PR Lesson from the “Dark Lord”: Brand Ambassadors Are Forgiving Sorts
If there’s one thing today’s consumers have become accustomed to (and unhappy about) seeing in their shopping adventures, it’s rising prices. It seems like every industry is affected by it – auto, food service, clothing… even beer. Luckily for craft brewers in the United States, the last few years have brought a groundswell of support and growth. Many craft breweries even have legions of loyal fans (or “brand ambassadors and enthusiasts” as you may call them) that willfully support their brewery through the toughest of times. These enthusiasts can be the key to avoiding negative buzz – as proven when Three Floyds Brewing Co. recently changed the pricing of their signature annual event.
One day a year, people from across the world travel to the small town of Munster, Indiana for a festival that centers around Three Floyds’ “Dark Lord,” an incredible Russian Imperial Stout that is the envy of beer geeks everywhere (second-hand sales of the beer have been known to reach many hundreds of dollars). Three Floyds is well-known for making extremely high-quality, unusual craft beer and the brand has grown a cult following.
This year, I had the opportunity to go to my first Dark Lord Day, held on the last Saturday of April. As an avid fan of Three Floyds, it’s been on my “to do” list for some time because of the stories I’ve heard. “Word of mouth” marketing has totally gripped me, thanks to close friends who have previously attended and accounts written by multitudes of beer bloggers.
The event itself is rather unremarkable to the casual observer: long lines, expensive beer and loud music – all hallmarks of a typical concert. The thing that sets Dark Lord Day apart is the excitement surrounding the brand, the prestige of attending the event and the camaraderie that goes on inside the gates. Friends and strangers alike stand around sharing samples of extremely rare beers, some of which have aged for years or are worth hundreds of dollars. Festival-goers describe the craft breweries of their region and talk about the kinds of foods they enjoy pairing them with.
For the longest time, Three Floyds took a grassroots approach to growing the excitement for their yearly event: keep prices relatively low, but limit ticket sales and the bottle allotment of Dark Lord. Prior to this year, tickets to the event were just $15, but only 3,000 were available. Each person could count on four bottles of Dark Lord at $15 each.
However, in 2013 the brewery decided to double the size of the event: twice as much space with twice as many attendees. To offset their increased costs, Three Floyds bumped ticket prices to $30. Beer prices remained the same, with one catch: attendees were only able to purchase three bottles this year instead of four – a detail that was not divulged until one hour before the gates opened to the event.
Charging higher ticket prices for less beer? In most industries, the reaction to such changes would be outrage. Three Floyds had groomed expectations into their loyal fans. Standing in line to enter the gates and hearing the news, I prepared for the worst.
It never came.
The overwhelming consensus was mild disappointment mixed with understanding. Three Floyds had long held out on raising ticket prices and lowering the bottle allotment – and to their benefit. By the time it finally happened, no one was particularly upset. To nearly everyone (including me), the experience was still worth much more than they were paying. And, more importantly, any naysaying was quickly overruled by our very vocal and social community.
Three Floyds could easily sell tickets to Dark Lord Day for exponentially more than what they have been charging. People would still shell out the cash and tickets would still sell out in three minutes. By treating their customers so well for so long and by building a critical mass of intrigue around their event, Three Floyds was easily able to avoid what could’ve been a PR nightmare. That’s the power of building passion and creating a core audience of enthusiasts.