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Tapping into the Beer Industry: Neal Stewart on his IMC journey as an established master of marketing

“My job was to remove staples from documents so they could be electronically scanned,” Neal Stewart (M.S. IMC, 2018) said. “Seriously, my job was to remove staples.” 

Stewart has come a long way since his temp job with Texas Workers Compensation in 2000. Now VP of Marketing at Deschutes Brewery, the St. Louis native has spent nearly 20 years in the beer marketing business-- and it all began with Pabst Brewing Company. 

In 2000, Pabst was experiencing its 23rd straight year of declining sales. But anything was better than being a staple-remover, so Stewart submitted his application for a marketing job with the brewing company. After a couple of interviews with no offer, he was ready to pack his bags and move home to St. Louis. When Pabst Brewing Company finally called him up, neither party knew quite how the partnership would change both of their trajectories.  

Stewart was eventually promoted to manager of the company’s flagship-- and struggling-- brand, Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR’s most successful year was 1977 when they produced 18 million barrels of beer, but over time they lost 90 percent of those sales. At the brand’s low point in 2001, the remaining customers hailed largely from Portland, Oregon. 

PBR’s typical consumer base of older men was giving way to a new clientele of anti-mainstream consumers (hipsters) that wanted a $1-per-can beer. When Blitz Beer went out of business, bars in Portland replaced it with PBR, and Stewart saw this as the perfect opportunity to turn things around.  

So, why did hipsters like PBR so much? “They could define what it meant,” Stewart said. “The mission became clear: replicate what was happening in Portland around the rest of the country.”  

And how do you do that without upsetting the anti-marketing, hipster consumer base? You hire them to do it for you. This was influencer marketing before “influencer marketing” became the social phenomenon that it is today. Stewart hired hipster PBR drinkers, schooled them on the beer business and sent them into bars in select cities to discretely win over the customers and the bar owners. By 2006, PBR had become one of the fastest-growing brands and had nearly doubled all sales from the weakest point in 2001.  

Just as brewing technology advances, so does the demand for good advertising and storytelling. According to Stewart, the companies that always “win” are the ones that develop unique ways to share their brand with their teams, distributors, retailers and consumers. And that’s different for each company Stewart has worked for – from large conglomerates to small craft breweries. 

Just as PBR catered to the individuality of hipsters in the early 2000s, each of Stewart’s approaches to brand marketing comes from an equally unique source, considering three overarching “truths” at the forefront of decision making: brand truth, consumer truth and cultural truth. Stewart has been able to define those truths and find a special way to promote each company he’s worked for through a variety of different mediums.  

At Dogfish Head, Stewart’s marketing team leveraged founder Sam Calagione’s personable demeanor to connect with the audience through a series of online videos. In one, he discusses the company’s innovative, step-by-step approach to brewing. In another, Calagione takes an in-depth look at Dogfish Head’s collaboration with The Flaming Lips where they created, “Dragons & YumYums,” the first beer to have its own set of theme songs.  

Rainier Beer, a popular Seattle-based beer from the 70s, made a comeback by returning to the kitschy commercials that feature walking Rainier beer bottles and the iconic glowing red “R.” Stewart’s team appealed to their customers’ nostalgia, which increased engagement and, in turn, increased sales. 

Stewart began working for Flying Dog Brewery in March 2006, the same exact month that Twitter was founded. They rode the Twitter wave, becoming one of the top 20 brands on the platform across all industries. Flying Dog’s sales increased 15% that year and 25% the next. 

Stewart has faced beer branding challenges, as well. “Every brand requires a different strategy,” he said. “The beer business tends to be a bit of a copycat industry, and I’ve seen several brands try to mimic something that’s working for another brand only to find it wasn’t authentic to theirs and fail.”    

While Stewart was making his mark on the evolving brewing industry, the marketing and advertising fields were evolving, too – and the need for a master’s degree intensified. “Most of my training has come on the job,” Stewart said. “It always bothered me not to have a graduate degree because it could prevent me from maximizing my career potential.”  

Stewart began studying Integrated Marketing Communications in 2016, taking electives that centered around creative strategy. When thinking of the most important lesson he’s learned throughout the program, he believes it is the thorough understanding of goals, objectives, strategies and tactics.  

“IMC plays a huge role in the changes to the beer industry because brand building, marketing, internal communications, external communications and everything else in the WVU IMC curriculum is what will separate the successful breweries from the other ones,” Stewart said.  

Two decades ago, there were nearly 2,000 American breweries and that has since grown to 8,000 — more than existed before prohibition. Stewart recently packed up and moved across the country to work for Deschutes, a mid-size brewery that has to compete with that growth. But he's up for the challenge, armed with an IMC master’s degree.  

 “In our business, we just call it marketing,” Stewart said. “The term ‘Integrated Marketing Communication’ is not widely used but it should be because integration across functions, customers and consumer touchpoints is so incredibly important. 

“Consumers will continue to love local brands and the large international conglomerates will continue to invest in smaller craft breweries. In the past couple of years, everything has changed, and brewers are beginning to understand the importance of IMC.” 

What is your personal motto? 
It's not so much a motto, but I really believe in Occam's Razor, which is a philosophical principle that states something along the lines of "if there is a simpler way to do something, it's probably the right choice." 

What is one word to describe yourself?
Disruptive - this has been true for a long time.  

What is your favorite beer? 
I don't really say that I have a "favorite beer" because it depends on what I'm doing and what kind of mood I'm in.  I prefer to say that I have a "go-to beer" and that tends to evolve over time.  Right now my "go-to beer" is called Lil' Squeezy, which is brewed here at Deschutes.  We call it a "Juicy Pale Ale" because it's hoppy but not as high of an ABV (alcohol by volume) as most IPAs.  It's also a gluten-reduced beer but you would never know it.  It's really good.  

What’s your favorite aspect of your job/this industry?  
The beer industry never stops evolving.  Right when you think you have it figured out, consumer behavior changes or some sort of new technology emerges.  I also love being involved in new product development, which is a function I played a role in at Dogfish and now at Deschutes.  Innovation is critical right now because consumers want to experiment with new brands and are demanding more from their beer.  That's a challenge, but with every challenge comes an opportunity. 

What is your favorite campaign that you’ve worked on? 
My favorite campaign is the RainierVision campaign that I covered in my INTEGRATE presentation.  I loved working on that campaign for several reasons.  First of all, I really love the Rainier brand because it has such a rich history of iconic advertising.  Second, every element was integrated and creative.  From the website to the advertising to the media plan to the PR, everything was connected and maximized the budget.  Finally, I loved the people who worked on this campaign.  15 years later, I'm still good friends with many of them.