It’s no secret to anyone that I like my beers. In fact, one of the first things when I travel somewhere is get a nice plate of local food with an ice cold local beer. I have done it in Hanoi with a bowl of Pho Bo and a glass of Bia Hoi, in Rome with a pizza and a Peroni Rosso or a ReAle Extra from Birra del Borgo and everywhere in between. Besides, it’s nothing compared to how many beers I have brewed myself. Yes, I like beer. I like the labels, I like the bottles, I like the culture, I like the stories, I like the brands. That’s why I often look at how brands are developing, specifically when it involves one of my favorite brands, Grolsch.
I lived in Enschede for 9 years, that’s where I got my Master’s degree in Industrial Design. A central part of student life is studying dilligen-… uhm… parties! And it just happened to be that Enschede is also the location of one of Hollands biggest breweries, Grolsch. Which came to be my favorite pilsener, drinking it on almost a daily basis for a period that long will have that effect on you. Especially with their presence at student festivals. Additionally, Grolsch having strong ties with the university, they provided te university with small projects. So the students got to work on projects and products for Grolsch, providing new and fresh ideas.
In my third year (2007) Grolsch introduced their new green bottle (which has since been followed up by the new…. new green bottle recently). Being heralded as the new innovative direction of Grolsch. Additionally, after the fireworks disaster a few years earlier, Grolsch got to start with a new clean slate with the construction of their new innovative brewery. Going ‘green’ was central, it was the buzz word, it was innovation. And Grolsch tried to exude it, breathe it, through and through. But eventually, the market changes, the environment changes. But the perception of a brand is difficult to change on short notice, linger in old philosophies too long and you’re old news.
I have my own ideas about what went wrong and how to fix it. Wrong may be too strong a word, but some missteps were made and Grolsch is trying hard to fix them. The image people have of Grolsch is different from person to person, but if a brand works well, there should be unifying elements in everybody’s minds. Additionally, international perception of a brand can vary from region to region and hopefully there is a unifying principle internationally if you have a good brand. So while I will be displaying some of my ideas, I will try to include these points of view when necessary. I do think I am in an interesting position to write about this, living near the Grolsch brewery for 9 years, working on projects for Grolsch (and other breweries) at Cartils, a packaging and branding consultancy agency, and being a brewer myself. You can view this first part more as an introduction into the situation of Grolsch at the moment. An orientation on the environment it came from and it where is right now.
Grolsch, lost in time
To understand what happened, it is necessary to understand the market the way it was 15 years ago and how it developed to today. The beer market is ever changing nd a lot has been going on in the past years. Especially the developments in the past few years have been exciting and have overthrown old conventions. Beer has gone from the boring go to beverage dads drink when they get home from work and students drink because it’s cheap to the new hip drink with an increasing audience.
2000, a beer tragedy
15 Years ago, 13th of may 2000. A huge explosion has Enschede and Grolsch reeling as SE fireworks explodes in a massive fireball, laying a residential area and the Grolsch brewery to waste. A tragedy for Enschede. But from the ashes rose a new Enschede. The destroyed residential area was to be a new innovative residential area called Roombeek, where technology, contemporary architecture and culture could meet. It even became part of cultural city walks. Similarly, Grolsch rose from the ashes as well with a new innovative and sustainable brewery (2004). A plan that was already in progress, but had to be accelerated due to the circumstances.
The beer market was (and still is) dominated by the big pilsener breweries (Heineken, Grolsch, Amstel etc.), which will not change any time soon . If consumers drink a beer it is almost certainly a lager. Special beers are respected and consumed at special occasions or when being paired with dishes (I have seen more Oud-Bruin beers disappear in stews than people actually drinking them). Some Belgian ales lend themselves very well to cheeses for instance. And while lagers are the primary source of alcohol for students (something that won’t change anytime soon), it was also the main drink for non-students, next to wine, during dinner or mixers. Special beers like Bocks and Weizen were seasonal. A small diversity in beers being consumed by the average person on a yearly basis. Playing a small part in this is the origin of the generally accepted ‘special’ beers:. Mainly from Germany and Belgium. Everybody drank special beers, students to grandfathers. It had an old, musty image. It just wasn’t hip.
But what was hip, 15 years ago, was sustainability. Going green was hip, environment was hip, ‘Us’ thinking was hip, Al Gore was hip. Global Warming definitely wasn’t hip, but it was the buzz word. People wanted to do their part, even if it was just separating their garbage. With the new brewery opening in 2004 and their new bottle in 2007, going green was exactly what Grolsch was doing. Grolsch was a sustainable choice and with the new bottle they added another perk, it was 33cL. 10% more than the next big brand in a bottle and still at the same price. And Grolsch kept trying to be the innovator, with the Cheersch in 2007. Which unfortunately wasn’t a big success (a new unique system which was just a bit much for somebody drinking on their own and too little when drinking with friends, if you ask me). Grolsch was riding the wave of innovation and sustainability (and the ‘free’ input of projects running at the university, pushing more innovation).
