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Final Project (PR 508) - Tarik Benfquih
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Final Project (PR 508)

Applying The SIP Model to Athletic Brewing

      Simone Barnes, Tarik Benfquih & Charles Martin  
 Final Paper                                   
University of Southern California
  Annenberg School of Communication

INTRODUCTION

One of the most important reasons to think strategically, is that it reduces the risk of taking an organization’s success for granted. When things are going well, there can sometimes be an inclination to optimistically rest on one’s laurels and assume that the good times will last forever. However, during these periods it is absolutely essential that an organization rigorously use the Strategic Integrated Planning (SIP) Model to understand precisely why it has landed in such a boom period, as well as the potential obstacles that could cut it short. Created by Burghardt Tenderich, Ph.D., the model outlines an 18-step process that meticulously analyzes a group’s situation, before laying out the best future communications goals and the tactics by which they can be achieved. Within this paper, we will be applying the SIP method to Athletic Brewing, a company that has surprised many observers by thriving within a previously obscure non-alcoholic (NA) beer market. Our goal is to emerge from this process with a game plan that the company can use to further compound upon its success in the years to come.

BACKGROUND & MISSION STATEMENT

Before we can analyze Athletic Brewing’s challenges and opportunities, we first need to understand the background that led them to their unique position. Based in Stanford, Connecticut, Athletic was started by Bill Shufelt, a former hedge-fund trader who gave up alcohol in 2013, feeling that its effects were incompatible with the life he wanted to live. However, as a lover of good beer, he felt frustrated when bars and restaurants would frequently only offer him water and sodas as an alternative to alcohol. He also felt that there was an overall lack of quality in available NA beers that made his sobriety feel more like “a penalty box” than an inviting alternative. Shufelt first attempted to break into the beer industry by reaching out to established brewers and pitching a non-alcoholic division. However, these attempts were consistently rejected, as companies believed that there was “no market for non-alcoholic beer.” In 2018, Shufelt decided to start his own company, pairing with beer expert John Walker and beginning production on Run Wild IPA, their flagship product. 

Run Wild was immediately praised for its enjoyable flavor, and would frequently sell out its stock during its first few months of operation. Since then, the company has experienced exponential growth, and currently holds nearly a 50% share of the NA beer market. It now employs over 150 people in 32 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The company has received a collection of awards from major beer competitions, and in 2020 the International Beer Challenge named it their “Brewer of the Year North America”. That same year, Fast Company placed Athletic in their list of “World’s Most Innovative Companies”. In July, 2021, the company closed a $50 million funding round, and this year it has also expanded its operations to give itself a presence in Australian, Canadian and European markets.

Just as important as an organization’s history, is the mission statement that has guided its decisions up to this point. Interestingly, Athletic’s website breaks its mission statement into three core components: “positively impact our customers’ health, fitness, and happiness”, “positively impact our communities and the environment.” Lead by “corporate example” and “lead the revolution in beer for the modern adult, changing the beverage industry as a whole.” The first of these statements speaks to the health benefits that come from switching to NA beer, thereby minimizing the deleterious effects that alcohol has on one’s mental and physical health. The second is a reference to the numerous charities and causes that Athletic has supported since its founding. The third is an acknowledgement of Athletics’ status as a game-changer, framing itself as an energizing force within the entire beer industry. Taken in their entirety, these three statements propose that Athletic is a fundamentally good company, one that is inspiring drinkers to pursue better lifestyles while driving positive change in both its industry and the world at large.

