Pursuing females’ fancy: the beer industry’s quest to win over women

Michigan Beer Guide featured this article in their January/February 2012 issue, as part of a series I’m writing on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article; you may read the published version at the Beer Guide website. It is reprinted with permission.

As any craft beer enthusiast or MBG reader can tell you, women – classy, intelligent women – do indeed enjoy drinking beer. Couple this fact with the statistic that, depending on who’s compiling the calculations, women make or influence 80 to 90 percent of all purchasing decisions, and it seems you have a no-brainer, all-win situation: market beer directly to women! And yet, beer marketing and advertising has traditionally focused on men, ignoring or objectifying women (or both). However, marketing gurus do, from time to time, get the bright idea to target women in their campaigns, with decidedly different outcomes.

Marketing beer directly to women may be somewhat of an anomaly, but it’s not a new idea. The history of beer and its promotion is long and fascinating, but let’s approach this scene after the end of Prohibition. Even then, a few savvy admen saw women as an untapped market. Exploiting the female trend to strive for slimness, Acme launched a campaign in the 1930s touting their beer as “dietetically non-fattening.” Although the ads featured illustrations of slim, pretty women that would be attractive to men, the message was aimed squarely at women.

During and after World War II, beer-marketing efforts directed at women really took off, with two different and quite opposing dynamics at play. First, as men left to fight during the War, more women were obliged to work outside of the home. Second, after the War, the mythical American family – featuring the hard-working husband, doting home-making wife and charming kids – was conceived and promoted. Both the confident, self-reliant persona attached to the first scenario and the compliant housewives connected with the later were featured in various campaigns.

A Miller High Life ad from 1952 depicts a poised female golfer who clearly makes her own decisions about how she spends her time and what she quaffs. However, ads featuring women as consummate wife and hostess are in far greater abundance. A 1950s series from Schlitz, united by the slogan, “If you like beer you’ll love Schliltz,” features beautiful, smiling ladies cheerfully carrying out their wifely duties, from fetching a tray of Pilsner glasses to hosting the perfect party to offering a cold one to a fly-fishing husband.

Bud also tapped into the ultimate hostess idea in 1956, with two women not necessarily enjoying beer themselves, but enviously gossiping about how their excellent hostess only serves Bud. A different, prolific campaign from Budweiser straddled both realms. The “Where there’s Life … there’s Bud” series prominently featured women; sometimes enjoying beer alongside a man, but also often having a beer poured for her by a man just outside the frame.

Let’s fast-forward through the next few decades, shall we? There’s no need to discuss (or display) here all the big-breasted, scantily-clad, suggestively-posed women who have decorated the ads for fizzy yellow fermented beverages over the years. Our common knowledge of this spectacle is the very thing that makes “marketing beer to women” noteworthy.

Recently, a few companies have seemingly “seen the light” once again, and so have devoted tremendous energy to capturing the female market. However, a glimpse at two specific endeavors may make female beer lovers cringe.

First up we have Animée from Molson Coors, launched in the UK in the fall of 2011 and available in three variants, including crisp rosé and zesty lemon. As the press release explains, this “lightly sparkling and finely filtered beer” aims to “make beer a real choice for women.” The result of input from over 30,000 women and two years of concentrated industry research, Animée beer and its brand plan are designed to be “feminine and sophisticated without being patronizing.” As a woman who enjoys beer and knows scores of others who do the same, this concept baffles me. Is another alco-pop really the answer to wooing women over to beer? I agree with Molson Coors that they, along with all brewers large and small, “need to repair the reputation of beer among women.” But is this the way to do it?

Next we have Chick Beer, “a beer just for women,” brewed and available in and around Maryland but hoping to take female drinkers across the country by storm. Because women certainly don’t want to carry a six-pack that looks like a six-pack, this beer comes in a hot-pink carrier disguised as a clutch, rimmed with faux bling. The font is sassy and full of curlicues, and the labels depict a little black dress, “just to be absolutely certain that no one could mistake it for dude beer,” as their website explains. Because all women hate calories, this beer has less than 100, but still tastes “soft, smooth and full-bodied.”

This type of marketing comes across to me as basic condescension, narrowly defining women as “chicks” who are predominantly concerned with appearances – just as ads with bikini-clad women pigeon-hole men. The notion of including women in the marketing of beer is a splendid one, but recent efforts such as these seem to only reinforce stereotypes and propagate the segregation that already exists.

Of course, these products and promotions aren’t geared toward women who already like beer; they’re trying to capture female attention. If a brew dreamed up exclusively for women serves as a “gateway” to real, craft beer, than I’m all for it. But honestly, I just don’t believe that products and advertising pandering directly to a woman’s “girlie side” will spark a revolution in female beer-drinking. And as Charlie Papazian put it in a HuffPost Denver article on Chick Beer in September 2011, “It seems quite contrary that if you want to attract anyone to beer – you offer them something that tastes less like beer.”

