Money or Brand? – The Debate Over Selling Out

Do you feel the crisp fall air yet? Can you see the leaves changing and falling? What’s that you say, it’s still 76 degrees out? No, no way. Let’s just focus on the leaves. Ah, welcome back fall.

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With the changing of the leaves, let’s turn our attention westward to the mountains, the land of the leaf change. Specifically, let’s focus on everyone’s favorite hippy den, Asheville. Asheville has grown to be somewhat of a Mecca for breweries. Because of the city’s hipster nature, many microbreweries and craft breweries have found their home there, and have made quite a big name for themselves. Breweries like the Wedge, the Wicked Weed, and L.A.B. have all found a home in Asheville. However, just as seasons change, so too do brands.

This being said, the big news this summer was that Asheville’s biggest success story, Wicked Weed Brewing Pub, had been sold to Anheuser-Busch. An extreme change for their brand, this act completely changed the way people viewed the Wicked Weed. For those of us in IMC up until last year, this is actually quite reminiscent of the story told by Ben & Jerry’s, who sold out to Unilever to make sure their business could weather the risks they took, meaning the company could experiment more. From a business stance, this is actually a very good move.

This is a good move for many reasons, primarily because of increased distribution through Anheuser-Busch. Even here in Wilmington, 280 miles from the source, you can now find Wicked Weed beers in your grocery store and local bars. The Wicked Weed is now able to reach beyond the limited customer base they started in, and reach to entirely new places. All of a sudden, because of their new owner, the Wicked Weed can reach new heights, not to mention experiment more with their beers and not have to worry about a drop in sales.

But what about the viewpoint of an Asheville consumer? Here’s the gist of their response:

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In terms of their Asheville publics, the Wicked Weed could not have made a bigger mistake. What might have been a great move on paper was a horrible move when exposed to the greater Asheville culture. Asheville natives and craft beer aficionados immediately saw the Wicked Weed as a traitor to the craft brewery culture they had worked so hard to build. The immediate backlash was overwhelming, with over 44 breweries dropping out of The Wicked Weed’s annual Funkatorium beer festival, and hundreds more restaurants and distributors countrywide refusing to carry their beverages.

How could this have been prevented? Well, several ways come to mind, but the biggest is through using IMC and customer surveys to find out public opinion, and in turn using that to change the details of the sale to either keep the brewery owners in power, or at least get a better deal for the brewery. Because of the Wicked Weed’s chosen path though, they alienated their primary publics. Usually, with businesses, this spells disaster.

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In this case, only time will tell. We haven’t seen enough of the new Wicked Weed’s performance to be able to tell whether or not this is a good thing. But based on the principles of IMC, they have to be pretty confident in their newfound publics to abandon such a loyal base in Asheville.

The moral of the story? This abandoning of a consumer base is a little unorthodox, but sometimes it’s the best idea for the business. Sometimes, it can allow you to reach past your current publics. But it’s only recommended in specific circumstances, like when a business is struggling. The Wicked Weed was not struggling. We’ll have to keep an eye on the Wicked Weed, to see how they perform this coming fiscal year. The choice to completely change their brand could work wonders or it could send them crashing to the ground.

-Eli Jenkins

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