BRAND POSITIONING & STATEMENT OF OPPORTUNITY

As previously stated, Athletic’s short history has been marked by an astounding level of growth. It experienced a 500% increase in sales throughout both 2019 and 2020. This is largely due to the way Athletic positioned itself as one of the only brands to exist within the cross-section of the NA and craft beer industries. Craft beer is a term that loosely refers to small beer makers that use distinct brewing practices to create boutique products that have a more complex flavor profile than mass produced lagers. If you step inside a liquor store, you’ll usually see one fridge dedicated to large brands like Miller and Coors, and another filled with dozens of brands that each promote their unique style and flavor (e.g. IPAs, XPAs, stouts, porters). Because NA beers have been traditionally seen as a fringe product in low demand, they’ve traditionally only been produced as a mass-market simulacra of generic lagers. Per Esquire, they have typically been geared towards a target demographic of men between the ages of 35 and 50: people who, after spending their youth drinking name brand beers, have needed to shift to an alternative for health reasons. This is often reflected in the ways these brands such as, O’Douls (owned by industry titan Anheuser-Busch) which, since its beginning in 1990, appeal to customers. Its label invokes similar imagery one would find in an Irish pub, while using terms like “premium extra smooth” that try to make the beer seem dissimilar from a popular drink like Budweiser.

True to the third component of its mission statement, Athletic made the radical decision that the categories of non-alcoholic and craft beer did not need to be mutually exclusive. Rather than simulating the taste of a generic lager, its beers have been brewed to offer consumers a unique flavor experience comparable to trendier beer brands like Lagunitas and Goose Island. This guarantee of quality is backed up by the company’s successful entry into mainstream beer competitions. To date, its beers have won over 40 awards; in some cases, it has even beat full-strength beers in flavor tests, a feat that has granted the company tremendous bragging rights. Furthermore, the company forgoes the stodgier marketing of its traditional NA competitors, decorating its cans in colorful, minimalistic designs that illustrate a sense of the beers’ fun, refreshing flavor. These products come in energetic names like “Run Wild” and “Upside Dawn”, usually accompanied by a short description that describes its flavor pallet. What all of this amounts to, is an intriguing product that offers consumers a different kind of fun, rather than a muted imitation of the real beers they’d rather be drinking.

Now that we understand why Athletic has placed itself in such an advantageous position, it’s important to identify where it’s strongest opportunity lies. Despite the numerous signifiers that Athletic offers a high-quality NA beer, they probably wouldn’t have seen such a high level of success were it not for the industry-wide trend of people drinking less. A 2018 Vox study found that 40% of global consumers reported a desire to decrease their alcohol consumption for health reasons, while in 2017 the New York Times reported that Gen Z teens were binge drinking far less frequently than previous generations had at that age. Since 2019, outlets such as Vox and The Atlantic have been reporting on the increase of a Sober Curious movement, mainly made up of young people who are looking to reduce, if not totally eliminate, their intake of alcohol. As Rebecca Antsis, founder of the alcohol-free bar Nymphea, described it, “Instead of poisoning their bodies, [this generation] is actually seeing what their bodies can do if they were at their efficient maximum.” During the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, while overall alcohol sales fell by 1.8%, NA sales grew by 32.5%. Many market analysts speculate that this is because the global conditions forced consumers to become more mindful of their mental and physical health. Even the most passionate beer lovers can’t deny the scientific consensus that alcohol, as a depressant, exacerbates pretty much every physical or mental issue a person might be struggling with.

All of this means that Athletic has the potential to not only meet the demands of this growing market, but could even potentially place itself at the forefront of this evolving social movement. Shufelt was, himself, an individual who decided to quit drinking not due to a struggle with addiction, but rather out of a utilitarian decision that he’d get more out of a sober lifestyle. Both this, and his decision to create satisfying beers without the presence of alcohol, are emblematic of the decisions being made by millions of young people across the globe. If Athletic continues to nurture this movement, it could generate a powerful foundation of brand loyalty that makes the company a fixture of a rapidly growing trend.

RESEARCH & SWOT ANALYSIS

The next stage of the SIP model prompts an organization to ask the questions that will allow them to most efficiently and effectively analyze their market. In this case, Athletic will need to use research to form an in-depth understanding of what drives the surging NA market, rather than just taking its success for granted. For example, how many consumers started drinking NA beers without a prior affection for full-strength beer, versus how many use it to wean themselves off the latter. Additionally, is there a single issue that is driving people into sober curiosity (e.g. physical health, mental health, productivity) or is it more of a holistic move towards the nebulous concept of wellness?