Women by and large may indeed be repelled by beer, due to its image and the way it’s been marketed; there is certainly room for growth in the “female beer drinker” market. The concepts that beer is a masculine drink and that all beer tastes the same are presumptions that it will certainly benefit marketers to dispel. However, flamboyant attempts to attract an isolated segment of the market seem like a backwards way to approach the situation.

The focus should be on integrating women, not singling them out. Exclusionary advertising might create a buzz in the short-term, but perhaps advertising should just be geared toward promoting a superior product to the entire community. Let’s have less sexism and gimmicky advertising, not more. We need campaigns that respect women simply by not objectifying them or ignoring them, and by offering true great taste to everyone.

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Sisterhood of the Suds

This was featured in the November/December 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a series I’m writing on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article; you may read the published version at the Beer Guide website. It is reprinted with permission.

Stitch-n-bitch circles, scrapbooking sessions, the Red Hat Society, all-female book clubs, mommy-and-me groups, and the list goes on: clearly, women thrive on sharing experiences and maintaining close circles of like-minded companions. For any interest, hobby or passion, there is likely an all-female group devoted to enjoying it together. And with craft beer stealthily making its way onto the collective female radar, it makes sense that groups of women who gather to appreciate and learn about microbrews are popping up everywhere.

Across the board, women’s beer groups emphasize inclusion and shun snobbery. These clubs exist to promote beer enjoyment among experts and the uninitiated alike, and hinge on creating a friendly, encouraging environment.

On the national level, there are several all-woman, beer-centric groups, each with its own unique focus. Perhaps the most well known is the Pink Boots Society, whose mission is to “inspire, encourage and empower women to advance their careers in the Beer Industry through networking and education.” Members of this Society include any female who earns any portion of her income through the beer industry, whether she’s a brewery owner, bartender, or anything in between. There are about a dozen members of the Pink Boots Society residing in Michigan, ranging from Certified Cirerone Annette May to brewers, writers and owners.

For women not employed within the beer industry, but simply interested in enjoying craft beer, there is the affiliated Barley’s Angels. This group is designed to “foster beer appreciation in women, teach women’s role in beer history, encourage women to homebrew, and inspire the next generation of potential women beer professionals.” There are currently chapters in at least six states including Illinois and Minnesota, as well as in Canada, the UK, Australia and Argentina.

Christine Jump, producer and host of the audio interview program Craft Brew Cast, sponsored the very first Barley’s Angels group. “I thought that I didn’t like beer for three quarters of my life,” recalls Christine. “The idea that I could help other women discover the marvelous variety of craft brew was a very easy sell. My hope is that women will discover that craft beers are so widely varied; there is literally something for everyone.” Another “consumer-focused,” national group is Girls’ Pint Out, established to promote “solidarity between beer drinkers of the fairer sex;” they have chapters in at least five states.

Both consumers and professionals may join Women Enjoying Beer (WEB), “an education based company that develops and serves the female beer consumers … [and] works with professional beer community members to accurately and successfully market beer to women.”

Some groups are based more on face-to-face interaction, and feature monthly events like brewery visits and themed beer tastings. Others, such as Ladies of Craft Beer, are geared towards fostering online communities of women.

In addition to national groups, there are myriad local groups across the country. For example, there’s Women’s In Pursuit of Ale (IPA) Club of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Beer for Babes in New Jersey and Ales 4 Females in Colorado. In Michigan – a state simply awash in superior craft beer – the female beer appreciation group scene is in its fledgling stages. However, we’re off to a respectable start.

Detroit has Detroit Draft Divas, which launched in the spring of 2011 under the direction of Copper Canyon Brewery head brewer Todd Parker, who identifies himself as “consultant, liaison, and mascot” for the club.

Todd set out to “establish a Metro Detroit area group for like-minded women interested in craft beer … women interested in learning more about beer and brewing in a more comfortable setting,” and the group has more than met this goal. “I am very happy with what we have done. We have created a group that has some dedicated members, and set up a communications structure to get the word out. It is not huge yet, but with time, it will only get bigger.”

The Divas meet at a different location each month; events may include a brewery tour, an informational gathering followed by lunch (and a few pints, of course), or a party at an area brewery. According to Cindy Hegenauer, a founding member of the group, there are currently about 25 regular attendees, representing “almost the whole spectrum of female craft beer drinkers.”

