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November 30, 2007
A religious devotion to an unlabeled beer
What does a cult brand look like? Well, here's one example.
A religious order of silent monks in Belgium creates a cult beer. It's called Westvleteren. You must make an appointment to buy it. To make an appointment, you call the monks' Beer Phone. Yes, it's called the Beer Phone. The monks may talk while on the Beer Phone. You may buy only two cases at a time. The beer is sold once per month. The monks do not advertise, nor do they label the bottles. They make 60,000 cases per year; that's 5,000 cases per month, or 120,000 bottles. Texas Stadium probably sells 120,000 units of beer every Sunday. Tales abound of people driving 16 hours across parts of Europe for a beer run. Some experts call it the best in the world. The monks believe, truly, that they "sell beer to live, and not vice versa."
Besides being what people describe as an excellent beer, Westvleteren has developed into a cult brand based on its rituals. All of the items mentioned above are ritualistic. Make an appointment. Call the Beer Phone. Two-case limit. No label. A regular release schedule. A unifying belief system. However they're defined and practiced, rituals embody culture. They are symbolic expressions of a company's values.
For organizations not religiously grounded as Trappist monks, rituals can be simple, like consistently observing dates in company history or paying public homage to goals attained. More elaborate rituals may involve meeting or surpassing milestones focused on quality. No matter what, corner-cutting is heresy.
A cult brand like Westvleteren is created by people religiously devoted to their craft. The monks in Belgium are serious about their business, but they do not obsess over maximizing profit or monetizing eyeballs. They do not do brand extension. They embrace scarcity as a necessary component of quality, thereby ensuring future value. Just as the Wii is a cult hit because it is an excellent product that's not easy to buy, so too with an unlabeled beer that's been religiously produced for 170 years.
After all, cult is the root of culture. It is culture that creates a cult brand.
Update: Another benefit of living in Austin: cool people like blogger and beerologist John Moore, who generously gave me a Westvleteren from his personal collection. How's it taste? As John says, first I must chill it to 55 degrees Fahrenheit...
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The funny thing is that these monks, called Trappists, have 6 monasteries in Belgium (Westfleteren, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Achel and Westmalle). They all brew trappist beer according to the same process but Westfleteren is the only monastery which doesn't sell through the normal distribution channels. All six beers are excellent but Westfleteren is the one with cult status. Amazing what a limitation of your offering can do for your brand immage.
As a Belgian living outside of his country I am almost inclined to say that these beers are the things I miss most about my country.
Makes perfect sense. They're monks. Just like no one can make an apple pie that rivals your grandmother's, there is no need to be practical, efficient, examine proit-making potential, etc. But a "brand", this beer isn't. I would say it's just wildly popular, considering...
Great case study of what Bob Cialdini would call, "exclusivity" as a pillar of influence. I can't speak from personal experience about this particular beer, but I am a raving evangelist for Chimay.
The thing that strikes me in this story is that I'm not sure this particular "brand" is trying to be a "brand." It's entirely possible that I have no idea what I'm talking about here, not being a monk myself (and many wish I would take a vow of silence), but I think we have to consider a few salient points. They're monks. It's traditional. They do it to be self-sufficient. I'm not convinced this is part of a grand branding strategy. We clever marketers have probably put a label on this activity that they may never have considered.
But the psychology works in their favor, per the point above. Maybe we can just learn from that.
Mimi -- Guess it comes down to one's definition of a brand. For the monks, it's more than a hobby but less of an all-consuming profession.
Stephen -- As Kristof said (and beer nerd John Moore told me this morning over coffee), there are similar offerings from other Trappist monasteries in Belgium. Like you, I believe it's the rituals of exclusivity that have fomented (fermented?) Westy's cult status.
Ben ... now that you have a bottle of Westy 8, I'm expecting tasting notes from you. Righty-O?
For those wanting to taste a "poor man's Westvletern." consider St. Bernardus. The St. Bernardus Abt 12 is similar to the Wesvleteren 12.
I had a friend come back from a trip to Belgium over the summer with tales of discovering this very beer. He described it as one of the best beers he's ever had. Now to find a way of getting it here in the states.
Steven -- I asked the same thing of John Moore. His answer: eBay.
Great story, however I must say that there is no marketing (as we define it as professionals) involved in here.
The monks have calculated how much beer they need to sell to "make a living" and that's the quantity that's sold on a yearly basis.
All the rest (the appointment making, the beer phone and so on) is a result from this limited supply. So it's cultinizing (not sure if this is the correct English term) itself.
I'll be making my appointment next month for my yearly case next week!
I read the same WSJ article the other day. As a beer fan and an occasional home-brewer, my first thought was... road trip! As a marketer, however, I was thinking 'gee, these guys are leaving so much money on the table... Budweiser should buy 'em out. Ramp up production. Swap in some cheaper ingredients (no one will notice) to drive down cost. Maybe change the name to something more accessible (Bud, perhaps?). Then they'd REALLY be in business, eh!'.
Kurt -- I love what the monks do. They may not see it as marketing, but their lens is different than mine :)
What a wonerful article. The beer aficiondos at Library of Beer will be delighted to read it. I'll set up a link your your blog today.
Joe (Dec 1, 2007 5:39:24 PM),now you know why Bud resembles making love in a canoe. It's both f*kcing close to water
of course it is "brand" and of course it is marketing.
The idea of a cult brand is great! The limited access really adds to cult-like status because not enough people can get their hands on the product, and they have to rely on what they hear. If only marketing could be more successful this way so that there would be less advertisements.
Martin -- Many thanks for the link at the Library of Beer. Love that name.
Peter -- Heh!
Chris -- No ads? We can dream.
It's all about feeling SPECIAL. When you can create that exclusive "special" feeling you've got 'em. When you can create it over and over again - that's a WOW.
The fact they can ONLY talk when they are taking an order adds to the mystique.
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Very intersting. This is exactly why I started to brew my own beer. It's been a long learning process but I can now brew a 5 gal. batch of trappist ale for about $27. Yum :P