Because beer marketing often promotes its products as a component of a larger meaningful experience, it would also be worth understanding the contexts in which people consume NA products. How many people drink it in social situations to enjoy a party without feeling the need to get drunk? How many are likely to drink it at home, enjoying it with food or after a day at work? From here, it would also be worth understanding how many of their consumers drink NA beer exclusively, and how many drink it in tandem with alcoholic beverages. Many consumers, for example, might switch to Athletic after drinking one full-strength beverage so they can drive home afterwards. 

Lastly, Athletic would need to understand how its brand perception fits into craft beer culture, which has experienced exponential growth over the past two decades. What factors most influence a buyer’s decision when they’re glancing at a liquor store’s expansive collection? They might be swayed by the packaging, the beer’s awards, or simply by the uniqueness of its flavor. It’s also important to understand the values that drive these choices, such as a love of supporting smaller companies or approval of actions it has undertaken outside of simply brewing beer. Considering all these factors will help Athletic best formulate their target audience and establish themselves as a brand that can enhance their lived experience.

Next, we need to conduct a SWOT (strengths, weanessesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. This allows us to understand to weigh the positive and negative elements of an organization’s situation, along with the conditions that the communications campaign will exist within. We believe the most important factors are as follows:

STRENGTHS:

Athletic’s multiple strengths can ultimately be boiled down to the fact that they offer a uniquely appealing product to a steadily growing market. They’ve managed to create a beverage that regular beer drinkers would consider drinking, not just as an alternative, but even alongside their regular preferences. Besides its aforementioned awards, Athletic has also received praise from high-profile outlets such as The New Yorker, Esquire and The Takeout. In these articles, usually written by writers deeply familiar with the craft beer scene, Athletic’s brews are favorably analyzed by the same metrics they would use to analyze any other lager or IPA. This, combined with marketing that highlights the beers’ taste and drinkability, primes consumers to view the products outside of the constraints of a neutered alternative.

Athletic has also managed to build a reputation as a company that’s both good for consumers, and good for the world at large. The company has solidified a wellness image by partnering with groups like IRONMAN, Spartan and USA Triathlon. Furthermore, during a recent funding round, it received investments from famous athletes like Lance Armstrong and JJ Watt. Additionally, the company has garnered considerable attention through its charitable acts. In 2020, they paired with Rethink Food, promising that for every six pack of their Run Wild IPA sold, they would donate a meal to a community member impacted by Covid closures. In September of this year, they hosted a marathon to raise funds for the mental health charity Still I Run. Most recently, they released “Brave Noise”, a dry-hopped peach ale, to raise funds for the group of the same name, which fights for inclusivity in the craft beer industry. These combined elements create a general feeling of goodwill that surrounds the company, and adds to the holistic feelings of positivity associated with the product.

WEAKNESSES:

Despite the NA industry’s growth, Athletic still exists within a rather closed niche. According to an Esquire profile, 50% of their sales are made by consumers via their website. This is because, despite nationwide operations, their brand still doesn’t have much of a presence in liquor stores, bars and resteraunts. This is a big hindrance, because it diminishes the ways consumers can organically encounter Athletic’s beers, turning them into products that need to be actively sought after. There’s also a fundamental flaw in how Athletic attempts to market itself as a healthy alternative. While the reduced carbs and absence of alcohol make Athletic beers undeniably healthier than full-strength, or even lite, alternatives, NA beer isn’t, they aren’t a health product in of themselves. Pregnant women, for example, are still strongly discouraged from drinking NA beer. Furthermore, most recovery centers agree that NA beer can be extremely dangerous to a recovering addict’s sobriety, as it can trigger habits that lead to a full-blown relapse. Fortunately, Athletic does address these risks on their website, explaining situations in which NA beers should be avoided. Nevertheless, it’s a chink in their armour that could become more problematic as their consumer base grows, preventing them from touting their product as a wellness product to the same extent that, say, kombucha manufacturers are able to.

