Sam vs. Bud

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The question came up during a friendly game of poker. At the table were several local businessmen who had heard me speak of brand storytelling, and one asked:

“So what’s the difference between a great brand and a brand with a great story?”

As I glanced around the table, I found some help in answering. This was a BYOB poker game. To my left, I saw a Budweiser; to my right, a Samuel Adams.

Budweiser is, without question, a great brand. They’ve won the share battle in a highly competitive category for years. This is the inevitable result of a massive war chest and a powerful distribution machine.

But in terms of the Budweiser story, could someone tell me what it is? Clydesdales? Nice but no cigar – everyone knows Bud uses trucks to make deliveries. King of beers? Hey, this is a democracy. Wacky ads? Oops, that’s Bud Light. As pervasive as Budweiser is, it can’t tell you what it is – unless it would choose to say it’s the beer you can get anywhere.

Then there’s Samuel Adams. From its inception, Sam has stood for the love of great beer, and a tremendous story has sprung up around that simple value. (Yes, I just called “the love of great beer” a value. If you disagree, meet me at happy hour to discuss.)

“Jim Koch founded the Boston Beer Company in 1984 because he believed that Americans deserved better beer,” says the Samuel Adams website. For most brands, this kind of statement would qualify as the worst kind of hyperbolic nonsense. For Sam, it rings true.

And Sam’s ads don’t look like typical beer ads. Instead of slapstick comedy or bikini-clad blondes, Sam talks about the marriage of food and beer, or shows a side-by-side comparison of the quantity of hops in Sam Adams vs. other beers. Sam can do this convincingly because they have the story to back it up.

The proof is in the doing, not in the saying. At any given time, there are roughly 20 varieties of Sam Adams available, from lagers and ales to lambics and something called Utopias, which clocks in at a staggering 25% alcohol by volume. Their craft has won the respect of the brewing community: The company claims to have “won more awards and competitions than any beer in history.”

The company celebrates the innovation of its consumers as well via the Longshot American Homebrew Contest, in which home brewers submit their recipes for judging and a shot at wider production. In 2007, more than 1,700 people entered.

And just a few weeks ago, Boston Beer Co. announced the creation of the ultimate vessel for savoring its Boston Lager, nothing less than the holy grail for beer – behold, the Samuel Adams Pint Glass, with a shape, beading and etchings all designed to enrich the sensory experience.

Need more proof that Sam Adams lives its story? Recently, it was reported that the beer was temporarily cutting back on the 24/7 production schedule at its Cincinnati brewery. The reason? “So it can address issues that have forced the company, on occasion, to discard beer that didn’t meet its quality standards.”

In other words, the brand would rather curtail its operations and pour product down the sewer than sacrifice its standards. Notably, this comes at a time when the company cites double-digit increases in wholesale deliveries for six straight quarters.

That kind of growth is the best indicator that the Samuel Adams story has found an audience. Sam may never be bigger than Bud, but as long as Sam stays true to its story, it should continue to enjoy its loyal and growing following.

So while Bud is a great brand, Samuel Adams is a great brand with a great story – specifically, a story that is:

  • Driven by a bold choice to be different
  • Rooted in authentic values
  • Not all-inclusive, and unapologetically so
  • Written daily, in a variety of ways

And, as Sam shows us, a strong story is a smart way to outflank the category leader while building a healthy brand.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on September 7, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.