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In-house with Sierra Nevada

How one of America’s oldest craft breweries stays relevant

Say it with me — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This beer, and brewery, are so iconic that they hardly need introduction. 

Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale was a transformational beer for me as I began to explore this entirely new world of better beer (around 2006). I’m not being dramatic when I say that this beer was instrumental in leading me to where I am today—building a business that works with breweries around the world every day. 

So I started out as a fan of their Sierra Nevada’s beer, and have remained a fan as my understanding and involvement in the industry have increased over the last 15 years. It’s fun to watch them continually make the right moves, often earlier than anyone else—no small feat in today’s beer market. 

On that note, I had a great opportunity to sit down with Conor McMahon, Advertising and Creative Manager at Sierra Nevada to discuss, amongst other topics, how to stay relevant as a 41+ year old craft brewery. 

Other valuable points we explore include brand extensions (what, why and when they can work) as well as Sierra’s successful move into the Better-for-you space.

Let’s dive in.

Isaac (CODO) Isaac (CODO)

Hi, Conor. Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Sierra Nevada.

Conor Conor

Hello my name is Conor McMahon and I am the Advertising and Creative Manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 

Isaac (CODO) Isaac (CODO)

What does an Advertising & Creative Manager do? How does this differ from a Marketing Director?

Conor Conor

I am focused mainly on leading all of our Creative Messaging and Positioning. I work with all the marketing teams to ensure the brand and creative look and feel is consistent. So I am not the Marketing Director, we do however have a Brand Director that heads up the Brand Team. 

Isaac (CODO) Isaac (CODO)

What does your creative team look like?

Conor Conor

Our creative team at Sierra Nevada is made up of myself, our internal graphics and content teams, and a handful of outside agencies to bring the best creative solution to our business needs. 

CODO CODO

We’ve worked with breweries in planning and breweries who have been at it for 30 years. We’ve found that there can be a very similar set of pain points and challenges with each one, albeit on different scales. What are some challenges you deal with as an Advertising & Creative Manager at one of the largest breweries in the country that might surprise and resonate with smaller breweries who look up to you?

Conor Conor

I think we all need to continue to stay relevant to an ever-changing consumer. Innovation will always be at our core and the key to our success, but we are searching for new ways to connect with new, current, and lapsed drinkers. Not only with style exploration but brand relevance by meeting the drinker’s need state at the right time.

CODO CODO

Sierra Nevada is 41 years old (!!!). You do a great job of staying relevant with new on-trend beer releases (we’ll discuss this later). From a design and branding standpoint, how do you balance this legacy brand with staying current and top of mind with new consumers?

Conor Conor

It is one of our biggest challenges as a company. Our legacy brands made us who we are today; they allowed us to create new and exciting brands. However, we keep a keen eye on continuing to make them relevant in the marketplace by pushing our look and feel so they stay fresh. 

CODO CODO

Let’s talk about Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (one of my earliest craft beers and still a regular in my fridge to this day!). This is one of the best selling beers in America and has defined what a hoppy pale ale should be for millions of people. From a branding standpoint, does this brand have its own center of gravity (a standalone budget and resources) or is it promoted just like any other Sierra brand?

Conor Conor

Pale Ale is part of our core brands portfolio, including Torpedo, Dankful, and Seasonals. From there, we evaluate the brand’s performance in the marketplace to ensure any promotional dollars spent is a good investment.

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CODO CODO

What is the value prop for a legacy flagship beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? No frills dependability? A classic standby? I’ve always viewed legacy flagships as a pragmatic buy—you know it’s good to go, so there’s no need to worry about buying a pack of something you don’t like. How does Sierra Nevada think about this?

Conor Conor

We would like to think that Pale Ale is not a standby, but yes we have very high awareness of Pale Ale however that sometimes does not translate to purchase. People have a lot of love and respect for Pale Ale, but it doesn’t always mean they buy it. We consistently work on making Pale Ale more relevant to offset that perception barrier.

CODO CODO

Are you involved in developing new beer releases / beer names from a branding standpoint or are those developed by the brewing and innovation side of Sierra?

Conor Conor

Ideas can come from anywhere, but yes the creative and brand teams are tasked with new beer names and branding creation.

CODO CODO

It’s been fun to watch Sierra make the move from brewery to beverage company—I’m actually using this quote from Ken Grossman on this subject in our upcoming book, “As long as the product has providence and soul, I’m good with it.” This is actually one of the biggest reasons I wanted to have this conversation with you—your Strainge Beast and Little Thing lines.

There’s a big trend right now for breweries to create strong Sub brands within their portfolio surrounding their best selling beer. This can be a perennial best seller like Sierra’s Pale Ale, New Belgium’s Fat Tire, or Stone’s Arrogant Bastard, or it can be from a newer brewery with an emergent beer brand that took off like a rocket.

Sierra Nevada’s Little Thing line, including Hazy Little Thing, Wild Little Thing and Big Little Thing are growing at a fast clip. Technically, the Little Thing line would be a Sub Brand of Sierra Nevada, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s almost becoming its own standalone brand with a small endorsement from Sierra Nevada. Can you tell us about how this line lives within Sierra’s broader brand architecture? Do you call it a sub brand internally or do you have another term for it? (or am I overthinking this?)

Conor Conor

I think everyone overthinks it. But yes we call it the Little Thing line, The reality was Hazy Little Thing IPA became a success because it was the right look, the right beer, at the right time with the right consumer. The packaging design is simplistic in nature and we have worked for a marketing standpoint to position the Little Things line as fun and approachable.

CODO CODO

What led to creating multiple line extensions on the heels of the Hazy Little Thing beer? Was this the plan from the jump or was it in response to how successful that beer was?

Conor Conor

No, it was not, however with the success of Hazy Little Thing it seemed like the right move. 

CODO CODO

There’s a major current towards Better-for-you beer and beverages. Sierra is clearly keen to this with Strainge Beast Kombucha and your purchase of Sufferfest. Have you found Sierra’s history to lend itself well to these “healthier” products or do you have to create new brands to credibly play in this arena? (e.g. “Strainge Beast Hard Kombucha” vs “Sierra Nevada Hard Kombucha”)

Conor Conor

We’ve always been mindful of what we put in our products. Our label has read “highest quality, finest ingredients” for 41 years. With Strainge Beast we felt like we needed to create a stand alone brand to have the best chance at success. Also with the offering hard Kombucha being quite different for the flavor profile that Sierra Nevada is known for weigh into the decision. 

CODO CODO

How does Sierra Nevada approach innovation? Are you trend spotting (e.g. “hard teas seem to be having a moment, let’s try that out”) or is it recipe and beverage-lead?

Conor Conor

For us, it is a combination of consumer taste, market trends, and fermentation creativity; as long as something has providence and craftsmanship, we would explore it.

CODO CODO

Any book / podcast / website recommendations for brand managers at regional / national breweries to check out?

Conor Conor

I’m listening to the Talking to Ourselves podcast. It’s outside the craft category, but has a really nice point of view on marketing and branding in general.

Of Course I follow CODO and get quite a bit of info from your team as well. 

Build a stronger brand.
Sell more beer.

Join 5,000+ other beer industry folks and sign up for our monthly Beer Branding Trends Newsletter.