Richard Walker, beer-lover and director at Mustard, draws comparisons between the evolving industries of beer and research.

Britain loves beer. Britain also loves innovation and trend-setting. I really love beer (and of course wife, children, family, friends, sport, music, etc…). I also love innovation, and although my days of trend-setting might be behind me, I do my best to keep up.

Join those dots and you will not be surprised to learn that over the last few years I have taken immense enjoyment from exploring the wonderfully diverse and exceptionally innovative world of craft beer.

Now, here is a picture I happened to take of a beer mat the other day:

A Craft Research Revolution

I instinctively feel more than a little irked when I see the likes of Fosters (a beer claiming to be Australian but actually mass-produced (I won’t say brewed) by a Dutch-owned business in Britain) staking its claim to “craftness”. In fact, as I suspected, after a quick search of all the big brands from the big breweries, it seems it is now all about the craft.

Shout it from the rooftops, This. Is. Heresy. They are violating a precious growth sector, disrespecting and abusing everything that the “craft” movement stands for and believes in and everything it has risked whilst establishing itself. Are there not laws for this sort of thing???

Obviously not. Nobody owns “craft”. Isn’t it just another buzz word to be exploited and profited from? In fact, have those nearer to the front of the curve than me actually moved beyond “craft” and onto “artisan” or something else?

Here are some things I’ve learned from talking with entrepreneurs in the craft beer world:

  • Growth is of course consumer driven. It is down to people demanding flavour, and a better quality product with provenance;
  • Social media has undoubtedly helped get the message out allowing the smaller brewers to do more with their (relatively) microscopic marketing budgets, building loyalty and advocacy. There are countless blogs and YouTube video channels where passionate drinkers share their recommendations (here is one of my favourites) and untappd is perfect for those who want to share but don’t have the inclination to vlog or blog;
  • Therefore, if you can find ways of demonstrating the quality of your product, the word will get out;
  • Conversely, your target market will see through your claims if you are declaring your product to be something it is not. The Fosters target market just might not be as passionate about flavour, quality and provenance. Equally, I don’t foresee their message cutting through with a Brewdog brand advocate;
  • Ultimately, it is a people business, and those flying at the front of the V are out there talking to people, attending meet-the-brewer events, festivals, conferences and conventions, they are travelling afar getting feedback on their product, trying other products, collaborating and experimenting.

So to what extent is there a “craft” research industry? If there isn’t, should there be? What would we learn from those that have created such a storm in the world of beer?

Drawing parallels leads me to make the following conclusions regarding the similarities and differences:

  • The most striking similarity is in the ingredients – four in beer (water, malt, hops, yeast) and four in research–people (their brains, their values and personality) and technology.
  • More seriously, research is a service not a product. Techniques and solutions are “productised” to provide clarity for clients and add value for shareholders in the form of protected assets, but the “service” of research should, by definition, be crafted. A tick in the box for craft research.
  • That said, many research agencies will talk about “crafted” research solutions, but in essence they are just tools from a tool-box. Up weighting and down weighting sample sizes and interview duration is not craft. I would say the movement towards “hybrid” research techniques is “a bit craft”.
  • But should it really matter what we call our “offer” to the world and how we label it? For a service like market research, I would suggest the label is far less important. It’s what you do and how you deliver it that is important. Not how you package it. The buyers will see through the description when they demand the detail. Terms like ethnography, for example are now so “catch all” that it is the specific techniques being employed that seal a deal. It is probably damning for ethnography that for anything particularly “Louis-Theroux-esque” there would be a need to pre-cursor it with “pure” or “unadulterated”.
  • What else can we learn? We can probably learn from craft beer in terms of being even more social, encouraging more sharing. We are witnessing much greater evidence of collaboration, and at Mustard we have realised the benefits of this.
  • The industry can also be more demanding and challenging like the forerunners of the beer world. Quality of product and service is why we exist as a business, enabling us to make the difference. And how can the research business leaders prove the quality of the product like the craft brewers have? There are industry awards, and agency experiences are shared through organisation such as AURA, but demonstrating the quality of our product at first hand is more difficult when the cost of consultation somewhat outstrips the cost of a hoppy pale ale –to this end, we will again shortly be sending out invitations to try our online community platform for free – watch this space
  • What about the experimentation that define craft beer? I would argue this is probably what is most lacking in our sector. Are there sufficient clients queuing up to be the guinea pigs? – probably not, and for good reason.

As a footnote, perhaps we should just stop worrying about what we call what we do, and let’s just crack on with doing it and enjoying it, in the same way that the craft brewers do. In fact it’s thirsty work writing these blogs… #beeroclock