On the other side of the state, Grand Rapids is home to the PussyCat Beer Guild. Inspired by the Pink Boots Society and initiated by HopCat owner Michele Sellers and HopCat staff, the Guild dates to the summer 0f 2008. “We hoped to encourage women to be open and bold about their appreciation for good beer, whether they’re a brewer, an aficionado, or simply just interested in learning more,” explains Sheryl Rose Marshall, who is involved in running the club. “We’ve realized that goal in varying degrees over the years, and continue to attract new members and interest in what we do.”

Ladies of the PussyCat Beer Guild

Meeting attendance usually hovers below 10 women, although there were 20 females at the largest meeting and there are more than 50 “members” in the Facebook group. “Feedback has been excellent,” confides Sheryl. Sheryl admits that there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir, as “nearly every woman who has come to a meeting was already on the craft beer bandwagon in some way.”

But, all members ultimately benefit from the enthusiasm and combined knowledge of the group. “We’ve had a few women who had never homebrewed and were excited to attend our off-site group brew days to learn how. Once in awhile, someone will come in and say she only likes a certain type of beer, but we’ve been successful in encouraging her to try new things by evaluating what it is that she likes about the beer she does drink, then finding a beer in a different style with the attributes she expressed as desirable.”

On a side note, “men often comment that they wish the woman in their life would get involved with us,” says Sheryl.

Also in Grand Rapids is the Ladies Ale Society at Schmohz Brewery, where 50 to 80 ladies attend meetings. Begun with a beer tasting event in October 2010 and scheduled for a meeting in early November 2011, this Society centers on encouraging women “to try beers that they normally might be steered away from,” says Schmohz “Beer Engineer” Chas Thompson. “Too many times, I see ladies being overly influenced by male companions and not getting the opportunity to try very many things,” Chas says.

Although not the brewery-home of a structured club, Wolverine State Brewing Company in Ann Arbor hosted their first “Real Women Drink Beer” event in June 2011. The female-centric night was such a success that similar events are now in the works on a twice-yearly basis, with the next get-together scheduled for February 2012.

As director of sales and marketing E.T. Crowe (also known as The Beer Wench) explains, “I know the traditional ‘Ladies’ Night’ is a ploy to get women in by offering them drink specials. I wanted this to be a true Ladies Only Night where we could gather, meet, drink, learn and relax with a little pampering action.” Notice how she just slipped the “learning” right in there? Perhaps lured by free massages, munchies and henna tattoos, it was the first visit to a “beer bar” for many of the ladies who attended.

"The Beer Wench" leads a tour at Wolverine

“I worried a little that I’d get my regular crowd,” continues E.T. “Nothing wrong with regulars mind you! But I really wanted to offer this as something new for women who would never in a million years consider coming to a “tap room” to meet their friends to enjoy a craft beer. I would guess the crowd was split 20/80, with a solid 80 percent either completely new to the place or to craft beer generally.”

Women living far from the bustle of Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids or Detroit should not count themselves out. It only takes a handful of members to create a successful women’s beer appreciation group. Starting a group can be as easy as visiting a local brewery and talking with a brewer, bartender or female mug club member about when an inaugural meeting could occur, and how to get the word out. Social web sites like Facebook, Meetup and Google and Yahoo Groups also make ascertaining interest, building membership and inter-group communication simple and quick, whether or not there’s a brewery nearby. And, already-established national or international groups are yet another option for finding a female beer clan.

Women and craft brews are a perfect match, and women flourish within groups of “sisters;” female clubs devoted to the enjoyment of craft beer are a natural culmination. Michigan, as The Great Beer State, has a bright future ahead of her, full of passionate groups of ladies who appreciate, evaluate and enthusiastically quaff our outstanding brews.

This one’s for the ladies

I wrote this piece for the May/June 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide; it is reprinted with permission.

Chicks don’t like beer. Step outside of the craft beer community, and this misconception runs rampant. Only, it’s not exactly a falsehood. Although I know lots of  women who absolutely adore microbrews, in general, beer is not the female drink of choice, so what’s going on? To get to the heart of this matter, I interviewed over a dozen female beer drinkers, allowing me to take a highly subjective and unscientific look at women and craft beer.

To begin with, let’s consider women and beer in general. According to last year’s Gallup poll, just 27 percent of women prefer beer over wine or liquor (compared with well over 50 percent of men). In other words, when given a choice of alcoholic beverages, nearly three-fourths of women will not choose a beer. And who could blame them? For those 27 percent of women who prefer beer, and the rest who don’t, “beer” very likely means a mass-produced fizzy yellow beverage. Statistics from the Brewers Association corroborate this notion: the American craft brewing sales share in 2010 was 4.9 percent by volume and 7.6 percent by dollars; either way you slice it, it’s a small share of all beer sales. Clearly, there are whole swathes of people out there who, despite having an affinity for libations, do not have a clue about craft beer.

