How Grassroots Marketing Put This Craft Brewery On Tap for Success

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This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Start Up. Subscribe »

"If it ain't fun, I ain't doin' it."

That's the business mantra that guided Meg Gill and Tony Yanow while building their Los Angeles-based craft brewery. In a little more than two years, Golden Road Brewing has become a $15 million-plus business with 155 employees.

Gill credits her first boss in the beer industry, Dale Katechis, founder of Lyons, Colo., brewery Oskar Blues, for this approach to business and for giving her the responsibility, at age 22 and with no industry experience, to become Oskar Blues' first California market manager.

"It was my job to open the West Coast market to craft beer in a can, which was, at the time, still very controversial," Gill says of Oskar Blues' signature aluminum packaging. According to Katechis, Gill built up the market from nothing to 8 percent of the brewery's overall sales. That success--as well the local wholesale distributor contacts that came with it--convinced Gill that she could strike out on her own.

In 2011, she connected with a brewmaster to make the beer, and with Yanow, who two years earlier had opened Tony's Darts Away, a thriving craft-beer pub in suburban Burbank. Yanow drew on his experience to persuade Gill that Los Angeles was one of the biggest overlooked craft-beer markets left in the country.

"There was a bar in Santa Monica and one in the Los Feliz district that specialized in craft brews," Yanow says. "But that was really it. When I first opened Darts Away on a Tuesday afternoon, there was a line out the door. There was a huge demand for good beer in L.A."

Gill adds that at the time, the wholesale beer distributors in Los Angeles weren't very receptive to craft beers. "It was my job to convince them," she says.

And convince them she did, eventually getting shelf space for cans--yes, cans--of Golden Road's Hefeweizen and Point the Way IPA in Whole Foods Market, Costco, Vons, Ralphs, Albertsons and Trader Joe's, and taps hooked up at Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, the Forum and Los Angeles International Airport. (LAX is now the brewery's No. 1 account.)

"Everything came together very quickly," Yanow says. "We signed a lease for our brewery, and within six weeks, we had our equipment installed. Then three months later, we were brewing beer. That's a process that usually takes more than a year."

Yanow and Gill credit the brewery's success to the quality of their product and the generosity of a partner who supplied ample funding (they wouldn't reveal how much) to help set up the business. But credit also has to go to Gill's ability to crack Southern California's distribution network and to her guerilla-marketing skills. "Grassroots marketing with zero budget--it's all I know," she says.

Gill's savvy has led to some unique product placement, such as Golden Road being featured prominently in an episode of Comedy Central's sitcom Workaholics. The idea evolved from a chance meeting between Gill and Anders Holm, one of the show's stars, at the swim practice they attend in Pasadena (both were collegiate swimmers).

Gill also has taken an active role in sponsoring events--supplying a keg or two of beer to high-profile charity functions and sporting events to increase name recognition and get people to try Golden Road's brews. It all adds up to an aggressive strategy that catches distributors' attention. "Meg understands how wholesalers and retailers play," Yanow says.

Additionally, Gill has worked out a shortcut to take Golden Road national by partnering with HMSHost, which manages airport-restaurant concessions around the country. "By the end of the year, you should be able to find Golden Road at airports in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and across Florida," she says.

None of this surprises her former boss at Oskar Blues. "She has an infectious personality, but she's also aggressive, a great learner, and she executes," Katechis says. "And she's having fun."

No money down

Launching a brewery is a capital-intensive proposition, according to Meg Gill, co-founder of Golden Road Brewing. "And if you're planning to scale up quickly, you need even more money to get started," she says. "Then, once you get going, all the cash flow goes into the product. There's nothing left for marketing." Sound like your startup? Don't worry; follow Gill's lead on zero-budget marketing to grow your business.

Work your business partners, vendors and even your customers for new business leads. "Everyone knows someone who knows someone," Gill says. "You just need to keep asking."

Be prepared to stand up for your product. "To get established in Costco, I would do four to eight appearances in stores every weekend to talk about the beer," Gill says. While she can't exactly pinpoint how much more beer she sold during her stops,
that was never the point. It was to leave a good impression on the store managers who now regularly stock Golden Road on their shelves.

Donate your product to a fundraiser or other event that will generate good will and free publicity, particularly when it's being supported by a vendor or distributor you've targeted. "If I knew a distributor was supplying beer for an event, I'd ask them if they could throw in a couple kegs of my beer with the delivery," Gill says. "That showed the distributor that I was willing to spend money (in beer kegs) to promote my beer, and it made them more willing to work with me in the future."

Target the influencers. "We didn't have salespeople when we started," Gill says. "But we did have a part-time social media person whose job was to identify and reach out to the beer geeks, those early adopters who were super social media savvy. They helped get the word out and that led to new accounts."

No-budget marketing hall of fame

"Creative ideas trump Super Bowl-sized budgets every time," says Suzanne Fanning, president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a best-practices group based in Chicago. For proof of that adage, check out our picks for the best low- to no-cost advertising wins of the past.

Newcastle Brown Ale: Instead of spending millions for a Super Bowl ad during the 2014 game, this U.K.-based beer company (owned by Heineken) hired actress Anna Kendrick to star in a profanity-laced parody video posted on YouTube that bleeped out the trademarked phrase "Super Bowl" every time.

Columbia Sportswear: This Portland, Ore.-based outdoor-apparel manufacturer paid for TV ad time in the 1980s and early 1990s, but its role as the official outerwear supplier of CBS Sports' broadcast teams for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, significantly increased its profile. Company insiders claim that the hundreds of hours of free TV exposure over those two weeks contributed to 33 percent revenue growth between 1993 and 1994.

Blendtec: Seven years ago, the gang at this Orem, Utah-based blender manufacturer launched the no-frills "Will It Blend?" campaign in which founder Tom Dickson took everyday objects, stuck them in one of the company's blenders and let the blades fly. The series became a YouTube sensation; the ad in which Dickson blends an iPad amassed more than 17 million views alone.

Jelly Belly: The jelly bean company in Fairfield, Calif., had no idea Ronald Reagan was a fan until he mentioned the sugary snacks as his secret to quitting smoking. While the company downplays the connection, there's no denying that Reagan's unofficial presidential endorsement was huge; Jelly Belly became a household name during his tenure, and a special White House jar of the candies with the presidential seal became his signature gift to world leaders wherever he traveled. --Matt Villano

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