What the hell was Tuatara thinking?

The past week should have been a very good one for Tuatara Brewery. They won a swag of medals and trophies at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand awards, took out Champion Brewery, and no doubt celebrated like champs on the night. All this after a tough period during which someone they contract brewed for called them out (in a polite way) for their brewing practices.

Unfortunately, those happy, happy days did not last. In fact, it all went a bit crap. The positive media stories and social media attention soon flipped, and they were trying to cure a headache far different from the ones staff members possibly had the morning after the awards. And while the causes of said headache are different from each other, they are also very closely related.

Firstly, everyone I talked to after the awards was wondering the same thing – what the hell are these beers Tuatara won all these awards for? I had never seen Mot Eureka, Weiz Guy or kAPAi anywhere, and neither had anyone else. Beertown.nz overlord Martin Craig’s calculated guess, at them being new names for old beers, was confirmed by Tuatara a day later. In the next few weeks you will see a refresh of Tuatara’s brand – the same branding the company has used since I was serving its range in a restaurant a decade ago is going.

I am all for rebrands. Townshend’s label update was desperately needed, while the recent changes on Emerson’s bottles and tap badges move the same way – taking a dated, English-looking-in-a-boring-way brand in a modern direction. But, to quote Martin Craig, “a rebranding should improve recognition of your beers, not create confusion”. Both the Emerson’s and Townshend’s rebrands kept the same beer names, but improved the look.

But Tuatara is taking a different route. The company is going full-on Prince/ Prince logo.svg, right down to the ‘artist-formerly-known-as-Prince’ bit. The website proudly touts the beers: Mot Eureka Pilsner (known as Bohemian Pislner); Weiz Guy (known as Bavarian Hefe); Helluva Lager (Helles Lager). Ugh. It all got more cringe than a series of the British version of The Office.

If Tuatara wanted a good example of a rebrand done right, they should have checked out ParrotDog’s latest work.

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Exhibit 1: Old dogs

See Exhibit 1. ParrotDog’s name is nice and big, and so are the beer names. But, honestly, who is going to know the difference between a BitterBitch and a DeadCanary if they know almost nothing about brewery?

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Exhibit 2: New tricks

The rebrand still shows all the beers are from ParrotDog, and has the names on the front. But the emphasis is now directly about telling people exactly what they are getting. If I’m ordering for my friends at a pub, I don’t ask “do you want a DeadCanary or BitterBitch?”. I ask if they want a pale ale or an IPA. Why? Because they know what those things are. For me, that has always been the strength of Tuatara’s brand and beer names – they do what they say on the tin/bottle/keg/tap badge.

The fact is, Tuatara has effectively already conceded the rebrand is a stupid idea. On this webpage I keep hyperlinking, they say they are going to “put some stickers on to make sure you can still find your fav!”. (Yes! Your fav! Not your fave!). Pro tip: people are lazy. If they can’t find what they want, their “fav!” they will probably give up and buy some Panhead Supercharger instead.

So why is Tuatara rebranding? Maybe they did some market research. Maybe they got bored. Maybe, as one person close to the industry suggested to me, they wanted to have trademarkable names. Which is rather ironic, as an attempted trademark is what really got Tuatara’s reputation in a bad place this past week.

Tuatara made applications recently with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand to trademark all their new beer names – and fair enough. You have to protect your brand early on, or you end up with Radlergate 2.0. While the Society of Beer Advocates has a decent pot of cash lying around, I imagine they have better things to do with it than fight trademark battles for the good of the New Zealand beer scene.

Anyway. It all hit the fan for Tuatara when a former SOBA president tweeted what a few people in the beer industry had figured out/been informed of.

For those that do not know, Amarillo is the name of a hop variety. I have had a go at people trying to trademark hop varieties before. That ended well, with the brewer withdrawing the trademark application. And I can forgive them, because they were being benignly ignorant. But Tuatara engaged the services of AJ Park, an intellectual property law firm, to make their applications.

(Now, I have a soft spot for lawyers. I see them every day undertaking stressful work, like bail applications. Some lawyers simply do not do their job well enough, and end up shocked when they get told their client has 20 previous convictions for breach of bail. But then there are the ones who open their submissions with “I have been instructed to apply for bail”. They know it is a lost cause before they have started. In legal parlance, it is referred to as ‘throwing yourself at the mercy of the court’.)

Things went rather predictably. People got angry, social media got a bit feral, and Tuatara backed down, withdrawing the Amarillo application. They also withdrew the application they had made for Tomahawk – another hop variety – despite nobody getting up in arms about that, so kudos to Tuatara where kudos be due.

But the heat is still being applied.

Yes, Tuatara are trying to trademark Kapai for kAPAi. The issue is Aotearoa Breweries – you know them better as Mata – has made a beer called Kapai for quite some time.

The best thing Tuatara can do about the Kapai situation is withdraw its application. Mata had its Kapai first, and even manged to get its trademark application in a few hours in front of Tuatara’s. It’s just the nice thing to do, ya know?

And if Tuatara is worried about anything – the cost, the need to find another name and/or design, or whatever – then its bosses should look towards one of its major competitors: Moa.

Moa has undertaken a media campaign for the launch of its first canned product, a session pale ale. And the cans look great!

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But remember back when Moa initially wanted to call the product Paradise Pale Ale, despite the fact McLeod’s had the trademark on Paradise? Well guess what? The session pale ale is not called Paradise. There was a bit of social media beef about it at the time, but it appears Moa and McLeod’s sorted things out.

I believe New Zealand’s beer industry is made up of people who, by and large, what to work together to create a “rising tide raises all boats” environment. Tuatara is one of the biggest boats out there, firing great products out at a very competitive price point. But doing stupid things – stupid is the only word I think sums it up properly – undermines the great work Tuatara does. It makes them look silly, and makes people say silly things about them.