OPPORTUNITIES:

After decades of being seen as the butt of a joke, NA beer is finally being taken seriously, in an era where younger generations are seeing alcohol as less appealing. According to one Nielsen study, just over half of millennials said they consumed alcohol in the past month, compared to 65% of Gen Xers and 72% of boomers. Likewise, another Nielson study shows that 86% of Gen Zers believe their mental health is just as important a factor as physical health to consider when consuming alcohol. Since millenials and zoomers are also the most prolific users of social media, it seems likely that these ideas of alcohol avoidance will only grow and intensify as time proceeds.

This cultural interest has directly translated into booming sales. According to a report by Global Market Insights, Inc. the global NA industry is expected to be worth $29 billion by 2026. Granted, it only currently makes up 2% of the overall beer market share but, as Paste points out, that’s relatively similar to where the craft beer market started, before jumping to its current 14% market share. This growth could lead to bars and restaurants becoming more receptive to stocking more NA beers which, in turn, could place Athletic within the sights of even more consumers. This, combined with Athletics recent expansion into the Australian, Canadian and European markets, could turn the brand into an international icon if they can further cement their role as an industry trendsetter.

THREATS:

The success of NA beer is a double-edged sword, because it has inspired other, larger beer creators to enter the field. In the past three years, major brands such as Guinness, Heineken and Asahi have all released their own alcohol-free variants. While this move isn’t surprising, it does pose an extreme threat to Athletic due to the nature of the craft beer industry. Although craft brands will sell themselves as boutique beer makers, a large percentage of them aren’t actually independently operated. Lagunitas and Anchor Brewing, two of the most widely popular craft brewers in California, are owned by international conglomerates Heneiken N.V. and Sapporo Breweries, respectively. Meanwhile, the popular Chicago-based craft brewer Goose Island is owned by AB InBev, the same conglomerate that also controls Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois. This year, Brooklyn Lager, partially owned by Kirin Brewing, released its own line of NA products. Most of these corporate-owned brands already have a strong presence in bars and liquor stores, meaning that their NA versions could be offered to more consumers, more frequently. Furthermore, having such wealthy backers means that these competitors will be able to enter the NA sphere with a high advertising budget. Therefore, the more other brands enter the NA market, the more Athletic might be pushed into a fight for survival.

STRATEGIC INSIGHTS , COMMUNICATION GOALS & OBJECTIVES

         A successful communications strategy almost always hinges upon an effective insight, drawn from a mix of research and SWOT analyses. We think that, by looking at the current situation, Athletic’s biggest takeaway would be that, even entering 2023, many people are still rebuilding their lifestyles from the ground-up. Coming out of both the uncertainty of a pandemic and the social isolation of lockdown, they’re doing so with an intense scrutiny of the role that alcohol plays in their recreational lives. Within the context of this clean slate, many consumers are discovering the possibilities of non-alcoholic beverages for the first time. If Athletic can make itself the brand through which consumers discover how good NA beer can be, they can establish themselves as part of the new normal, where people attend parties, bars and concerts without feeling like intoxication is a requisite. They can promote their products as a new way of having fun, one that allows people to experience the activities they love while preserving their mental and physical capacities. By tying themselves with the wellness movement, they would associate their brand with a positivity and optimism that many consumers are in desperate need of.

Communication goals are the primary outcomes to be achieved by the campaign. These specific targets convey information, intellectual understanding  and awareness. The key outcome for this campaign is to influence consumers to incorporate Athletic’s beers into their lifestyles. Regardless of whether or not they already identify as part of the sober curious movement, the audience needs to be informed on how Athletics non alcoholic beverages are carefully curated for beer lovers with a refined palate and clear mind. They should also be reminded that Athletic is a brand that prizes wellness and public good, to a level that conglomerate-owned competitors might not. In some ways, this will mean essentially doing two things at once: convincing audiences to make the healthy decision of choosing NA beer, and encouraging them to value quality, independent beer brewing. If successful, this will then provoke audiences to take the initiative of making Athletic’s products their primary choice of craft non alcoholic beer.