A fresh new Wave
Over the years everything changed, like it always does. People still go nuts for sustainability, but in a different way. While some consumers got more involved with the products they were buying they figured out more about where they came from or how they were made. They went more organic or wanted more honesty, authenticity, in their products. They got more involved and at some point they started producing themselves as well. Voila, the birth of the Hipster. During the years hipsters harassed everybody around them about the special this and the special that and how they were the first, some of it stuck. This made people more open and curious. And of course, how could we forget what this wave of hipsters brought with them. Pabst Blue Ribbon! No… but it did bring a taste of the American craft beer scene.
Some news in the recent years has report an average decrease in beer consumption in the Netherlands, reflected in a reduced marketshare of the bigger breweries in the Netherlands (dutch ref/ref 2). The craft beer sector however, is gaining ground (dutch ref). People value craftsmanship and uniqueness. Don’t get me wrong, pilsener has a long tradition of craftsmanship. The brewers have honed their craft, perfected it, to the point that they use just enough barley, just enough hops and just enough maize or rice to get the flavor they want and keep the costs down. There probably isn’t any beer in the world that has been crafted quite like Pilseners from big breweries, with a consistent and high quality worldwide. The thing is, the craftsmanship consumers look for is honesty and no-nonsense, relatable and human. No min/maxing of costs or automated processes, but just good products with a human touch about which people can talk with passion. They don’t even mind if it is not consistent every single time. The rough edges gives them the feeling it is truly crafted by a human being. The rough edges define the product, makes it relatable because people themselves are never perfect. We all have rough edges. These long traditions of ‘crafting’ pilsener have long since left their original crafting methods, striving for optimization and cost reduction. And people know this.
Pilsener as a product
With all that is said and done, I can guarantee you, the vision for the pilsener the original brewers had for their beer all those years ago, that original recipe the breweries are so proud of, never tasted anything like what you are drinking today. For instance, Grolsch being in production since 1615 never used pasteurization (1864) in the original recipe. A process that kills of much of the flavors created in the initial steps of the brewing. Which is why craft breweries generally prefer not to pasteurize, filter or do anything that might impact flavor. It may last a shorter time, but flavor is king with craftbeer.
Another symptom of the whole optimization process that haunts all big commercial pilseners is that through optimization for the masses and reduction of costs with a recipe that has a very sparse list of ingredients, you will get very similar flavors. Now, I know what you are thinking, ‘I can pick [insert favorite brand] out of a lineup easily’. Really, can you? Consistently? I have said that a long time as well. And while my taste is pretty good when it comes to beer, I still fail most of the times. And suddenly, it becomes obvious that this need for craftsmanship and uniqueness that these big breweries are touting as their identity, is a farce. It is storytelling, it is a feeling that they create, it’s their brand. And if you really feel that craftsmanship is core to your brand, you need to be able to sell it. You need to live it, you need to create it. Because a mass produced pilsener and a squeaky clean steel and automated brewery sure as hell isn’t going to convey that message.
‘Craftsmanship is Mastery’ is the rough translation of the slogan from Grolsch (Vakmanschap is Meesterschap). Crafting has never been something strange to the brewery from the east of Holland. It has always been central to their philosophy, something that stems from their roots and has been central to their communication for centuries. If you look at their current new website, you see the telltale signs of a company trying hard to seem like craftsmen. Canvas background, scuffed logos etc (while the whole innovation image is still quietly there in the background, the whole crafted look is built on the clunky framework of a parallax website. All the rage right now, as long as you know how to format, but that’s a different story of course.).
The problem is, they are too late. They changed their outward identity. Grolsch went all in with the green and sustainable image. Innovation was the buzz word and their design language reflected progress for a long time. Nothing carefully crafted about it, just the slogan left. Craftsmanship was no longer central, it was about being green (either sustainable or the color). But the market was shifting, American beers became all the rage. New world hops were everywhere. This is probably when they recognized the change, they introduced ‘Kornuit’, which has more of a crafted feel to it than Grolsch (and didn’t feature the massive Grolsch badge prominently), but the rest remained the same. And this when they recognized something else as well. Where they used to be the craftsmanship kings back in the day, they moved towards innovation only to figure out it was outdated by the time they sent out their second wave of bottles and materials. And their unique craft niche they left behind, filled by somebody else. And no, I’m not talking about craft beer. In their stead now stands the oldest brewery in Holland, the usurper of the premium craftsmanship throne: Brand. Suddenly, the giant that is Grolsch fell between two stools, or thrones if you will. Innovation no longer the buzzword it was and craftsmanship no longer their unique identity. By setting course away from their old slogan, letting it sit idly, they changed the way people perceived their brand. And now, suddenly, Grolsch doesn’t have the tools anymore to take it back. Being a big brand, it is difficult to change a set course, they don’t have the agility of small companies to change fast. Grolsch made a prediction which lasted for a while, but in the end they predicted wrong.
In the next post I will discuss how both brands developed over the years and where they stand now. And eventually, I will offer some of my ideas on how Grolsch can get themselves out of this mess.