CPG Playbook   //   April 24, 2024

How Allagash is trying to reach new craft beer drinkers

Allagash Brewing Company, the Portland, Maine-based beer brand, is shifting its marketing playbook to stand out among an increasingly competitive craft beer category.

Allagash was founded in 1995 and was able to ride organic interest in craft beer for the first couple of decades, including the craft beer boom of the 2010s. Today, there are over 9,500 microbreweries in the U.S., compared to 3,490 in 2015. But drinking habits have changed significantly since then, with beer sales in general declining and craft beer’s growth slowing down in recent years. According to NIQ research, as of November 2023 craft beer sales dropped 5.3% in stores over the previous year, and 6.7% at bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, adjacent categories like spiked seltzers and canned cocktails are vying for some of the market share.

As one of the more established breweries, Allagash says it’s investing in new advertising channels to reach a new national customer base. When the company began investing in paid marketing in 2019, about 70% of its sales came from on-premise accounts like bars and restaurants. Until then, the company had invested little in paid advertising outside the occasional print ad in local magazines. The sales team also hosted events among other sponsored partnerships.

As it expanded its presence to retail, it’s tested multiple advertising strategies over the years, such as deciding to concentrate ads on one popular SKU, Allagash White, and testing click-through rates through delivery services. Today, revenue is split by about half between on-premise and retail.

Allagash’s marketing manager, Elizabeth Wilson, told Modern Retail that the last few years were an exploratory phase for the marketing team. “We’ve done social, programmatic and run radio ads,” she said, to understand who is responding well to the campaigns. Wilson said Allagash’s newer demographic includes existing craft beer fans, but the marketing is also attracting newer drinkers. “Allagash White meets a certain part of the beer-drinking segment that’s looking for something less hoppy,” she said, adding that its hazy citrus taste pairs well with a lot of food. “It’s a great intro to craft beer.”

The evolution of the craft beer boom demand from the early 2010s to today continues to influence the way Allagash thinks about messaging its beer. Wilson said that being a more established brand among thousands of breweries is an advantage. “That’s served us well and we don’t take it for granted,” she said. 

Until a few years ago, Wilson said Allagash grew primarily through on-premise marketing and B-to-B distribution. As a craft beer brand that mainly sold on draft, the company leaned on word-of-mouth recommendations from bartenders. 

But then in 2019, Allagash decided to start growing its retail sales by creating multi-packs and adopting a multi-channel marketing strategy that heavily features digital advertising. The pandemic’s stay-at-home orders prompted Allagash to accelerate these plans overnight by shifting focus to retail. The shift to packaged beer helped Allagash grow year-over-year sales by 32% in 2021.

Now that Allagash has established a packaged beer line, Wilson said the challenge is in getting the word out to the right audience. The company’s beer is currently sold in 20 states covering Maine to Florida, along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas and California. 

Still, it took a couple of years of trial and error for Allagash to create its craft beer marketing playbook.

One big decision the company made after the retail shift was to focus solely on the flagship Belgian-style Allagash White beer — which makes up the majority of the brewery’s beer sales — as opposed to trying to message dozens of varieties. That came after Allagash started out trying to promote multiple specialty beers in 2019. “One of the things we shifted since is promoting the biggest part of our portfolio,” Wilson said. 

While the company is launching its first national campaign this spring, it’s starting out with local New England media buying. Part of this rollout includes in-game sports TV ads, in partnership with NBC Sports during the Boston Celtics games and New England Sports Network at Red Sox games. During the Red Sox games, broadcasters will be promoting Allagash White through voiceovers. In May, Allagash is testing out-of-home ads for the first time by running billboard ads in Los Angeles and targeting Dodgers Stadium.  

Success metrics, however, can be difficult to gauge in the alcohol space because there are multiple parties involved in distributing the product to at-home customers. “We’re not an e-commerce brand so it can be challenging,” Wilson said. “So it’s about being able to focus on select markets that allow us to see how their sales do before and after media runs.” Distributor and retail demand for the brewery also helps Allagash quantify conversion. 

The entrants of malt drinks like spiked seltzer and even non-alcoholic beers are also a factor.

Jackie DiBella-Curry, account manager at EGC Group’s craft beverage division and co-founder of the Craft Beer Marketing Awards, said growth strategies have changed a lot since the microbrewery wave began. Some brands have pivoted to adapt to new trends while others have stuck to what they’re good at.

“A lot of breweries have embraced the consumer want of different beverage types, and started distilling and creating ready-to-drink cocktails and seltzers,” she said.

“There is absolutely more overall craft beverage competition, but the categories can stand on their own as well,” she said. “But I don’t think we’re at the point where someone will be disappointed if they walk into a brewery and are only offered a delicious craft beer.” 

Allagash is taking this route — Wilson said the company has no plans to launch new trendy products, mainly due to its limited capabilities. 

But there are some ways to stand out among a sea of brews, DiBella-Curry said. Can design remains a big factor for people picking up beer on the shelf, so more breweries are getting creative with their designs. Meanwhile, video content on TikTok and Instagram Reels has been an organic marketing tool for breweries, DiBella-Curry said. “There is no longer an expectation of a beautiful production which [typically] means a huge budget,” she said.

Finally, DiBella-Curry said that “creatives with a cause have also jumped to the front of marketing strategies.” Allagash is incorporating its sustainability efforts by highlighting its green production in Maine in its latest campaign.

Wilson said that as Allagash continues to expand nationwide, there is an opportunity to find new people who still don’t know about Allagash White. “We really need to develop our consumers’ behavior to look for them in grocery stores, not just at bars and restaurants,” she said.