FEATURE // Have You Really Come A Long Way, Baby?

How beer is(n’t) marketed to women

Story by Chad Walsh

Photograph by Nicolle Clemetson

Most women have more taste buds than most men, which gives them a substantial edge when savoring the flavors, aromas, and complexities of a well-crafted beer in a properly poured pint. In other words, women, on average, and in general, have broader, better, and more balanced palates than men.

So why is it that so many people still consider beer a boy’s sport?

After all, for centuries women were beer. From the pantheon of gods, beer was first brought to us by way of the ancient Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, by the goddess Ninkasi. And in the centuries that followed, beer was primarily, if not solely, made by women, who brewed it for their families, selling off their remainders to other nearby families.

Yet, despite their prominent historical role in brewing and their collective superior sense of taste, many women in the United States don’t drink beer. In fact, studies indicate that of those women who consume alcohol, only 30 percent choose beer.

So why do most drinking women not drink beer, and are we not then, as a society, actively encouraging most women—and some might even say dooming them—to seek a life comprising sipping vodka sodas, pairing white wines with their lunches and reds with their dinners and, on those rare occasions, a bottle of lager with their ceviche or pad Thai?

The answer to that question would seem to be “yes,” were it not for the many beer makers and marketers eyeing the female population. After all, there are a lot of women whom they’ve yet to reach, a substantial sub-market of a demographic that makes up about 50 percent of the overall population.

How beer makers reach those women, though, might prove tricky, because the ways companies promote their beer to us doesn’t just tell us about the beer they want us to drink, it also tells us how they think about us, collectively, and as individuals. And if they’re not careful, they run the risk of alienating the very people they’re trying to reach.

Pink Beer Blues

In the late-1960s, executives at tobacco giant Philip Morris Company determined that women who found themselves living in the midst of dramatic social change and second-wave feminism weren’t smoking enough cigarettes. (In a way, it’s not dissimilar from the perspective of the actor Michael Palin, who, playing a corporate executive serving on the board of the Very Big Corporation of America in Monty Python’s sketch comedy film, The Meaning of Life, concludes, rather matter-of-factly, that “People aren’t wearing enough hats,” except with far more serious consequences.)

Instead of marketing their already established brands to the untapped female market, executives and advertisers redesigned a cigarette that they thought might suit the independent, young woman climbing the social ladder in a world that was looking decreasingly like a man’s world.

The cigarettes, Virginia Slims, were longer and more slender that the average cigarette, and were marketed to young women by co-opting the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their campaign slogan for the brand’s launch, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” can be considered, by today’s standards, at least, paternalistic. (The television spots promoting the cigarettes were invariably narrated by men informing women that, since times had changed, it was okay to smoke without the fear of being perceived as unladylike.) It was a deft marketing maneuver, welcoming women to the boy’s club by offering a delicately designed pass just for them.

Fast-forward 40 years or so. These days, no one will argue that Virginia Slims are glamorous or that they’re an accurate indicator of an independent woman’s status and station. But at least they were never pink.

Realizing that even fewer women in the U.K. enjoy beer than do in the United States, executives at Molson Coors rolled out Animée in the fall of 2011, a beer engineered for and directly targeting women in the U.K.

Not surprisingly, the beer cognoscenti did not kindly take to it, because women who know a thing or two about beer didn’t consider Animée a beer at all, mostly because they say it neither tastes like one—its profile is augmented by the inclusion of citrusy flavors—but that it doesn’t even look like one—its three flavors come in three colors: yellow, an even lighter yellow, and pink.

Jane Peyton is an author, tasting tutor, beer historian, and the principal of the School of Booze, a London-based organization that plans fun and educational tasting parties for large groups and corporate events in London.

She says she’s not sure how her male peers received Animée but says she and her fellow female beer drinkers thought it “incredibly patronizing” that Molson Coors determined that women were a different market in need of its own special product.

“Perhaps the producers of Animée think that women cannot handle full-bodied flavor(ful) beers because those are men’s beers,” says Peyton, “and women are fluffy, little, girly, delicate creatures who need to be treated as a special case.” She continues, “Basically, women are being offered a fizzy, tasteless, thin-bodied…and fake-tasting product with ‘girly’ marketing.”

And she would know, too, because she tasted one after its launch.

“I hope I never have to repeat the experience,” she says. “(And) yes, it did have a slight lemony taste—fake lemon.”