Further reading:

*Moa’s cans fit well with its move away from the myopic misogyny they were famed for, to a friendlier ‘outdoorsy’ look. Graphic designer Todd Wilson was behind the move, which was featured on Design Assembly recently. His CV reads much like most New Zealand freelance journalists’ – work for company, leave company, get freelance contract with that company.

*I wish Shane Cowlishaw would spend less time walking around decommissioned prisons and more time writing about beer. I also wish for world peace, a 1960s Fender Bass VI and a fridge full of Hallertau Funkonnay magnums, but none of that is happening anytime soon. Anyway, his recent piece on New Zealand brewery rebrands is a good read.

*If Martin Townshend is thinking about another rebrand, (by my calculation, it would be his fifth), this student submission into the Best Design Awards looks sharp.

Soundtrack:

*Het played their debut set at Palmerston North all-ages venue The Stomach recently. The debut album provides an excellent soundtrack to morning dog walks, cooking tofu, and punching through writer’s block.

What the hell happened to Boundary Road?

 

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Who remembers Brian “Spike” Buckowski? You know, the guy whose serious approach in this YouTube video was well at odds with the ‘take the piss’ voiceover. It seems so long ago, those days when his mug was emblazoned across the beginning of any video you tried to watch online. He was there because he was working with New Zealand brewing company Boundary Road Brewing on a series of beers, released under the moniker The Resident.

Boundary Road was in the news relatively recently, but not for a good reason. In an announcement to the NZX, Moa Brewing Company proudly touted it has knocked Boundary Road – the brewing arm of booze giant Independent Liquor – off its perch as the third-biggest “craft beer brand” in New Zealand.

Never minding the bollocks about what makes a brand “big” – a safe punt would be supermarket sales data – the question needs to be answered: how did such a big brand get its market share gobbled up? Because, by some accounts, Boundary Road were doing everything a craft beer brand should be doing.

Boundary Road properly hit the market in 2011 when it decided to undertake “an aggressive market entry” into the “retail tap market” – in English, supplying bars with money/equipment/stuff in exchange for exclusive pouring rights. While that was the target for the products it brews under licence, like Kingfisher and Carlsberg, it also launched a dizzyingly large range of beers targeting the same people who would buy Mac’s and Monteith’s.  RateBeer shows at least 20 beers were released under the Boundary Road brand, ranging from a spiced rum ale to a IIPA. That does not seem too weird, as RateBeer has 8 Wired have releasing 63 beers and Yeastie Boys having 74 to their name.

Another similarity Boundary Road had to those two darlings of the New Zealand brewing scene was collaboration. I was hoping The Resident series would become a regular thing after Spike’s work. Sure, the beers were not amazing. But I remember the red rye IPA being better than anything Boundary Road had already released. If they could get other brewers to join in, it could have been a good experience for Boundary Road, the brewer and drinkers in New Zealand.

Now Boundary Road grew fast. Backed by the big bucks of Japanese brewing giant Asahi, its beer started turning up everywhere. Bars stocked it. Cafes stocked it. Supermarket shelves were packed to the proverbial rafters with cans of Mumbo Jumbo, 500mL bottles of Stolen Base and 12-packs of The Chosen One. It was no surprise they quickly shuffled into third place in the Who Sells The Most race.

So, why did it all not catch on for Boundary Road? Why could they get into third so quickly, yet have now dropped off the podium? Surely a big range, clever branding and a programme of collaborations would see them rise above Mac’s and Monteith’s?

The problem, in my opinion, is very simple. It all comes down to that classic economics indicator – the benefit-cost ratio. Now I know the good Doctor of Journalism once said ‘don’t judge a taco by its price’. However, Cheap will usually be Shit. There are outliers – I have a weakness for 500mL cans of DAB at $2.50 a pop – but Boundary Road’s 500mL bottles are not in that category. I would rather eat a soggy taco than have another bottle of Stolen Base (my opinion on the beer is a smidge more negative than Greig’s). Benefit-cost is the reason I will happily buy a six-pack of Mac’s great Green Beret IPA at $11 a pop over the $22 boxes of Panhead Supercharger if I am heading to a party – #partylikeajournalist – and why I will pay $9.50 for a pint of Emerson’s 1812 at my local instead of getting a Guinness for $8.50.

And no doubt it is at least part of the reason why people will buy a 12-pack of Moa Lager for $24 instead of a 12-pack of Boundary Road The Chosen One for $22.

Postscript

In case you have not heard, Beer Without Borders are bringing their tasting programme to Palmerston North – and they have asked me to help. The first tasting is on Tuesday, and will feature some 2013 Green Flash barleywine (as rare as a Jehovah’s Witness without a Sign of the Times magazine) and me talking smack. Pick up a ticket here.

Further reading

*Phil Cook’s look at that time Boundary Road/Independent Liquor got into the beer importing game is good. And yes, do read the comments. It is interesting to now see that BrewDog is being imported by Beertique, and Samuel Adams is nowhere to be seen.

*Michael Donaldson has a good look at Moa’s recent business dealings here, including the quiet decision to shuffle away from the For The Boys marketing scheme to an outdoors-aligned image. I am all for them moving away from sexist schlock to something less aggravating. It is just a pity it appears they may have breached a trademark when naming its latest offering.

Soundtrack

*I have been a fan of Louis Knuxx’s flow since seeing him play at Great Job! to support @peace. His latest album Tiny Warm Hearts is perfect for those cool rainy May Saturdays. His great korero with RNZ’s Music 101 is also worthwhile listening.