Marketing is often confused with promotion, but really, it's about much more than that. Marketing is about knowing and understanding your customers so well that your product or service fits them, and ultimately sells itself. In short, marketing is about insight above all else.
In the spirit of those insights, we present our Meet the Marketer series, where we discuss the careers and tactics of marketers behind industry-leading brands.
In this episode, we sit down with Ben Widseth, Vice President of Marketing at Green Flash Brewing Co., a trailblazing craft brewery headquartered in San Diego, California. With a well-established passion for marketing, Ben holds both agency and in-house experience. After starting his career with Ford Motor Company's dedicated agency, Team Detroit, formerly known as GTB, Ben spent several years at Leo Burnett working on both the Kellogg's and McDonald's accounts, before moving on to in-house marketing for Ally Financial, and then Anheuser Bush InBev, where he concentrated on brands such as Stella Artois and Shock Top. Now with Green Flash, Ben is focused on keeping craft beer fans thirsty for more as their brand continues to innovate with experimental, limited edition, and seasonal offerings, in addition to the renowned lineup of longtime favorites.
You started your career on the agency side. How has that helped you transition to the brand side?
Ben: Yeah. I think what the agency side really lended was really solving business problems through creativity. That sounds a little bit interesting, but I think since being on the marketing side for the past number of years, you really see that as a gap with a lot of traditional marketers, where they may have done different things, whether it be in the finance or consulting world, and they find themselves doing brand marketing, and commenting on a radio script or TV boards becomes a much harder exercise. So I think for me, that's been incredibly helpful, to have that background in understanding how a business problem turns into a creative brief, that turns into an idea, and nurtures its way through delivery.
Reid: Did you have to then transition to the marketing side? I mean, did you have to kind of regroup on some other finer points, as it relates back to the marketing side? Because I know on the agency side for me, I don't always know what the marketer does on their side, aside from approve our stuff. I mean, I know that, but the other pieces.
Ben: Sure. Yeah. So, I think from a marketing side, we were always kind of given the business problem, and then you ran with it from there. I think being on the marketing side, it's really understanding kind of what your business problems are, and then being able to clearly articulate that with your agency partners to help you solve it. That was another gap that I kind of ran into now, in retrospect. Of, you know, you'd get a lot of business problems from your brand managers, that I think were exactly that.
Ben: Where advertising may not be the correct tool or the correct format to really solve it. And so, those are the sorts of things that I think through now, as I go and interact with our agency partners.
Reid: Well, and so going back, as another part of your education is on the academic side.
Reid: So, you got your MBA at Michigan, and I'm sure that a lot of that was how to frame problems and a lot of other things. I mean, how do you apply what you learned then in school, to what you're doing now? Because that's a little bit different.
You have a MBA from Michigan in Economics. How do you apply what you learned in school to what you're doing now?
Ben: Yeah. No, it's certainly different. I think going into business school, what the biggest realization was, was really how diverse your classmates' backgrounds are. You know, I spent my entire career in advertising leading up to that, so I had the marketing/advertising side down. So once I started taking courses around those, I guess you'd call them harder skills, the finance, the strategy, the accounting, you know -
Reid: Definitely hard skills for me.
Ben: Exactly. Exactly. So that was more of a wake up call, as far as all the different functions that went into running a business. And so, coming out of business school, I think you then have an appreciation for the roles that all of these functions play relative to marketing, and you have a much more generalist type of perspective going into it.
Ben: So, when I'm making a decision or creating our plans, I try to think of all of the other functions that are involved, and how it impacts the business in total.
Reid: Yeah. Do you think it's important for marketers these days... You know, somebody who's listening right now, they go, "Man, I really need to get my MBA." I mean, do you think it's kind of a critical thing, or-
How critical is it for today’s marketers to earn their MBAs?
Ben: So, I think it's not as much critical as it is helpful.
Ben: If that makes sense. You know, I've seen a lot of really successful marketers never have that. For me, I think it was necessary, because I reached a point in my career that if I was looking to make the jump from advertising to marketing, an MBA would be the most effective way to make that jump, and then kind of hit the ground running as I started.
Reid: Yeah. So, then going from your MBA, then I think that's where you went into Ally Financial.
