Belgium, Beer and Branding

In his first Thursday Night Insight post, Research Executive Oliver Truman looks at how an unlabelled 170 year old beer serves to illustrate some important points on the nature of brands.

Belgium. Famous for fine chocolates, Brussels sprouts, statues of urinating children and also as the country that gave the world the Duffel coat. Furthermore, and contrary to the belief that it’s impossible to name 3 famous Belgians, it’s also the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn, Hergé and, erm, Jean-Claude van Damme. And all of this, without even mentioning that it arguably produces some of the best beer in the world.

I can certainly attest to this last point having visited the country recently – Not only is it a far more diverse country than it’s ever given credit for – it must also be said that the ale in Belgium is pretty good, too.

You may, at this point, be wondering where on Earth I’m going with all these misty-eyed (and, it could be said, dreadfully stereotyped) ramblings about the place. Well, it comes back to the beer…

You see, during my trip I was lucky enough to have sampled what is considered by many to be the finest beer in the world: Westvleteren Abt 12. This shining example of tradition over the depressing homogeneity of the modern world has been brewed by Trappist monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren for around 170 years, with little change in the methods or scale of production in that time. Indeed, production levels have remained static since about 1946, in spite of skyrocketing demand for the stuff and record levels of brand awareness.

The monks’ view is a pragmatic one – "We sell beer to live, and not vice versa", in the words of Brother Joris, the brewery director. To this end, the monks have never advertised their ale and it continues to be sold in unassuming, label-free brown bottles. The question then arises: how has the “brand” of Westvleteren been cultivated?

On first blush, the fact that I should even describe Westvleteren as a brand, and not a quaint cottage industry may be anathema to some. It is easy to simply think of brands as being constructed from logos, slogans and colour schemes all backed-up with global, wall-to-wall advertising in the manner of big consumer names like Coke or Nike.

This is anything but the case: instead, brands are probably best thought of as the consistent norms or values that become attached to a company or product. In all sorts of ways, brands are shortcuts for the feelings and connotations we all attach to particular commodities and entities.

In this respect, Westvleteren is just as much a brand as any other: The tradition and folklore surrounding the product, and the undeniable quirkiness that this brings, all serve to create a strong identity – the like of which many marketers would kill for. That said, it’s probably safe to assume that the monks of Saint Sixtus don’t see it this way.

And all of this has direct relevance for those operating in Business to Business markets. Very often in these more specialist, niche markets, the visual aspects of a brand may be less pertinent than to bigger, consumer-oriented multinationals. However, this isn’t to say that branding shouldn’t concern B2B companies – it just happens to be manifested in different ways.

Just like the wider public, industrial buyers purchase on the basis of trust. This means that other projections of a company’s ethos and values become especially important – and this may include, just as in the case of Westvleteren, the provenance of a product or an unusual story behind a company.

However, while all this is easy to assert, perhaps the most difficult part of cultivating a successful brand is firstly identifying precisely what an organisation’s strengths and core values are. With years of experience in helping organisations to build effective corporate identities, this is something that B2B International is pretty good at.

More information about branding is available through the following B2B white papers:

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