Chapter 4 - Differentiation

It’s Friday night at 7:15 pm and even though the weekend has officially begun, I’m feeling overwhelmed.

My wife and I are hosting a group of friends at our home and I’m on beer duty. Having just walked into my local bottle shop, I’m gripped with panic as I peer into a wall of refrigerators stocked with hundreds of unique brands and styles. Foreign and domestic, macro and micro, local and regional. Looking through the glass, I see everything from a mohawked slice of citrus wearing sunglasses to a beer that I’m pretty sure is referencing a line from a 1990’s Adam Sandler movie.

Some have colorful labels and others have funky descriptions, while pricing and packaging options run the gamut from traditional aluminum cans to $28 bottles that look like wine from France. Do people really spend $28 on a single beer? Should I? Where do I even begin?

After fifteen minutes of awkward pacing between coolers, I’ve second-guessed myself half a dozen times and am no closer to making a decision than when I walked into the store to begin with. It’s at this moment that I truly begin to both realize and embrace the challenge that lies ahead of us in opening a brewery.

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Entrepreneurs talk about “differentiation” frequently. Whether you’re watching Shark Tank or speaking with a business owner, finding out what makes one company different from the next is at the heart of the conversation. I’ve never heard another founder describe his/her business by saying that it’s “basically the same as everything you already know.” Why would I choose to patronize this company over its existing competition? The answer is I wouldn’t, and you wouldn’t either.

But differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean new, nor does it imply that a business is the first of its kind. The desire to want to create “the next big thing” is commendable, but far from practical, especially when bottle shops, bars, and wholesalers are already stocked to the brim with a rotating arsenal of craft offerings. Attempting to jump off the deep end and only looking back for a life vest once you’ve come up for air is the quickest way to drown. Not exactly the pool-side scene in a Corona commercial.

There’s another phrase often associated with entrepreneurs, the concept of an “unfair advantage.” When posed in the form of a question, business owners are asked to determine what makes them uniquely qualified to lead their company. Is it a particular skill set or aptitude? A deep knowledge of the industry? Perhaps a professional network granting them a leg up on the competition?

In our case, it’s a lifelong connection to the region in which we were born and the people with whom we’ve done business our entire professional lives. Simply put, the greater Philadelphia area is home and its culture and history are deeply embedded in our fabric as locals. I should note that this is mainly a positive, however, once I’ve had a few drinks I unconsciously slip into a decidedly low-brow Philadelphia accent and run the risk of having my wife leave me for someone who sounds a bit more refined.

I began to consider that using our “unfair advantage”, a deep appreciation for the values entrenched in our region, could serve as the basis for our differentiation. What is it about our communities that we can leverage and, if we can put our finger on it, how can we extrapolate that to dictate the core values of our company?

The answer can be found in the case study of a salsa-dancing Venezuelan named Bobby.

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By all statistical accounts, Bobby Abreu was an exceptional baseball player.

Whether you’re a traditionalist or a proponent of the new generation of advanced stats, Abreu consistently produced offensively for his team over a career that stretched nearly a decade. The Phillies lost more than they won during his time in town, but it was hard to assign blame on Abreu.

And then consider the case of Aaron Rowand. In Philadelphia for only two years, Rowand had one year of league average production, followed by a very strong season. Rowand was a good baseball player, but not in the same class as Abreu.

But Aaron Rowand did one thing that will forever ingratiate himself to the Philly Phaithful: he threw himself face-first into the outfield wall to make a diving catch, fracturing his nose in the process. After the fact, he looked like an extra from a bar fight on Sons of Anarchy. Given a standing ovation as he was helped off the field, Rowand’s catch ensured that Philadelphians will cover his bar tab for life.

Bobby Abreu on the other hand? Like a Democrat in Trump’s Congress, he wanted nothing to do with the wall. Abreu would routinely pull up short rather than fully extend himself to make a play defensively. Despite a rocket arm and the aforementioned offensive ability, Abreu’s inability to show the same effort as Rowand lowered his rank in the local fan pantheon.