Ginger Johnson, a southern Oregon-based educator, researcher, and writer behind the website and community of beer enthusiasts know as Women Enjoying Beer, also rejects what she calls not just the “pinkification” of beer, but the “pinkification” of any product that solely targets women.

“A vast majority of women find the ‘pinkification’ of beer condescending and insulting, and they won’t participate in such campaigns by consciously choosing not to buy those products,” Johnson says, pointing out that, “Men’s beer is not marketed in baby blue.”

Johnson says she’s not opposed to the color pink, and cites its symbolic use for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s iconic pink ribbon. That ribbon, she says, unites people, including men, for the common cause to research and eradicate breast cancer.

But a pink beer targeting only women, Johnson says, reinforces the preconceived division between men and women, and what their palates can handle.

Perhaps marketers should reconsider the color scheme and market pink beers to men. Prior to the mid-20th century, blue was a girl’s color and boys were often dressed in pink because it more closely resembled red, which many considered the more deliberate, assertive, and therefore, more masculine color.

Demystifying the Myths

Of all the longstanding beer myths, the one that always seems to cut to the front of the line is the one that insists that there is there is no way to escape the unattractive belly that will inevitably grow around your midsection if you consume beer, which many cite as a reason women disproportionately avoid it.

But, says Peyton, that’s simply not true. Sure, she says, “beer bellies” form when we consume not just lots of beer, but lots of everything else, too, without bothering to exercise off those calories.

“Yes, beer has calories in it, around 200 calories in a pint of everyday pub beer,” Peyton says, while also pointing out that that small packet of peanuts with which you might pair it contains about 300 calories, most of those from fats.

In fact, she says, along with its natural vitamins and minerals, beer’s fermentation process increases a beer’s nutritional value, which actually makes it more nutritional, in moderation, than that pack of peanuts.

So there’s no reason, she argues, to tell women that the only way to preserve their figures is to drink only light beer or to avoid beer altogether.

“Wine makers do not make special wines for men,” Peyton says, “So why should beer makers do the same? If beer makers want more women to drink beer, then they should stop marketing it in such a masculine way.”

Corporate beer manufacturers have long used sex appeal as a marketing tool, especially when marketing to men, often in the form of bikini-clad women hired to pout and project come-hither looks.

But, increasingly, craft brewers, in an effort to distinguish their product on supermarket shelves dominated by their corporate cousins, are aggressively giving their beer mischievous names that are more stick-out-your-tongue than they are tongue-in-cheek (e.g., Donkey Punch barleywine, Nutsack Pistachio Stout, Double D Blonde).

“In the U.K., U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, beer is given a gender and is often marketed in what can be considered sexist and even misogynistic ways,” says Peyton. She also points out that “Anglo” majorities populate those countries.

“It is made out to be a drink for men,” she says, “[but] you don’t find that in Germany and Belgium.”

Indeed, Wendy Littlefield, who has been in the beer industry since the early 1980s, says, “As a woman, I don’t think beer is marketed to me at all.

“I feel that if you look at the shelves in the market, it sure looks like a lot of the beer is pitched to men, through colors, graphics, and angry or extreme images.”

Littlefield, along with her husband Don Feinberg, founded Brewery Ommegang, which produces sophisticated Belgian-style ales in Cooperstown, New York (they sold their stake in the company in 2003). She and her husband are also the principals of Vanberg & DeWulf, a craft beer import company, which seeks out “indie” beers, primarily from Belgium, which they import to the United States and promote as quality beers best enjoyed with good food.

During her travels, Littlefield has observed that “beer carries a greater currency,” than other beverages, especially in Scandinavia and Germany. “And in Belgium, it’s the national drink.”

She says it’s not at all unusual to see two women in their 70s seated at a table on an outdoor patio on the street of Brussels, sipping a beer while they catch up.

In fact, Littlefield says she was surprised to learn from a friend on a recent trip to Tuscany that, in Italy, many young women presently think beer is healthier for you than wine.

In a lot of cultures, she says, “Beer is associated with activity and youth.”

If Sex Sells, Who’s Buying?

Littlefield likes to tell a story about the first time she ever attended the New York State Beer Wholesalers Convention in mid-1980s Albany. At the time, she says, she and a few of her female peers were seen as “novelties” in the beer industry, because it had for so long been dominated by men.

