March 23, 2016

Getting Hyped: How Arkansas Brewers Are Using Events to Meet Growing Expectations

Here's another fantastic post by guest blogger Fayettebrew on the outstanding beer scene up in Northwest Arkansas!

Getting Hyped: How Arkansas Brewers Are Using Events to Meet Growing Expectations

The start of the year has seen an unprecedented level of activity from northwest Arkansas breweries. Whereas in previous winters it felt like the community would shift into a lower gear after the new year in terms of events (perhaps waiting on the return of patio weather and the festival season) there has been no less than eight significant local beer events since the start of February. Given how relatively fallow this time of year has been in the past, it has been encouraging to see these events draw interest. A select few have even garnered some broader exposure.

This exposure comes at a favorable time for the Arkansas beer and it’s sibling-esque local beer communities as local beer has become steadfastly ingrained in the ethos of “eat/drink/shop local” within each community. There is a growing expectation to be able to find local beer on tap at a local restaurant and festivals of all type regularly incorporate local brewers as sponsors or vendors. With this increasing community presence does comes an increased set of expectations. Beer fans in Arkansas are coming to not only expect access to local beer but also a high level of quality and variety that matches the national craft beer spectrum. This elevated set of expectations extends from the beers to the beer events in our communities as well.

A lot of time is spent considering how Arkansas beer compares to regional neighbors and national standard-bearers but it is also worth considering how Arkansas breweries are managing the elevated expectations for limited releases, special events, and openings. No longer will the novelty of local beer satisfy the expectations for a memorable event. Great beer events now need to begin to live up to the hype the event generates. This is an inevitable positive of living in a growing beer community. Events should be getting better because interest has grown. Breweries should be more than comfortable with their identity. They should be confident in engaging the public in how they celebrate their beer.

For the time being, Arkansas may very well be at a place where a local brewery will get by simply meeting expectations. There is still a benefit of doubt that exists that grants at least two or three chances to each brewery. Where Arkansas breweries can begin to distinguish themselves from each other is hosting events that generate hype - even on a local level - and then capitalize on that hype by leveraging it into increased long-term attention on their products. When a brewery leverages “hype” it emphasizes the story they want to tell through an interactive, status-worthy experience for its customers. To put it one way: if people are still posting about the event on their favorite social media network well after it is over, the event is leveraging its hype.

With this in mind, here are four observations from attending these events on how Arkansas breweries have recently leveraged the hype around an event to best fulfill customer expectations and share their story. (Note: The events referenced likely succeed because they fit most, if not all, of these observations. When an event is specified it is because they presented an unique and clear example.)

Embrace Each Type of Customer
Events that create a memorable, status-worthy experience find a way to embrace all customers - whether they are new or returning customers. This can be a tricky balance to establish but if a craft beer fan thinks a certain event would be a good fit for a new-to-craft friend, then it is probably striking that balance. Even with the growing number of craft-only customers, the majority of Arkansans are unfamiliar, new, or just partial to craft beer. And the way craft beer is perceived within our state goes a long way toward how it is perceived outside of the state.

When a brewery thinks about how to engage all potential customers, it is taking a beneficial first step toward leveraging any hype it generates. Recently, the Nutty Runner 5k hosted by Columbus HouseBrewery capitalized on this opportunity. In addition to the standard 5k race - a distance achievable to new runners and still worthwhile to some year-round runners - the Nutty Runner 5k featured a division where participants drank one 12 ounce pour of Columbus House’s Nutty Runner Brown Ale after each mile of the race. Hosted on and partnered with a local Fleet Feet store, this event drew a crowd of experienced and novice runners alike in an adventurous, well organized event. As Columbus House Brewery continues to leverage both the craft beer and active lifestyle communities in Fayetteville, it should have more opportunities to grow its still young community presence.

Be Communal With Your Layout, Not Generic
It is easy to set up some jockey boxes in a covered area and have something resembling a craft beer event. At their worst, these events feel like a cattle run where beer fans merge from line to line almost implicitly following the person in front of them in hopes of procuring a fresh beer. While the line may lead to conversations among those in attendance, these are mostly happenstance depending on your familiarity with each other or mutual anticipation for a beer being poured. An alternative to this standardized assembly line of a beer experience is to create a layout that emphasizes a communal setting around the dispersal of tasty brews. Whether at a bar, a cookout, or a bottle share, most of our experiences sharing and talking about craft beer do not take place in a line. A beer festival or event should be no different. When a brewery can create an event setting that does not feel like it came fresh out of the “beer event” starter set, it stands to leverage the experience into something more memorable beyond the new style experienced or whale finally captured.

The layout to Frost Fest, the winter beer festival hosted by Fossil Cove, intentionally disrupted the beer festival standard and wound up providing a centerpiece for the event. Once you entered Frost Fest you were not met with an array of tents pouring beer. Rather, a large tent outfitted with space heaters and the live music stage welcomed you. The tent was outlined with sponsors on one edge and some participating breweries on the other. Beyond the main tent were the aisles of breweries standard to most beer festivals. During the second half of the fest, as the sun set and air cooled, the crowd was increasingly soaking in their experiences under the tent; face-to-face in conversation and celebration rather than in a line, facing the back of someone’s head. Fossil Cove was hardly revolutionary with the Frost Fest layout but by going beyond what could be expected from similar festivals in the community, they set a standard they can routinely provide their fans events in their taproom or at future editions of Frost Fest.