In order to achieve these goals, communication objectives need to be established. Communication objectives are quantifiable, provisional steps that are attained efficiently. The objectives should abide by the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound) formula. In this case, Athletic’s objectives should be oriented around promoting two separate desired actions. The first would be to influence 50% of the target audience to become loyal brand switchers by the end of September 2022. This would require Athletic to make a case for why their brand would be a satisfying choice for all of the situations in which a beer lover might enjoy their favorite brew, from social settings to relaxing at home. Secondly, to maintain a competitive place in the NA market, Athletic should aim to increase its penetration of bars, restaurants and liquor stores, with approximately 30% of stores and 10% of bars in Athletic’s areas of operation to start carrying their products. This, in turn, would mainly be achieved by getting target audiences to see Athletic as their first choice of NA brands, which in turn would place a demand on businesses to start providing it.

TARGET AUDIENCES  

The next step in the SIP model refers to target audiences. Identifying who your campaign will be catered towards is a huge step in any strategic plan. With that in mind, it’s clear that Athletic’s messaging needs to be aimed at sober curious beer lovers. Beer is fundamentally an acquired taste, thus it’s unlikely (although not impossible) for it to have as much of an appeal with sober individuals who are already inclined to drink sodas, seltzers and other soft drinks instead of alcoholic beverages. Fortunately, millennials are not only are not only driving the sober curious movement, but also, per Statista, make up the age bracket most likely to purchase craft beers. We can narrow this target down even further thanks to the extensive writings profiling the sober curious. The Columbus Dispatch describes them as people who feel alcohol is incompatible with their health, wellness or career goals, but who “still love a lifestyle of socializing, seeing live music and being around friends.” This would not only point to an outgoing personality, but also at least a middle class level of disposable income, which is backed up by analysis conducted by a Global Market Insights report profiling the current buyers of NA beers. Thus, we could safely say that the target audience consists of adventurous, semi-affluent, beer-loving millennials who enjoy socializing but believe alcohol abuse could hinder their long-term goals. 

One additional advantage of focussing on this target audience, is that it also has the potential to sway additional groups. For one thing, fun-loving millennials also form the lifeblood of the hospitality industry since, per a CNBC report, they are the demographic that spends the most money at bars and restaurants. As such, if they can be instilled with a brand loyalty towards Athletic, there’s a strong chance that businesses will see stocking Athletic beers as a way of attracting more business. Additionally, consumers’ alcohol choices are heavily influenced by social environments. For example, there’s a widespread consensus that peer pressure is one of the strongest elements prompting young people to first experiment with drinking. As such, if fun-loving millennials, especially those active on social media, accept Athletic’s NA products as a facet of their adventures, it will likely influence other groups to pursue these products in order to fit in. While this thinking might seem unethical, it’s worth remembering that if someone has little experience with alcohol, it’s much safer for them to consume NA beers at a club or party, than it is for them to use that environment to experiment with actual alcohol. Therefore, giving Athletic an image as a drink for forward thinking popular people would still be compatible with their mission statement.

CURRENT AND DESIRED AUDIENCE BRAND PERCEPTIONS

In many ways, Athletic’s current brand image is beyond reproach. Between its numerous awards and its glowing write-ups in high-profile outlets, there’s a strong chance that when people first learnt about the brand, they did so via a channel that immediately associated their beers with guarantees of quality. Likewise, the fact that they were one of the first craft NA beers has also bestowed them with an intriguing sense of novelty, adding to their image as a trendsetter. The fact that 50% of Athletic’s impressive sales come from online orders speaks to this immense level of trust, as so many consumers have been willing to actively seek out their website and then wait for their orders to arrive.

However, this strong brand perception is also incredibly precarious, because much of it was generated in a period where Athletic was one of the only names in its field. It’s hard to say how successful Athletic would have been if it wasn’t also one of the few breweries that would allow consumers to drink a non-alcoholic IPA. As such, there’s a tremendous risk that as larger, conglomerate-backed, craft breweries continue to introduce their own NA products, the current brand perception will turn out to be based more on novelty than quality. Athletic might hold the highest possible recommendations from beer experts, but that could prove inadequate if trying them requires an online order, whereas a Brooklyn NA IPA can be purchased at a local liquor store.

