Back in May I came across a story in the USA Today. A new brewing company was up and running in Lakeland, FL. Nothing particularly newsworthy about that. Craft breweries are opening up at a rate of more than one a day. In 2015 alone 617 new craft breweries opened their doors in the United States. This particular endeavor made the news, however, because of its target audience. High Heel Brewing will brew beer that will be marketed towards the female consumer – more about that in a minute.
First, however, it should be noted that the launch of High Heel Brewing will not see the opening of a new brewery. High Heel Brewing will partner with Brew Hub. Brew Hub are “a company that provides full brewing, packaging, distribution and selling services for craft breweries that are capacity, geographically, or financially constrained.” So High Heel beer will be brewed in the Brew Hub brewery; also located in Lakeland. Brew Hub calls itself a “Partner Brewer” and differentiates itself from contract brewers due to the comprehensive nature of support services that it offers. Brew Hub allows the brewing process to be supervised by their customer’s brewmaster. Spin it how they like Brew Hub is a contract brewer. Kristi McGuire, Founder of High Heel Brewing, is a Master Brewer who has spent more than two decades working in the industry and will oversee the brewing of High Heel beers at Brew Hub.
High Heel will initially offer two beers – Slingback Perry Ale (5.4% ABV) and Too Hop’d to Handle India Pale Ale (8.4% ABV). The packaging will include pink, mauves, and hop green colors and will feature High Heel’s brand logo – a hop balanced on a stiletto heel. In addition to the article in USA Today High Heel’s launch was also featured in other media outlets including Fortune and Slate. Overall the media coverage of High Heel can be characterized as negative. Christina Cauterucci of Slate refers to High Heel’s marketing as “hyperfeminine” and suggests that it will prove a turn off to many women. Furthermore Cauterucci suggests that “gender-targeted ads and labels may bring some new consumers into the fold, but that tack is quickly losing relevance”. Thomas Ordahl, Chief Strategy Officer at brand consulting firm Landor, calls High Heel’s female strategy as “dated – like a holdover from the past.” Kristen Bellstrom, writing in Fortune, believes that “girlie branding can backfire if it makes female customers feel stereotyped or condescended to”.
I have to say that I find myself, by and large, agreeing with the sentiments expressed by all of these commentators. Women, quite simply, do not need a beer targeted to them. I know a number of females (including my own daughter) who enjoy drinking craft beer. They do so for exactly the same reasons that all my male craft beer drinking friends enjoy craft beer. They appreciate the superior quality of the product and the variety of styles and flavors that craft brewers offer. Writing in Craft Brewing Business, Terri Brown notes that “women are as happy with the masculine skewing brands as men; they feel cool being a part of the craft beer tribe”. Women, she said, “are likely to bristle at obvious pandering”. And if this article is any indication some women are indeed already bristling. According to Erica, a brewer in Durango, CO:
“I have no doubt that High Heel Brewing meant only to offer a friendly and relatable product to traditionally feminine women. In doing so, though, they failed to realize how this product further isolates women from the general craft beer community. It undermines the efforts of other female brewers who strive solely to make decent product, without masking it in an incredibly narrow gender stereotype, and will make us be taken less seriously overall.”
Women consume almost one-third (32%) of the craft beer sold in the Unites States, with young women (21-34) accounting for 15% of that consumption. Indeed, there is evidence that craft beer is responsible for the increase in the numbers of women drinking beer. There are certain styles of beer that, according to research, women prefer more than men. These include saisons, radlers, sours, fruit beers, herbed/spiced ales, blondes ales, and hefeweizens. All but one of these beers (hefeweizens) is among the top twenty performing beers in terms of sales growth. In other words craft beer is a very big and broad tent – there is something for everyone, no matter one’s style and taste preferences. The craft beer movement is very inclusive and egalitarian. The industry, in my opinion, does not need a brewer (High Heel is not a brewery) that tries to segment the market along gender, ethnic, or any other demographic lines. According to Kristi McGuire the goal of High Heel is “to fill a gap in the market”. What gap in the market I ask? The beer market is awash with more variety and better beer than at any point in its history. There is no gap that I can discern.
High Heel is not the first brewer to target the female market. In recent years a number of brewers, including both Carlsberg and Molson Coors, have brought beers to the market that were targeted towards women. In 2011 MolsonCoors launched Animée in the UK market. It failed miserably and was pulled from the shelves after twelve months. In commenting upon Animée’s failure beer writer Melissa Cole suggested that the industry does not need a beer for women, but rather needs to figure out how to make beer more accessible to women. In the same year Carlsberg’s Copenhagen, another female-oriented beer, suffered the same fate. Perhaps Copenhagen suffered from an identity crisis – Khalil Younes, Carlsberg’s senior vice-president of group sales, marketing and innovation described Copenhagen as a “gender-neutral metrosexual beer” and as “a beer for the beer-hater”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such hogwash and gobbledygook when it comes to talking about beer. No wonder it failed so miserably in the market place.
Reading some of the rationale media surrounding the launch of Animée and other female-oriented beer is interesting. In 2012 Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen, the CEO of Carlsberg said that “we can and we must come up with more products that are appealing to females”. Ramussen went on to bemoan the lack of innovation in the beer industry during the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s – “If you look back at the last 10-20 years, and you think about what has been done in terms of innovation in the beer category, yes, you have some but not enough”, said Rasmussen. It is a strange statement from the Carlsberg CEO. There was, during that period (and still is), a tremendous amount of innovation taking place in the beer industry – unfortunately for Carlsberg and other multinational brewers most of that innovation was/is occurring in the craft segment of the industry. And that innovation is generating a plethora of beer styles that appeals to an increasingly broad demographic, including women.
Ultimately, the success (or otherwise) of High Heel will be determined by market forces. This is how success should be determined. I struggle, however, to see how High Heel will succeed where others have failed. They may prove me wrong and if they do more power to them. Perhaps there is something about their beer or their marketing strategy that will provide them with a pathway to success. So let’s see how they are faring in the marketplace twelve months from now.