The mentality displayed by the fans, an appreciation of work ethic and commitment, is pervasive far beyond the confines of Citizens Bank Park. Our region doesn’t expect perfection, but it demands your best shot. Distilling this idea from an emotion to a tangible business principle would take some refinement, but at its core, creating a company that values a blue-collar attitude built on accountability and responsibility was step number one to finding our voice.

Step number two? Getting off the field and into the tasting room.

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Joining a crowded, unfamiliar industry would require extensive research to understand the landscape and identify where exactly our brewery would fit in the overall picture.

But when the requirement is to visit breweries under the guise of professional due diligence, it was a sacrifice our management team was willing to make. Just remember, we’re doing it for you, the reader. Shortly after hiring Nate, we embarked on an information-gathering journey that took us to tasting rooms, trade shows, and dozens of meetings with industry veterans.

There were two primary goals for our mission:

1.       To learn the current state of the industry, including both local and national trends, and

2.       Identify what was missing and how we could leverage our strengths to fill those gaps.

While visiting “on-premise” sites, specifically brewery tasting rooms and production facilities but occasionally craft-focused bars and restaurants, our evaluation would include visitor experience, including ambiance and hospitality, front and back of house operations and of course, taste testing. Again, doing that for you.

When considering everything else, we evaluated packaging/design, community impact, and brand messaging and engagement. Our consumption was not limited to beer; we soaked up copious amounts of industry media, focusing on podcasts like Good Beer Hunting (keep your ears open about an exciting partnership event this summer) and local favorite Beer Busters. We read trade magazines and books written by craft beer titans; Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head being a personal favorite.

Fairly quickly upon undertaking our regional R&D, a few things became obvious. There was a pervasive spirit of collaboration amongst craft brewers, including a willingness to welcome new blood and embrace diversity of thought. There was no fear of competition, but rather, a “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality that was incredibly refreshing. Our mentors at Rhinegeist had pushed us in the right direction, but assistance was not limited to long-time friends. Far from it. The people of the craft beer industry were by and large excellent, hard-working people.

Embracing this concept aligned perfectly with our now-established desire to resonate with the greater Philadelphia area community in which we’d be selling our product. The degree of familiarity within the overlap was appealing. The idea that craft beer drinkers are promiscuous--as in, they are rarely loyal to one craft brand--meant that they were likely to give us a try, and might appreciate a new brewery that honored, respected, and understood the industry as well as their own local values.

We also noticed that the promiscuity was due in part to a consistent push for “new.” New beer styles, new names, new flavor profiles, and new experiences. The abundance of choices made it harder to break through with something impactful and sustainable. This realization, that chasing “new” invariably implies that you can only be “new” for so long, turned out to be the key point in the development of our brewery vision. More important than “new” was “good”, and providing a quality, consistent product was right in Nate’s wheelhouse.

Rather than attempt to one-up ourselves regularly, our differentiation point would be simplicity. The local community valued consistency, effort, and authenticity. The brewery would embody those characteristics, from our customer service and hospitality, to our relationships with business partners and vendors, to the beers themselves. Accessible. Approachable. Earnest. Do things well, do them right. If you make a mistake, own up and fix it. Bring something positive to those around us and do so because that’s what we enjoy doing.

Have Rowand’s character and you’ll be fine. Add Abreu’s skills and you’ll be golden. Our unfair advantage had just turned into our differentiator.

In the same way that we found Nate to build our portfolio of beers, we would need to find a partner who could bring this brand to life. Not only through its visual representation, but through codifying the values listed above and giving us a framework on which to base our decisions. That partner, next time on FTHM. 

As a bonus: You’ve made it this far, here is a picture of my friends and I rocking full Bobby (front) Abreu (back) chest paint at a Phillies-Padres game in San Diego in 2006. Thanks in part to beer, for making it possible.

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Coming up next on From The Horse’s Mouth:

  • How do you name a business?
  • Creating a brand: more than just a visual identity
  • Introducing Finch Brands

Want to learn more? Have questions for our team? Let us know what you think by engaging on  TwitterFacebookInstagram or by email (info@workhorsebrewing.com). For real-time information, or to subscribe to the blog, join our newsletter.

Dan HershbergComment