An IHOP beer, a Dunkin Donuts beer, a Planter's Peanuts beer—it all makes sense form a branded content strategy

Credit: Dunkin

Beer: Americans like it. They still like it. They’ve always liked it. More specifically, they like craft beer. Brewer’s Association data shows that while overall beer sales in the US declined by 1.2 percent in 2017, the craft beer market grew by 5 percent, accounting for $26 billion dollars in sales revenue. It seems that only the inevitability of catastrophic global climate change could chip away at the category’s growth trajectory.

It’s not too hard to understand why. Though occasionally dismissed as pretentious and esoteric , the world of craft beer has a knack for turning its weaknesses into strengths. The lack of extensive nationwide distribution breeds variety in an age of hyper-capitalist monoculture. The use of taprooms, which let you see where the beer you’re drinking was born, indicates transparency in an age without it. The absence of shareholders leads to experimentations and beers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Somewhat paradoxically, that evident authenticity is at least part of what inspired a few food and restaurant brands to partner with various-sized craft breweries on beers that double as a drinkable form of branded content. Recent weeks and months have seen the release of the Dunkin’ (Donuts) Coffee Porter from Boston’s Harpoon Brewery, the Planters-themed IPA-Nut from Lombard, Illinois’ Noon Whistle Brewing, and—maybe inevitably—”IHOPS”, brewed by Keegan Ales in Kingston, New York.

It’s not an entirely new idea as much as an eyebrow-raising wrinkle on a current one. “Collaborations have been a big thing in the beer industry for a few years now, but they’ve typically been between two breweries,” Kenny Gould, cofounder of online beer magazine Hop Culture, tells me. “The brewery/company collab is definitely a newer phenomenon.”

The mini movement has been facilitated in part by third-party marketers. Ad agencies Droga5 (IHOP) and McGarryBowen (Planters/Kraft Heinz) both identified and worked with their respective brewery partners, Keegan Ales and Noon Whistle. In the case of Planters, marketing director Ashley Tople mentioned that Kraft Heinz’s creative agency of record even chose IPA-Nut as the beer’s name and decided on the packaging.

That level of marketing coordination makes sense given that tapping into a trendy space in order to stand out was part of the goal. “The craft-beer market is booming with small-scale breweries putting out really high-quality beers,” Tople says. “Brands are constantly looking for ways to break through the noise and establish meaningful connection with a consumer segment.”

But if these beers are a mere marketing ploy, the food brands did more than slap their name on a craft beer and reap the publicity. Dunkin’, IHOP, and Planter’s all took a fairly hands-on approach to the process, bringing both their ideas and palates to bear in the process.

Noon Whistle, already selected for its proficiency with IPAs, devised a handful of peanut-flavored beers for the Planters and McGarryBowen teams to try. And when it came time to transform the Keegan Ales’ Mother’s Milk into what IHOP brand spokesperson Stephanie Peterson referred to as a pumpkin-flavored “pancake you can drink,” collaboration and coordination played an essential role.

“[IHOP and Droga5] literally all came up to the brewery and we sat around and tasted some beers,” recalls Patrick Sylvester of Keegan Ales. “From there we opened up a conversation about what flavors we can work in, are they possible, and how far can we push it? The ideas really started flowing.”

Dunkin and Harpoon took their degree of collaboration a bit further. Buoyed by shared Boston roots that made them natural partners in the eyes of beer and coffee drinkers, each team brought their respective expertise to bear in the creation of the Dunkin’ Coffee Porter. Though any beer snob would tell you that making a coffee porter isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, brewing alongside members of Dunkin’s culinary team was an educational experience for Harpoon, even in light of their past experience with beers based on brown malts.

There are always opportunities to learn along the way,” Harpoon VP of Marketing Chris Bonacci said. “[Like] how and when is the espresso added, what are the dosing rates, etc. These are the kinds of things that you can really only learn in process,” said Harpoon VP of Marketing Chris Bonacci.

Sylvester similarly stated that the opportunity to partner with a big name on an unorthodox beer gave Keegan Ales an excuse to experiment in a manner true to their ethos. “We don’t want to be the brewers that are chasing fads and brewing hyper-seasonal beers. But we also are the types of brewers that like having fun with what we do,” he told me. “So when we were given the opportunity to make a pancake beer, we were all about it.”

While the lessons for breweries are valuable,the benefits for brands are quantifiable. IHOP says its “IHOPS” campaign garnered 330 million earned (read: free) media impressions within weeks of its launch. It’s less than the 36 billion social media impressions their “IHOB” gimmick racked up, but a sizable return on investment for 20 barrels of beer that were only available at a handful of New York state bars for about a month.

It’s easy to feel cynical about beer collaborations when they’re measured in marketing metrics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tangible benefits for craft breweries and the people who patronize them. “They’re 100 percent a marketing gimmick,” beer writer Gould says. “I don’t think that needs to be a bad thing. These big collaborations can be really fun, and sometimes larger companies have the resources to help a smaller brewery make something really interesting.”

With more food (and beverage) brands inevitably serving up a boozy take on their signature tastes, the line between beer and branded content will blur even further. Is a (craft) beer still a (craft) beer if it’s underwritten by a corporate sponsor and also largely inaccessible to most of the country? Does the line between product and advertisement still exist—and is still a meaningful distinction anyway? Those are the kind of philosophical debates beest discussed from the perch of a barstool. As long as what’s inside tastes good and contains alcohol, the vessel probably doesn’t matter.