During a recent trip to M&S hunting for a beer to go with a meal that evening, I noticed something interesting. Beyond me, there were just two other people in the craft beer section at that moment, and they were both women.
I was surprised by this. Then I noticed that our body language was interesting too; we all looked slightly sheepish, as though we were in a place that we really shouldn’t be. None of us made eye contact, but we were all really intrigued by what the others were looking at. We were in a ‘follow-my-leader’ mind set in what was a slightly alien world – a bit like when you find yourself in the car oil section.
There is no doubt that beer is a man’s world. Brewed, branded, advertised and historically, consumed, by men, it’s an unlikely world for women to be involved in. However, it seems craft beer in particular is a bit of a hit with the ladies. Its appeal is on the increase in the UK and according to 2014 data from the Brewers Association, 30 per cent of the craft beer on the market in the US is consumed by women. So there must be a huge growth opportunity here.
David Cunningham, programme director at The Beer Alliance, was quoted in Marketing Week earlier this year saying: “There have been significant increases in that beer is seen as a drink for men and women which can be had with food for a wide range of occasions and its quality perception among the British public has also gone up. We’re heading in the right direction.”
I did some more digging and remarkably the relationship between women and beer goes back a long way. Jane Peyton, principal of the School of Booze, a beer tasting events company, says: “For thousands of years women were the primary brewers and even today in parts of Africa and the South American rainforest where beer is made at home or on a communal village basis they still are. In those societies men drink the beer but they have no role in its production.”
But in spite of our hands-on history with beer and our growing interest and consumption of craft options, it remains very much a male domain. If you search for ‘craft beers’ and ‘women’ online, American brewed ‘Chick Beer’ appears, in slightly clichéd pink and black packaging. Beyond this there’s seems to be very little else on the market that acknowledges a female market. There is little that demonstrates an understanding of women and their needs or that connects with women in a positive grown up way. The only potential exception to this is some of the Belgian Lambic beers that have a lighter, fruitier story to tell and packaging that is more akin to wine.
The craft beer category norms tend to be brown bottles and bold, masculine graphics sporting products names such as ‘Howling Monkey’ or ‘Five O’ Clock Shadow’. This brand language is a world away from anything that might create a positive brand relationship with a potential new female audience.
However, brands could learn from M&S as its own-brand range of craft beer has notably moved away from the tradition of the category and shifted towards a gender-neutral space. Perhaps that’s why we were all there?
I was inspired to write this because it’s a branding tragedy that craft beer manufacturers aren’t targeting this female audience more. One of the reasons that the craft beer products engage this audience is because women’s taste palettes are arguably more sophisticated and so they appreciate the complexity and variety of craft beer tastes. Because of this variety, a bit like wine, different beers and foods can be paired together to enhance food experiences, something that is appealing to the female population who are less interested in session drinking. Furthermore, it could be argued that because craft beer brands are less aggressive with their marketing than mainstream lager brands, women could feel more comfortable with this sub category.
So how might branding and presentation target this consumer more overtly? Ideally, we’d start by talking to our female consumers and finding out how they feel and what they think is important. Perhaps branding and story could be less about implying strength and aggression and focus more on the flavours or mood of the product. Bottle structures could be more elegant and the concept of food pairing could be a central message.
Equally, product volumes could either be smaller (less bloating, more opportunity for discovering different beers) or conversely larger in size (more appropriate for a drink that accompanies a meal for two). Equally, there could be more overt communication about the calorie content to allay concerns over unwanted beer bellies! Or perhaps, lower alcohol percentage options could be championed? Whatever the brand, the options are numerous and the opportunity is big.
The good news is that after hundreds of years of absence it looks as though women in the UK are starting to re-enter the brewing industry. Hopefully these female brewers will not only start to influence the recipes and the flavours but how the products are branded and sold.
As a big fan of craft beers myself, I really look forward to the day when I can shop the beer aisle without feeling like an alien.
Sarah Dear is managing director at Elmwood