It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of American women would rather sip a cocktail or a glass of wine than crack open a beer. It all starts with and comes back to the flavor, but that’s not the whole story. There’s also the fact that macrobrew beer is predominantly marketed to men: ponder the legions of commercials featuring “guys being guys” and sharing a few brewskis, commercials in which women are either major buzz-kills or vapid, bikini-clad eye candy. Add to this the stereotypes of beer-bonging frat boys, beer bellies, and guys swilling down yet another cold one while shouting at the TV screen, and the tale becomes more complete. Overall, the beer scene can be less than attractive for women.

But, it doesn’t need to be this way, and in many circles, it isn’t. Gallup also tells us that the percentage of women who prefer beer over wine or liquor rose 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, so the relationship between women and beer is on the mend. And I imagine that craft beer, with its welcoming and vibrant society, wonderful array of offerings, and more sophisticated character, is at least partially to thank for this uptick.

In contrast to “big beer,” female drinkers and craft beer are a natural combination. After all, women were historically the first brewers. And, if women are seeking delicious beverages, the world of craft beer offers an almost unending assortment of widely-varying options.

In an effort to examine on a very small scale the relationship between beer, craft brews and the fairer sex, I interviewed ladies in attendance at the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival. With a sample size of approximately .2 percent, my findings are far from iron-clad, but a few interesting trends and points did emerge.

I started by asking the all-important question of how each woman first “discovered” craft beer. As it turns out, there was a pretty even split between ladies who came to craft beer on their own or with girlfriends, versus those who were introduced to the scene by a male partner. When boyfriends or husbands turned a woman on to craft beer, it was usually because he started brewing himself, and she got sucked in.

What I found most interesting was when ladies learned of craft beer through get-togethers or events; these ranged from a beer club to a homebrew class staged at a library. So yes, reaching out in friendly ways and “beer evangelizing” does work! In one case, it was the Festival itself that brought an adventuresome lass to craft beer: Annie came from Chicago with her girlfriends to experience the Beer Fest. “This is something totally new for me,” she confided. “My girls brought me out for this; they told me it’d be a great time. This is going to be my first one and I can’t wait!” When I spoke with her, she was in line to sample her first sip of craft beer ever! For me, this is exciting stuff.

Next, enthusiastic answers about favorite beer styles easily shattered the illusion that all women prefer lighter beers or those that are sweet and fruity. Yes, some women did prefer Kolsh- or Pilsner-style beers, and others craved brews with strong fruit flavors. But the female palate is far from uniform. For example, Lauren from Ann Arbor is a self-proclaimed bitter beer addict who declared, “I like my beers to hurt!” One pattern that arose is that many women identified their taste in beer styles as seasonal, ranging from strong stouts and porters in the winter months to refreshingly hoppy IPAs in the heat of summer.

Finally, every lady I spoke with confirmed that it was the flavor of corporate domestic beer that had kept her away from the beverage, but once she tried craft beer, she was hooked. For example, Laura from Grand Rapids said that she used to prefer mixed drinks until her then-boyfriend started brewing; now, she explained, “Craft beer is my beverage of choice, but I don’t drink domestics.”

“I eschewed beer for most of my life,” shared Patti from Ann Arbor. “I drank Labatt’s from time to time. But, then I had craft beer, and was like, ‘Oh my God!'” Said Bobbi from Grand Rapids, “Before [my husband started brewing], I’d drink wine or liquor. I didn’t enjoy those mass-produced beers; I didn’t find them tasty, so I didn’t drink them at all.” Once  she was introduced to craft beer, however, she never looked back. Craft beer, she said, “has become our hobby and our passion. I always buy craft beer now; Michigan craft beer.”

The message that women actually love beer, specifically craft beer, came across loud and clear. Of course, these ladies were at a craft beer festival, so this is no great revelation, and of course my results are skewed. But the point is that not one woman expressed that she was just there because her husband or boyfriend dragged her along; these ladies were present to experience craft beer on their own terms. Connected with this is the actuality that, once they are exposed to it, women are often extremely receptive to and appreciative of craft beer. This makes it clear to me that the craft brewing community must make a concerted effort to reach out to the female population. This is a huge, virtually untapped segment of the population; I would take careful note of this if I owned or worked for a microbrewery.

Craft beer is flavorful; craft beer has nuance and depth and finesse; craft beer has yet to be dominated by male-centric, perhaps sexist marketing campaigns; for these reasons and more, women and craft beer are a perfect match. All that’s needed is some beer-advocacy and friendly educational efforts to distinguish craft beer as a very different entity from commercial brew, to help overcome the general female rejection of beer as a whole, and to allow ladies to truly appreciate all that craft beer has to offer. The rest will take care of itself. I’m a believer. I can imagine a world where one day, a double IPA or an imperial stout are known as “chick drinks.”