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« Is the US beer market being milked? | Main | Are you a panda or a cockroach? »

The Coming Artisanal/Craft Era

Paradigm shift - a radical change in underlying beliefs or theory.  Some times in history it is evident that one is living in an on-going paradigm shift.  The French and American revolutions might be examples.

But I believe most of the time we are unaware of the incremental small changes that are occurring around us.  If you could step out of the here-and-now and look down on what is happening it might be quite evident… but since we live in the here-and-now we often don’t see the paradigm shifts until they have already happened.  It is always easier to view the past than the present.  Then one can look back and see how “obvious” these changes were.

With that intro, I believe we are in the midst of a profound paradigm shift that will rock most consumer product companies to their core.  Over the recent few decades this country has seen the growth of large consumer product companies with their associated strong national/mega-brands.  The smaller local and regional players were hit pretty hard during this time… in fact most have been squashed as this national/mega-brand reality simply rolled over them.

But that tide has already turned.  I believe we are in the midst of an explosion of artisan or craft consumer products that will only accelerate over the coming decades.  One sees it in this industry with the explosion of craft brewers.  The Brewers Association reports that as of June 2013 there were 2,538 breweries in the US… more than at any time in the country’s history.  And hundreds more are coming on-line.

Although it hasn’t receive as much attention, the craft/artisanal distilling industry is following the same path as craft brewers… although at an even faster pace. 

The local paper in Denver had a recent story on an artisanal cheese manufacturer.  This paradigm shift is not localized to any one industry or region.  It is the tip-of-the-spear and it is moving like lightning.  And I believe it will sooner or later impact nearly every consumer products company and every mega-brand in the entire country.

At its core, this is what is driving the present downward trends for all the beer mega-brands… that compounded by being used as a Cash Cow… which is being milked like a milkmaid mainlining Red Bull ;-)

The high-water marks for the beer mega-brands might have already been reached and they might face a long-term prospect of continued decline.  It might not be so much that the consumer doesn’t desire a light lager… just that they don’t want THOSE light lagers.  For any craft folks reading this, I believe this just might be an opportunity for you… there are only so many IPAs the world needs ;-)

There are many things driving this profound paradigm shift…

Technology and manufacturing – Since we live in the here-and-now we often don’t really understand how far and how fast things have changed on this front.  Small players can product world-class product… for relatively small investments.  This is true for manufacturing, packaging, labeling… the whole nine yards.  And although there still might be some economy of scale advantages for the mega-manufacturer (and these have historically been quite large), these advantages are shrinking all the time.  And all evidence is that this will only continue.  In addition, in a world where customer choice is king, being smaller and nimbler is an advantage, not a weakness.  The huge plant employing hundreds and hundreds might be turning into an albatross, not a competitive advantage.

People power – In addition, as the large consumer products companies have flattened their organizational charts and technology has replace thousands of positions, there is much less upward mobility for their employees.  Life-time employment is a thing of the past.  So there are people with tremendous knowledge and skill sets who are available.

Hard economic times – Perhaps counter-intuitively, tough times cause an explosion in entrepreneurial activities.  The risk/reward decisions become easier when you don’t have many other options… trust me, I’ve got some been there, done that on this topic ;-)

Intangibles – People are social animals… we long to belong to a team.  Few of us strive to be some anonymous schlep at some large, face-less, soul-less corporation.  These smaller companies offer a great deal of personal fulfillment… sure everyone would like to hit the long ball and get rich but getting up every day and loving what you do is worth a lot more than $$.  Talk to almost any employee at a craft brewer.  In addition, in a smaller organization you can actually see the results of your efforts.  If you work for a huge multinational company your efforts simply disappear into the ether whether you bust your butt or surf the web all day.  This is not true in a smaller company.

The changing consumer – let’s use the ubiquitous smart phone as an example.  Here is a product which has already become the most important item in many people’s lives.  It is the primary means that they use to interact with the world around them.  And it allows almost complete personalization… almost every aspect of it can be changed to fit the user’s desires.  And it can easily be changed tomorrow and the next day and the next.  Ring tones can be personalized to whatever you want… ring tones can tell you exactly who is calling.  You can listen to the music you want when you want.  You can watch video entertainment of your choice and time… the concept of TV is being transformed as we speak.  It offers immediacy… these folks don’t email (that’s soooo 2000).  They don’t leave voice messages… why take the time?  They text which is about as immediate as one can get… hit send and it’s at the other’s phone in a matter of seconds.  To believe that this consumer, and all who follow, will be drawn to some mass-produced, mass-marketed mega-brand is beyond wishful thinking.    

Combine all these factors and one can get a fleeting glimpse of the profound consumer products paradigm shift that is occurring under our feet.

Will the beer mega-brands go the way of the dodo?  Not anytime soon. There still are A LOT of bottles and pints of these brands being consumed.  Brand Budweiser has been declining for years and it is still the number three beer brand in the country.

Will they see continued volume and share growth?  I’d bet against it.  I think the future is in the other direction.  And it might come faster than any of us can imagine. 

Historically one often speaks of eras… no question the last few decades have been the era of the mega-brand.  Perhaps that era is coming to a close?

Beer, spirits, cheese, you name it… the small artisanal explosion is already happening.  Where it goes is anyone’s guess, but it will leave its scars on more than a few large consumer products companies and their associated mega-brands.  And perhaps on their distributors too.

 

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