Boston Beer’s CEO discusses Truly’s ‘anti-bro’ approach to the hard seltzer wars

The hard seltzer category has been a major growth area for the drinks industry.

First there was Pepsi v Coke. Then it was Monster v Red Bull. Today, it’s Truly v White Claw.

With US sales tripling in the past year, the low-calorie and highly drinkable hard seltzer segment continues to be a sensation. Case in point: No 1 hard seltzer White Claw now outsells Budweiser. According to Nielsen, it commanded a 5% share of dollars within the beer category for the four-week period ending 27 June. Meanwhile, No 2 Truly is now bigger than Heineken having surged to a 2.6% share. “It’s killing it,” says Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s Insights. ”It’s revolutionary.”

So how does Boston Beer-owned Truly plan to close the gap? Boston Beer’s chief exec David Burwick sees an opportunity to be more diverse, more positive and decidedly less “bro” than White Claw. Burwick, a veteran of the cola wars having served as Pepsi’s chief marketer, is looking to a broader audience to build broader sales.

This approach centers upon tried-and-true cola wars tactics, including new TV spots, digital and out-of-home that invites drinkers to “Live Truly”. Burwick says the campaign, which broke this month, is “high energy, colorful, optimistic”, and adds: ”People are ready for some advertising that isn’t dour and dark.”

He’s also looking to sports sponsorship (it is the official hard seltzer of the NHL and will be back on the NFL this year) and line extensions including top-selling Truly Lemonade and headline grabbing alcohol-infused ice cream.

But mostly, it is looking to be what (arguably) White Claw is not. “There’s no question it has captured the whole ‘bro’ market,” says Burwick. “Our consumers tend to be higher income, younger, heads of household and more diverse.”

White Claw certainly has a large portion of the white, 21-34 year old male (and female) segment within its clutches. A viral video with Trevor Wallace declaring 2019 the summer of White Claw proved prophetic. Owned by Mark Anthony Brands – which is also parent to Mike’s Hard Lemonade – the brand’s supply simply couldn’t keep up with demand, which created headline making shortages.

Its popularity shows no signs of waning, with Kylie Jenner recently posing with “every college guy’s favorite seltzer”, people posting tattoos of baby Yoda drinking a White Claw and the Blake Pizza chain even baking the seltzer into its crust.

Still, just like any good challenger brand, Truly sees its openings. The new campaign, created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, is directed by Malia James who is famous for her videos for Halsey and Rita Ora. The high energy series of spots is a shift from the humorous Keegan Michael Kay celebrity-led campaign last year.

Truly, which pulled ads from Facebook this month, says the campaign underscores its ”conviction that an inclusive world – full of all genders, races, beliefs and interests – is a better world,” according to company press materials. “By partnering with artists, creators, musicians, designers and more, Truly aims to empower people to be truly themselves and bring originality, creativity and individuality into the world.”

Earlier this month, the company debuted the ‘Truly Proud’, a content series for Pride that it says “gives a platform to Black LGBT+ voices by amplifying their stories across Truly‘s social channels to hundreds of thousands of its followers”.

Beer analyst Steinman says there is ample opportunity for the category to grow even larger by appealing to multiple target demographics. “The African American and Latin markets haven’t been unlocked yet.”

At the same time, Burwick sees Bud Light Seltzer as somewhat of an ally as it eats away White Claw’s core audience. Bud Light Seltzer launched in January and is No 3 in a suddenly crowded category that is benefiting from the boost of at-home alcohol consumption. There are now 65 brands in the space up from 26 last year and 10 in 2018, according to Nielsen.

Despite the added competition, Burwick’s aspiration is to be a billion-dollar brand before the end of the year. To achieve this, he has the benefit of Boston Beer’s past experience in building “beyond beer brands”, including its Angry Orchard cider as well as Twisted Tea. In fact, he says, “Twisted Tea has grown 40-50% since the beginning of Covid”.

But what he’s most proud of is the fact the company has had no layoffs or furloughs and has found creative ways to keep production going strong. This includes day care, renting hotel rooms, intense brewery cleaning and “whatever it takes to reduce anxiety for our employees,” says Burwick. “Living our values has been the true enabler of our success.”

As so many categories struggle, this one is going to be fun to watch. Truly.

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