An unexpected lesson in brand authenticity

July 2012

Travelling on a rather long train journey between Inverness and Newark in Nottinghamshire this week, I pondered the topic for this month’s comment as I gazed out the window on a landscape which progressively changed from mountain to flat field. I reached my destination in Newark some 7 hours after leaving Inverness, but with no clear idea in my mind for what to write about (though I should say that I didn’t spend the entire journey thinking about it – I also managed to knock out a hefty pile of landing pages for my kitchen client’s new website, plus caught up on rather a lot of reading).

With my client meeting not until the following morning and having checked into the hotel by 3.30pm, I had more than a few hours to kill in this historic market town. So in urgent need of a beer or two after my somewhat epic train journey, I headed for the nearest pub serving real ale. Stood at the bar and quickly relaxing with a pint of something obscure from an equally obscure microbrewery, I got chatting to a chap spending his afternoon in similar fashion.

However, I was soon bored with the conversation and fearing I might have stumbled upon Newark’s most notorious weirdo, I enquired what other real ale pubs there were in the town. “The Just Beer pub down the road is good and only serves real ale” he told me. So promptly finishing my pint and now noting that he was actually drinking Guinness and therefore probably wouldn’t follow me, I was off out of the door and heading for the recommended hostelry. 

Walking into Just Beer I knew I’d entered a pub like no other I’d ever been into – and I’ve been in a few (read ‘many thousand’). It was small, distinctly ‘blokey’, and with an eclectic mix of décor, furniture and memorabilia. I instantly loved it.  

What I hadn’t at this stage quite grasped though was that this was not only a very unusual pub, but also one which was an example of a whole new concept in pubs – a ‘micropub’ which just sold real ale. But soon in conversation with the chap behind the bar and with the other afternoon drinkers (I had a good excuse for being there – not sure what theirs was), I got the concept and also learnt that there were now around a dozen such micropubs in the country.  

Asking what brought me to Nerwark, I was inevitably explaining to Phil – the chap behind the bar and also one of four partners who owned and ran the business – what I did for a living. Phil then asked me what I thought to their ‘branding’, but I immediately realised he was referring to their visual identity. I told him I thought it looked great (and it does), but went on to say that actually branding is about far more than logos and colours, but about strategy; an experience; and, ultimately, how you differentiate your offer – in this case against other local pubs.  

I then went on to say to Phil that what he and his three business partners had created was truly brilliant because it was a lesson in authentic branding. This wasn’t a contrived effort to create something unique by a large pub chain, but  something entirely special dreamed-up by a group of normal guys wanting to earn a living but perhaps not in the most conventional way. I also knew my instinct was right, when Phil told me that they hadn’t started with a clear business plan, but instead the pub had “sort of happened and evolved”.  

The latter might have been a risky strategy if Phil and his mates had wanted to start up a new ship yard, but they hadn’t: this was a small pub where doing something instinctive and personal was going to play a major part in the success of the venture. 

And it has been a successful venture, with Just Beer winning CAMRA’s Nottinghamshire pub of the year award for 2012.  

I left the pub knowing that a) I had the subject for my July comment, and b) that, sometimes, you don’t need someone like me to map-out brand strategy for a business to excel in its market. Just Beer is a lesson in brand authenticity because it has been driven by passion and a very clear vision. It works because it has four individuals behind it who all share that passion and vision, and the fact that none of them probably have much idea about brand strategy doesn’t matter a jot. There’s also another absolutely fundamental reason why their micropub concept works: they serve you the beer. Why’s that important? We’re talking about a small and personal environment here, and one where any conversation may well be with the chap behind the bar and involve the, rather inevitable, subject of beer – e.g. its colour, its aftertaste, its ABV, its provenance etc. So not much point employing an attractive female student to pull your pints then… 

My experience in Just Beer also makes me smile now, as I know that the very concept of micropubs will dictate that they can only ever be successfully owned and run on an individual basis. As Phil rightly put it “I can’t be in two places at once”.  

So if you love real ale and you fancy a day out, then you’d do a lot worse than head for Newark and a few hours in Just Beer (and, actually, Newark is a decent enough and fairly interesting town to spend a day anyway). And even if you don’t like real ale (and if you don’t then you probably haven’t drunk enough of it) but you’re looking to understand what makes a brand truly authentic, then take the trip all the same.

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