We believe that Athletic Brewing’s desired brand perception needs to be one rooted in the idea that it is a fundamental factor in having a good time while remaining sober. This goes beyond individual facets, like Athletic’s taste, its health benefits over full strength beer, and the ethical values of the company. It, instead, requires the company to place itself at the forefront of the sober curious movement, directly associating its products with fun experiences that avoid, or diminish the impact of, alcohol. This is a tricky thing to define, because it’s based less on a particular image than it is on a tapestry of individual stories and anecdotes. To put it another way, Athletic might have impressed the experts, but now it needs to earn some serious street credibility.  It needs to prove that, regardless of how you define sober fun, Athletic is the key that unlocks it.

This would also mean reinforcing Athletic’s role as one of the leading voices within the sober curious movement. If it can convince millennial audiences that it’s not only a good tasting NA beer, but also the best way to immerse themselves in the sober curious movement, it can maintain its position as one of the leading voices in this growing market. Therefore, as other, bigger craft beers try to step into this space, they might be perceived pale imitators of Athletic’s success, rather than offering a more accessible version of the same product.

KEY MESSAGING MAPPING

Moving past brand perception on the SIP model brings you to key message mapping. “Key messages are succinct, relevant and compelling points to be communicated to your audiences,” states Professor Tenderich, “a single-minded message communicates the most important overall point to a campaign,” (Tenderich, 2020. P7). Athletic needs to let consumers know that its products offer consumers the best way to enjoy good beer that can make them feel good, too. In isolation, this message is important, because it builds the selling points that the company has been relying upon. On their website’s About Us page, they boast that their mission is to “brew without compromise”. This statement can be seen as both a product description and an encapsulation of their larger goals. As previously stated, the company rose to prominence by pioneering a way to craft a non-alcoholic product that still offered the same taste experience as a regular craft beer. At the same time, it also reflects Athletic’s various measures to enact positive change. Their Brave Noise collaboration shows them championing a group specifically aimed at bringing fairer standards of gender equality within the craft beer industry, while their work with groups such as Rethink Food exhibits their desire to make a positive impact on their local communities. If properly highlighted, these acts of social good can pair with the brand’s wellness elements to create a holistic sense of overall good that can make people more inclined to seek their products out.

  It’s also essential that this key message places heavy emphasis on the word ‘best’. With such fierce competition, Athletic needs to ensure that consumers who are curious about NA beers reach for their brand, instead something familiar like Heineken 0.0. This means leveraging all its positive qualities to ensure that regardless of the context, consumers are inclined to try Athletic because it is a tastier, better made and more ethically conscious option than any of their larger competitors. With that said, Athletic’s approach also shouldn’t be cut-throat. As the market’s most successful privately-owned NA brewer, there could also be a strategic benefit to taking a ‘rising tide raises all boats’ mentality. A message that also generally champions the merits of independent craft NA beers would still benefit the company because, as the vanguard of an industry trend, an interest in boutique, alcohol-free products would still generate larger interest in Athletic.

STRATEGY AND TACTICS

Strategy and Tactics are two parts of the SIP model that perhaps are the most important, as they take all 13 prior steps into account. Meaningless without each other, the two leapfrog your plan into something ready to be executed. As mentioned with the desired audience perceptions, Athletic’s strategy needs to be oriented around curating a series of experiences that prove two fundamental propositions: you can have a good time without alcohol, and Athletic is the best way to do so. Thematically, it would champion innovation and adventure, treating sober partying as an untapped form of fun and excitement. As such, a series of special events would be the best way to prove this value to potential consumers, essentially training them to associate good times with NA craft brews. There would also be immense value in tapping into the sober curious consumers as a source of grassroots promotion. If Athletic offers people the means to discuss why they choose to avoid alcohol, then engaging within this platform could further associate the brand with the movement.