The Value of Early Information
A customer’s expectations for an event rarely suffer from knowing: the essence of a rivalry; the genre of music a band plays; or the particular strengths of a restaurant. Similarly, customers and fans of a brewery can only benefit from being introduced to what to anticipate from an event. This is accomplished by the brewery providing information early and often. When a brewery can get details out so customers can begin to envision the experience they will have, the brewery creates a chance to capitalize on expectations. If changes are necessary prior to the event taking place, it is best to revise any information as early as possible and confirm the change. The early availability of event information, and frequent updates, outlines the space the customer experience will take place in.

In anticipation of demand for the 2016 release of its Bourbon Barrel Double Cream Stout (BDCS), Ozark Beer Company intentionally crafted its promotion of release events to inform the local and at-large beer communities. In addressing its “neighbors” and the “beer travelers”, Ozark created avenues to experience the release of BDCS that were at once familiar to both groups yet tailored to the ethos Ozark Beer wants to achieve through its work. When demand for case purchases exceeded initially anticipated levels, Ozark made the difficult decision of further restricting purchase limits. In announcing the change, customers were notified over two weeks in advance of the release (and one day after ticket sales to the private event) with an offer for a refund with additional compensation. Most importantly, Ozark Beer Company owned the decision by emphasizing the importance to them to provide the opportunity to enjoy BDCS to as many neighbors and beer travelers as possible. Rather than simply turning the quickest profit possible, Ozark leveraged the growing national hype for BDCS to bring to life “hard work, honest beer”.

Build Expectations Through A Narrative
If event information outlines the customer experience, then an event narrative builds expectations and fills in the features that distinguish the event. The narrative can be simple or grand as long as it is 1) consistent and 2) contributes to the anticipation for the event. An event’s narrative is a lot like a beer’s can or bottle: it builds expectations by providing a template for the experience. A beer’s can/bottle provides a template through the visual and descriptive components of its label. An event’s narrative provides a template through the visual and descriptive components of its promotion. One of the most viable assets local breweries have to promote events and build expectations are the social media platforms that already connect them with their local community.

While routine posts and updates regarding fresh releases and small events are an essential part of business, this is really the new minimum when it comes to beer and social media. If the local beer message only focuses on new beers, off-premise tastings, and tap takeovers then the message is always going to compete with regional and national breweries doing the very same thing - especially in a younger market like Arkansas. When local breweries share about the intricacies of their process, the inspiration for their beer, and the intentions behind their events, they build expectations they can capitalize on when customers visit. In a market like Arkansas it is important for local brewers to capitalize on the opportunity for in-person access in a way that out-of-state regional and national competitors cannot. When it comes to special events, this starts with the narrative the brewery tells potential guests.

Telling these narratives takes reiteration with a bit of variation. It takes planning. Simply repeating the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ ad nauseum will not cut it because there are multiple events doing the same thing, across the state, each week. Each of the events mentioned had narratives that emphasized something more than the beer that would be filling people’s glasses.

      When Fossil Cove announced Frost Fest, they did more than just talk about the unique time of year for the event. They emphasized the role brewers and brewery representatives would have serving their beers and interacting with attendees (rather than having event volunteers doing the pouring).This was a part of the initial announcements about the event, the local media attention the event garnered, and their social media marketing efforts on facebook, where they provided daily introductions to the breweries that would be in attendance. Promoting this aspect was a part of distinguishing Frost Fest from other events as well as building expectations for those who were attending.
     Before Ozark Beer Company’s inviting words to its “beer travelers”, they started the BDCS narrative with an look at what made the beer so special to them and their neighbors. That narrative was shared across multiple platforms. These videos, stories, and posts provided an understated emphasis on the interactions and atmosphere Ozark aimed to achieve through the BDCS release events.
     Organizing a race like the Nutty Runner 5k for the first time, Columbus House Brewery kept the plan simple and openly shared how the experience would likely be a first for everyone involved. A participant cap was established from the beginning along with the rest of the race details to keep things practical. This also allows the Columbus House to scale up future versions of the race. By inviting participants to join on a new adventure with them, Columbus House created a loose, excited, and informed template for experiencing the Nutty Runner 5k.

While increased social media use and attention from local media will give breweries a chance to inform and guide expectations, the final proof as to whether the event lived up to the hype will come from the in-person experience. Breweries that define their events in advance, and give them a narrative, craft expectations they can meet. These expectations lead to a positive sense of anticipation about how things will operate which, in turn, frees both the staff and guests to get the most out of the sense community the event creates. And when that specific event’s narrative is consistent with the other stories the brewery shares, it inevitably creates a stronger relationship with the communities it is a part of.

These are by no means the only way a brewery can create and leverage hype through an event. They are just a few observations on how some of the growing breweries in the northwest Arkansas community are attempting to turn growing expectations into hype for the beer and culture they want to create. In the end, no event may be perfect in its planning or execution but when the intentionality and effort behind an event shows, it sure does make it worth the hype.


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