This economic hard times theory of mine is taking its lumps in Japan - along with the sales of beer. But perhaps there are good reasons for beer not to be the affordable luxury in some circumstances, as Australia's ABC News reports:
...Japan's declining economy shifted corporate structure and it doesn't require workers to drink together any more," Temple University professor Ron Carr said. "When I first came here in the early '90s there were still so many drunken salarymen at the end of the year, drinking beer and spilling out on the streets. I've seen a huge decline in all that," he added. That was before Japan's bubble economy burst in 1989, throwing the country into years of economic stagnation. The period left its mark on young Japanese who, analysts say, tend to spend carefully after witnessing the 1980 bubble economy crumble...
Interesting to note a few other things. In addition to the end to the boomer era of public and social climbing alcohol abuse, there is a trading down going on to those yummy sounding third-category beer-like beverages we have discussed before - Asahi reports cheaper alternative beer sales are up 17 per cent. In addition to these cheapskate kids, there is also a drop in birth rate and resulting shift towards an older population less interested in beer - but it's that rejection of the past that is most interesting.
It is always unwise to extrapolate a theory to a different culture, especially one as unfounded as my half-based idea that beer should represent the affordable luxury in a downturn. But, within any culture, where a stigma gets associated with any product, like the weird drunken salarymen culture, it's hard to shake it. When you think about it, the same applies to the German premier who considers that knocking back two litres of beer before driving is a car just fine. These phenomena represent what disco was to punk, what buggy whips were to cars, what video blogging was...well, what it just was: a bad idea no one needs to embrace anymore.
Lesson? Maybe it's that good beer makers must manage their image intelligently to ensure differentiation from macro-beer accentuates differentiation from perceptions related to macro-beer. So, just as there is a risk of snobbery in positioning as "the new wine" there is also the risk of debasement in positioning by positioning craft beer as "the beer you'll like better". Tremblay and Tremblay in their book The US Brewing Industry note how micro brewers, other than Sam Adams, have not embraced mass advertising, relying on other ways to get the word out. Maybe in doing so they are enforcing the message that they are not in the same market as macro-beer...or even wine. By enforcing disassociation, they may be avoiding the risky implications of the past, the unshakable implications such as those that are turning people off in Japan. After all, no one wants an affordable luxury that reminds them of even worse times.