And while she says she wasn’t the only woman at that convention—there were 15 to 20 others—she was the only woman not wearing a bikini. The larger domestic beer corporations, she says, had hired models “to titillate managers and salespeople into distributorship.” In other words, the young women’s collective job was cozy up to potential male buyers from restaurants, pubs, and distributors to literally, and not so subtly, remind them that beautiful people do enjoy beer.

However, the bikini isn’t trotted out just to enchant men—it’s also proven to be an effective tool when marketing beer to women, especially women who favor light, low-calorie brews because they fear putting on extra weight.

And it’s that tactic that can put marketers in a sticky pickle.

Johnson says that, “Women are always made to feel the need to improve themselves.

“The whole key [to effective marketing] is smart design,” she continues. “If you can’t rest on the merits of your beer, if you can’t sell quality beer without this kind of marketing, then you should be doing something else.”

And while much of the beer produced in the United States in the 1950s was yellow, fizzy, and light, it wasn’t until the homebrewers of the early 1980s began establishing, almost en masse, the microbreweries of the 1990s, that consumers would finally get a chance to try something different and seemingly limitless in compositional innovation.

The rise of the microbrewery, Littlefield says, gave rise to the gastropub, where women—and men—could visit, eat, and learn about all kinds of beers, served by the flight, and described by enthusiastic bartenders and servers, all without the fear of someone trying to pick them up.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the women who do learn about and amass a great knowledge of beer aren’t looked at with at least some suspicion by some men.

“I am a professional beer tasting tutor,” says Peyton, “and these are true comments that I have received from men [while] presenting the tutorials:

‘What do you know about beer? You’re a woman.’

‘I should be ashamed of myself, a woman knowing more about beer than I do!’

‘I bet you like those lighter beers, seeing as you are a woman.’”

And now, there is an evolution underway, with the craft beer industry attracting and welcoming lots of young women.

Ashley Rouston is best know as either the The Beer Wench, an all-things craft beer blogger who often celebrates the women in her industry, or as the Director of Awesomeness (a catch-all title that includes sales, marketing, social media campaigns, and creating hard shandies) for Bison Brewing in Berkeley, California.

Rouston says she’s never experienced any form of sexism from her male peers.

“I have almost never experienced sexism in marketing,” she says. “If anything, I believe that craft beer is very gender-neutral in its marketing, especially compared to the marketing of the mass-produced, corporate lagers that make up 95 percent of the overall beer market.”

She’s also not one to blanch at the use of a bikini.

“It takes a lot to offend me,” she says. “And, I find that in most cases, I lean towards the more racy and provocative brands and labels because I happen to be attracted to sexy things.

“Sure, names and labels are important—just like first impressions. But it no longer matters once you get to know the person and, in this case, the beer.”

What About a Beer That’s Unapologetically Girly?

It’s one thing to roll one’s eyes when a large corporation with a wide international reach test-markets and launches a line of pink beer because they think it’s the magic bullet to invasively capture part of that neglected, untapped market of women who generally skip the suds altogether.

What about when a mom-and-pop operation does it?

Chick Beer is exactly what it sounds like, except the beer is not pink, it’s amber. Rather, it’s the company’s marketing campaign that has stirred the coals of controversy and inspired women—and men—to cast aspersions on their tactics.

Sold in hot pink and black six-packs that unmistakably resemble a woman’s purse, Chick Beer hasn’t fully penetrated the market—yet. As of press time, it’s available in 11 states, mostly in the Midwest and as far west as Idaho.

Founded by Shazz Lewis, a Maryland mother of five (daughters), Chick Beer, a Milwaukee-brewed, lightly carbonated beer comprising 97 calories and three-and-a-half carbohydrates per bottle, has been, for some, the object of scorn.

Lewis’ husband, Dave, who handles media relations for the company, says that most of the criticism aimed at Chick Beer comes not through critical television, newspaper, or magazine coverage, but from online authors.

And what surprises him most, he says, is that most of the criticism comes not from women, but from men, which he chalks up to either their “misogyny or paternalism.” And he adds that most, if not all, of his critics have yet to try the beer.

Dave says that because Chick Beer is still so new—it launched in summer of 2011—the brand’s marketing has been conducted strictly on a grass-roots level, via social media and by touring the beer festival circuit, and those methods seem to be working.

Chick Beer is often one of the most-sampled beer at such festivals, says Dave, and the women who try it are inspired to head to their local markets and demand that the beer be stocked.

