Brand Loyalty – A Conundrum

I tend bar in a great pub. We brew beer (a lager) on site, serve almost entirely craft beer on tap, and host some great live music. The pub is situated in East Van, more specifically on East Hastings St. a couple of blocks east of Main in Vancouver BC. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Vancouver, let’s say that puts the pub on the edge of what would be a… rough part of town. Hastings and Main is a notorious intersection, well known for a high volume of drug (mostly crack) activity, rampant homelessness, ample prostitution, and general sketchyness, especially to an outsider. Being a couple blocks east of Main St. actually puts the pub on the outer limits of the rougher area, somewhere in the transition between Crackton and the rest of East Van. The management of the pub has done a commendable job of making Pat’s Pub a safe, positive environment that celebrates it’s history and heritage. It makes the pub a less desirable place for the more unsavoury characters of the neighbourhood to be, and really makes it a real gem for the area.

I recently worked my first “Welfare Wednesday” since starting at Pat’s. In case you’re confused, “Welfare Wednesday” would be the day everyone receives their social assistance cheques and seems to be in a great hurry to go out on the town. The atmosphere is actually a fairly jovial one. Lots of off-sales, lots of shots, people generally happy that a burden has been (however temporarily) lifted. What I found most surprising (and really I shouldn’t have, giving it any real thought) was a general stubbornness when it comes to beer choice. On any other night I have no problem talking someone into trying one of the many fantastic craft brews we have on tap. For one our price point for craft beer is relatively low compared with most bars in town. Conversely our price point for regular domestic brews is not great. A pint (20 ozs by legal definition) of our house lager runs $5, a pretty good deal. Our feature tap runs at $6 and all other craft pints $6.50 which would normally be closer to $7+ most other places. Our domestic bottles are $5 and draught $6/pint which is easily a dollar higher than most other bars in the area.

Normally I have little to no resistance when making a suggestion about beer choice. You’d like a domestic pint? Well, I’ve got Molson for $6, but our house lager is $5 and a very comparable product, in fact it has no chemical or preservatives and is made in small batches to ensure quality. Great a pint of the lager then! No, well I’ve got a IPA on special for $6, the same price, and you’re getting 6.5% ABV instead of %5. On absolutely any other day of the month it’s no contest. If you’re on a budget and looking for a few pints of something easy to drink, just like Molson, the house lager is an easy sell. If you’re looking to get a good buzz on, you’ll actually be getting more value for your dollar by choosing a higher ABV alternative for just a little more. On Welfare Wednesday however, either of those suggestions got me looks like I was from Mars.

I sold more Budweiser and Molson Canadian this Wednesday than I probably do in a week. Not a thing I could say would make people stray from their old standbys. I know it shouldn’t be all that shocking, but I just wasn’t prepared. To me, beer is about drinking something you enjoy and enjoying what you’re drinking. It’s about finding new favourites and trying new varieties. I love seeing a beer on tap that I’ve not seen before. I love to see a new brewery make it to a local pub. But that’s my perspective, and I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised because my general outlook typically centres on trying something new, if only once. I love new experiences, new adventures, and I know finding those means keeping an open mind. The expectation that everyone would be as willing to try something new I now see is ridiculous. Some people aren’t looking for something new. That’s not why they came to the pub in the first place. They came to the pub to have some beer, shoot some pool, and have a laugh with friends. Expecting them to see things from my perspective is, or was, equally narrow-minded on my end.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe that brand loyalty is a bad thing. Of course I have favourite brewers, and certainly favourite brews. There are some brewers that, when I see them on a menu, I will try no matter what the beer is. There are also some I will always be skeptical about due to disappointing past experiences. If consumers had no loyalty to brewers they liked and trusted, those small brewers would never get a chance to grow and thrive. I know from working for so many years in the service industry that customer loyalty is crucial to the success of a business. Without it, a business has no security, no future.

So where does that leave us? Where is the line to be drawn? I guess what it comes down to is that different consumers have different roles. Without those willing to experiment, nothing new would ever see the light of day. Without those willing to pledge their loyalty to their trusted favourites, there would be no lasting success for any business. So drink what you’d like, whether old or new. If the intentions are good, who am I to judge?

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