brand. Q2 initiatives included secondary packaging features and 924 as a unique offering in 4-packs and on draft. The brand is down but was up in home markets Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire. Now Citra, Rotator IPA and 924 series account for over 10% Widmer volume. The group says they’ve really examined the role of Widmer Hefeweisen, which will continue to evolve and draw crossover consumers, though it’s “not going to hold the same place in our portfolio that it once did,” per Terry. Many breweries, it seems, are re-evaluating this style.

Redhook, which introed a new year-round Bohemian style pilsner and proprietary bottle style, was up in Washington, New Hampshire and elsewhere on the East Coast. Redhook’s 4.4% gain is the first time the brand has had successive quarters of growth in years.

Kona, of course, was up double digits (and 35% overall) in almost every market, new and existing. Koko Brown was introduced this quarter.

One caller asked about their new bottle vs. draft mix and whether it reflected a larger trend in the industry toward bottles. Though we’ve heard different things from other producers and retailers, Andy said that it somewhat did. He said consumer behavior was driving adoption of cans and bottles as more cross over into new, non-draft occasions. In the on-premise, where things are increasingly competitive and the big brewers have stake in the tap real estate, “consumers aren’t just saying ‘it’s ok, I won’t have a craft beer,’ they’re looking for a bottle list or menu.”

MORE ON SPEND.
Grilled on their spending, Terry said they had gone through a period of underspending, due to economic conditions when the brands were put together in 2008. Now they’re catching up on what the team calls their foundational spend. “It’s been about getting our ducks in row so core brand families are healthy and have room and path for growth. … Our spend isn’t as simple as weeks of media … and we’re not growing through tertiary products” like FMBs, went Andy’s dig at competitors. He added that CBA is “bullish on some geographies and channels where we’ll have more spend next year.”

GEOGRAPHIC EXPANSION STRATEGY.
Indeed, the team seemed keen on calculated geographic and occasional expansion, though they’re “not chasing volume” but profitability.

Andy was especially bullish on Kona’s expansion, citing the “Always Aloha” positioning as authentically resonant of the spirit of Hawaii. He cited the comounding rate of growth and refreshing taste profile of Longboard: “We think we can build on that … that’s not just a message that fits in coastal markets.”

Pressed on whether we might see TV spots in major sports event for any of the brands down the road, Andy joked, “If our share price gets high enough and Mark and Terry give me the money,” before soberly referencing Redhook’s recent Ad Age cover and all the pertinent occasions across their portfolio that would suggest it’s really not out of the question.

COMMODITIES, PRICING ET AL.
Mark confirmed for a caller their having locked in the bulk of their grains, and that their structural improvements should mitigate commodities’ impact over the long term. Andy added that they will continue to look to maximize revenue and still deliver the right value equation. “We’re monitoring the pricing environment closely, and don’t make broad brush decisions on that but rather choose to [evaluate market by market],” alluding to Boston’s claim that they’ll take pricing in the second half.

Until tomorrow, Jenn

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