We believe that the tactics of this campaign should be anchored around an alcohol-free music festival that incorporates a heavy presence of both Athletic, and other small, independent NA craft brewers. This event would follow the model already established by the annual event Punk in Drublic, which was started in 2018 as a partnership between punk rock music label Fat Wreck Chords and the craft brewer Stone Brewing. Just as Punk in Drublic pairs its live music with tasting sessions of local craft breweries, this event would allow patrons to sample and purchase NA beers from both Athletic and a series of brewers based in that location. Not only would partnering with other brewers emphasize Athletic’s role as the NA industry’s trendsetter, but the wide selection would also make an even stronger case for the wide potential that independent craft NA breweries have to offer.

This event would, in of itself, function as a dramatic act of paid and owned media, but it could expand its purchase by showcasing musicians who avoid alcohol. Despite the ‘sex, drugs, rock & roll’ cliché, modern music contains a wide variety of artists who embody a “straight-edged” lifestyle (ranging from hip-hop megastars like Tyler, The Creator and Lil Yachty, to seminal punk bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat). Not only would filling the lineup with a diverse range of musicians give it more appeal as a musical event, but it would also drive a conversation that challenges preconceptions of art’s relationship with substances by celebrating music that embraces sobriety. Finally, the event would also offer a limitless potential partnership with fitness brands that Athletic has previously worked with, along with social causes that pair with Athletic’s values, thereby furthering their credibility as an ethical wellness brand. By also partnering with recovery groups and establishing info booths, the company could also minimize its risk of triggering addict relapses by making clear steps to educate potential consumers.

 As a large and loud event, the music festival would need to be preceded by a collection of carefully planned media placements that span the PESO model. The first, and most obvious, would be a series of earned press pieces that spotlight Shufelt as both the co-founder and the spokesperson of the company. His story, as an ex-wall street trader who felt that his newfound sobriety wasn’t properly catered by the market choices available, is an incredibly captivating one. As already mentioned, outlets as prestigious as the New Yorker have already deemed Shufelt’s story to be one worth profiling. It would be in Athletic’s interest to keep this momentum going and, fortunately, the fact that his company was launching a sober festival (an extreme rarity in the live music sphere) would no doubt make him an even more enticing interview subject. Within this context, Shufelt could directly deliver the campaign’s key messages, discussing how Athletic beer has allowed him to redefine the very limits of what a non-alcoholic beer could be. He could also discuss the ideas and values of the sober curious, thereby solidifying his role as a thought leader within the movement.

Of course, since a movement is made up of individuals, a strong shared element would be crucial to this campaign. As such, we would also recommend that Athletic create a social campaign based around sober party stories. This would begin with a series of owned media placements, in which Athletic’s social media accounts feature videos where notable straight-edged public figures (including artists featured in the Sober Music Festival) share fun stories of times they attended parties without drinking alcohol. These posts would also include a hashtag (e.g. #soberpartystories) that encourage users to share their own crazy stories that exclude alcohol. This would offer the sober curious movement a powerful megaphone, as users recount finding fun without getting drunk. Furthermore, by anchoring this trend around Athletic, it would once again establish the brand as one expanding the movement’s potential. 

It would also be worthwhile for the company to pursue paid and earned media by hosting a series of free tasting events. These would most likely involve the company pairing with bars and liquor stores for days where patrons could taste a wide variety of Athletic beers. The event could be made even spicier by incorporating something akin to the “Pepsi Challenge”, in which participants taste an Athletic IPA and a full-strength alternative, then try to guess which of the two contains alcohol. Gamifying the event in this way would make the event appealing to local news outlets, offering them stories of self-professed craft beer lovers who were unable to tell the difference. Furthermore, by offering participants a reward, even something as trivial as an “I took the Athletic challenge” sticker could prompt an enormous surge in shared selfies from people eager to let their followers know they were there.