To promote the brand, they’ve even turned the tables on the standard bikini-marketing tactics by conjuring up the “Nice Package” Naked Cowboy poster, on which a fit young man, clad in little more than a black leather cowboy hat and a couple of tattoos, stands naked before the world, save for the tactically placed six-pack concealing his genitalia.

“(But) we always say that our most effective marketing tool is to put a bottle of Chick Beer into a woman’s hand,” Dave says. “We’re not in this to win the love and admiration of the media, bloggers, or other brewers. We wish those folks all the best, but we’re in this for our customers, our distributors, and our retailers, and, most importantly… for the women.”

What’ll it Be? Naming Your Poison

No matter if you’re a man or a woman, whether you prefer imported pilsners, Midwestern stouts, or Pacific Northwest IPAs, you have one thing that all brewers, both big and small, want (besides, of course, your money), and that’s your loyalty.

So how should beer companies go about earning it from the women who’ve yet to be turned on by beer?

Rouston says it’s really quite simple. Brewers should never condescend to women through marketing, nor should they assume that women have weaker palates. Above all, she says, “Educate, educate, educate the consumer.”

Littlefield warns that brewers and marketers should avoid lumping 50 percent of the population and 70 percent of the untapped buying market into one category.

She says that plenty of people love beer, even though they might not be able to express why. That’s okay, she says, because it’s the job of the brewer to explain to the consumer, in simple terms, what they’re trying to do.

In the end, she says, women and men only really want “quality products made by real people.”

Johnson says loyalty is good, but points out that expanding your palate by seeking something new will enrich not only your experiences with beer, but your experiences in general.

“Beer,” she says, “has context,” meaning you might prefer a cold lager on a hot, lazy day, while you might choose a dark ale to pair with your dinner during chillier months.

“The whole point of exploration is to try, try, and try again finding new flavors along the entire journey,” says Johnson.

So whether you’re made of snakes and snails or sugar and spice—or even ghost chilies, vinegar, and lightning storms—there’s a beer out there for you.

After all, even a child knows that the one thing that does not discriminate is cooties. Everything else might, even your beer. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you support that beer and, more importantly—to both you and to the people making it for you—whether or not you enjoy it.

The statistics in this article were obtained from a 2011 Gallup poll, She-conomy.com, and Claire Behar, Senior Partner and Director, New Business Development, Fleishman-Hillard New York.

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Using your imagination

We rounded up a short list of current and discontinued beers with potentially offensive names. Do you find them offensive, or do you chalk up such names as examples of harmless fun? Let us know by logging into beerwestmag.com.

Nutsack Pistachio Stout
Old Boys’ Brewhouse
Spring Lake, Michigan

Double D Blonde Ale
Old Schoolhouse Brewery
Winthrop, Washington

Polygamy Porter*
Wasatch Brewpub & Brewery
Park City, Utah

Golden Shower Imperial Pilsner**
Dogfish Head Brewery
Milton, Delaware

Panty Peeler Belgian-Style Tripel
Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Anchorage, Alaska

Busterhiman Cherry Ale
Dark Horse Brewing Co.
Marshall, Michigan

Donkey Punch American Barleywine
SweetWater Brewing Company Atlanta, Georgia

Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout
Flying Dog Brewery
Frederick, Maryland

*The labels of these bottled beers trumpet, “Why Settle for Just One?”

**This brew was originally called “Prescription Pils,” but when regulators forced the folks at Dogfish to change the name, they protested, rechristening it “Golden Shower.” It was then known for a while as “Golden Era,” before the beer was retired.

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One Response to “FEATURE // Have You Really Come A Long Way, Baby?”

  1. I am a longtime beer drinker (especially craft brews) – and first got “really” into it when I lived in Portland OR in the late 1980s. Since then, I’ve studied marketing to women, written a lot about it in business publications and co-authored a book on it – Don’t Think Pink. What marketers of any product should keep in mind is the idea of transparent marketing, rather than opaque. Beers “for women” are beside the point. You don’t just slap a feminine label on something and call it good. Any spike in sales will be in the short term.. but real beer drinkers who happen to be women will not remain loyal to brands that patronize.

    Continue to make great beers, but learn and provide education, information and community in a way that resonates with women.. In this way you market transparently, and THAT’s how you’ll keep their attention.

    Craft brewers definitely have an opportunity to serve women more effectively and then show the big names how to do it. It’s great to know this is a topic of serious discussion in the industry, because, from my perspective, there is huge opportunity.