Finally, Athletic should also consider going to college campuses and proselytizing the benefits of sober partying. Colleges frequently struggle with containing the dangerous effects of alcohol fueled partying, and as such would be incredibly receptive to steering campus culture in a safer direction. Athletic could consider sponsoring alcohol-free parties and concerts at fraternities, where free samples of their beers are provided. It might also be worth investing in a brand ambassador program, in which students are empowered to host their own Athletic NA parties. This paid tactic would help expand the campaign to younger audiences, thereby fermenting long-term brand loyalty. It might also prove a source of good earned media, as outlets might view this as a socially responsible action, and a case of Athletic steering the party conversation in a positive direction. Lastly, if this tactic gains enough traction, it might also put pressure on bars and liquor stores in these college towns to cater to student desires by readily stocking Athletic’s products.

KPIs & TIMELINE: 

Now, the time for measurement and evaluation comes. KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators), detail “how the success of the campaign, and the evaluation should always mirror your objectives,” (Tenderich, 2020. P10). The success of this campaign would need to be measured on two levels. The first, would be a more holistic gauge of how successfully Athletic was placing itself at the front and center of the sober curious movement. Fortunately, both the live music and taste testing events would be relatively easy to measure engagement with. For the former, ticket sales could quantify how many people were engaging with the event; if it sells out, then one could safely say that Athletic had staged an attention-grabbing event. The same could be applied to the latter; if the event’s stock of beer samples ran out, it had clearly reached as big an audience as possible. Meanwhile, it would be easy to set a quota of posts incorporating #soberpartystories, which could be reached more aggressively with the release of new content and additional sponsored posts. Taking all of this within a more macro scope, I believe that we could set the specific and attainable goal of, for a period of time, aiming for at least 25% of social media posts based around keywords related to the sober curious movement to mention Athletic, either directly or through a reference to one of its tactics.

There would also be a far more material goal, in the form of increasing Athletics presence in bars and liquor stores. This could be measured either in isolation (e.g. 10% of liquor stores and 3% of bars in the East Coast will start stocking Athletic) or in direct comparison to the success of a more widely available brand (e.g. for every three bars that stock Heineken 0.0, one will also stock Athletic). With appropriate research, our measures could also be tailored towards increasing these numbers. For example, if there is an area of a major city where Athletic is underrepresented, a taste testing event might prompt bars in that area to start incorporating the brand into their stock. Keeping a geographic mindset will make these goals more relevant and attainable, treating it as a matter of increasing Athletics infiltration of different cities and neighborhood bars and liquor store ecosystems.

Most of the campaign’s timeline should span approximately three months, and will be bookended by the sober music festival’s announcement, and its conclusion. After the event and lineup are announced, every subsequent media tactic, from the interviews with Shufelt to the beer tasting events, will also include fliers and other materials promoting the festival. The idea of setting things during the June to September period, is that it means the campaign will coincide with Summer, a period dominated by beach parties, barbecues and holidays like the 4th of July. This is especially valuable because, during hot days, people will be likely to throw events during the day, which could make them even more inclined to enjoy a beer that will still allow them to function throughout the remainder of the afternoon. The one outlier to this timeline would be the college promotions which, due to the nature of semesters, would likely need to occur sometime in early-spring, and could therefore be considered somewhat of a soft-launch to the rest of the campaign.

CONCLUSION:

In a competitive marketplace, brands need to fight for their survival. We believe that by analyzing Athletic’s position via the SIP method, we have created a campaign that will enlarge their brand recognition and ensure ongoing loyalty. We hope that, given enough time, Athletic might become as much of a household name amongst beer lovers as something like Blue Moon or Sierra Nevada. Not only will this mean that we, as strategic communicators, have done our job, but it could also fundamentally make society a better place. In an age defined by chaos and uncertainty, the last thing any of us needs is to become dependent on a substance that makes us feel worse. As such, true to its mission statement, Athletic could lead a revolution in the beverage industry that makes consumers happier and healthier, while still allowing them to savor the pleasure of an ice-cold beer after a long day.

 References: 

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