Reid: So, financial services. I know we want to get real quick into the beer part of things.
Reid: So, you went to then big beer. So, you know, big financial, big beer. Anheuser-Busch. How did that come about?
You went from financial services to beer, big beer, at Anheuser-Busch. How did that come about?
Ben: Yeah. So, I think what Ally offered was really an opportunity to see if marketing, the client side, was the right path for me. It was a really interesting proposition. It's basically building a brand from scratch. It was previously GM Financial that went bankrupt. The company spun off, and they rebuilt it as Ally. So, you know. You're at a part of a brand's life cycle that's really exciting. And so, after spending some time there, that kind of validated that marketing is something that I want to pursue as a kind of lifelong career. Then as I was going through business school, Anheuser-Busch kind of came into the picture. And really for me, the drive for a marketer, and I think for most marketers and advertisers, is you want to work on brands that people are passionate about, in the industries that people are passionate about. And in the world of consumer goods, there's a lot of those things, but when you kind of narrow it down to beer itself, everyone has an opinion. Trust me when I say, everyone has an opinion on beer. And so, there's of course upsides and downsides to working in an industry like that. But at the end of the day, I wanted to work in an industry that people cared about. And so, when AB started recruiting, I kind of zeroed in on them as the prime target that met that requirement.
Reid: Yeah. Well, and I'm sure. Like you say, everyone has an opinion. I think a lot of people's opinion is, "Beer must be fun." You know?
Reid: And I think that's certainly the knee jerk reaction to it in a lot of cases. But at the end of the day, it is still a business, and businesses have their challenges, so it can't be all fun and games.
Reid: Which, I know there is a lot of fun and games, but what are some of the biggest challenges in beer marketing?
What are some of the biggest challenges in beer marketing?
Ben: Yeah. I think right now, about a decade ago for beer, you know it was one of the most stable, predictable type of industries? There were only a few players in it. The style spectrum was pretty narrow. Fast forward 10 years later, San Diego has 160 craft breweries in the county, and then nationally, there's over 7,000 breweries in operation.
Ben: So, when you talk about this hyper competitive marketplace that you're walking into, it makes it really hard for a brand to stand out. Then, in addition to that, to all of these brands that are starting to pop up, you have different styles that are starting to become more popular.
Ben: You know, hard seltzers. White Claws. Trulys. Those are growing like crazy right now. And when you look at yourself as a craft brewer, you see some craft breweries chasing that trend. You see others who are holding firm. So, as a marketer, you really have to think about, "Are these trends worth chasing?"
Ben: You know?
Reid: Yeah. Now, and I wonder, it's probably the same answer isn't true for everyone, either, I would imagine, from a brand standpoint.
Reid: I mean, we were talking earlier about Hazys and things like that. And some beer brands don't want to pursue it, some do, to maybe go to uncertain consumers' palates.
Reid: But, they have a brand to live up to.
Reid: So, you know. I think that from that standpoint, I think when you work for big beer... We'll get into Green Flash specifically in a moment.
Reid: But on Anheuser-Busch, I mean, they had so many different ways to go. Probably some trends that they pursued, or acquisitions that they pursued. What were some of, from that standpoint, some of your fondest memories from that period of time?
What are some of your fondest memories from having worked at Anheuser-Busch?
Reid: Like things you learned, or experiences you had?
Ben: Yup, yup. First and foremost, and this may kind of sound cliché, but really it's the people, which is the fondest memory. The company did such a great job hiring not only really smart people, but people who were just good people in general. There are a ton of people who I still consider close friends of mine after leaving the company. I think one of the best things about working at a big company is being able to do big things, so when I first started at AB, literally the first day on the job, my boss came up to me. She was like, you know, "You're going to lead Shock Top's new brand refresh. So all of the packaging, all of the new beer, that's on you." And fast forward a year later, we were able to get it into the marketplace. You could see your work on the shelf. You could taste it. And I think that's just one of the most gratifying things that you could have, is have that tangible success in your hand.
Reid: Yeah. Well, and that's so much fun. On the agency side, on our side, too. All the different clients we work with are like, "Oh, there's one, and there's one."
Reid: So, sometimes that's a little bit of why you do it.
Reid: Just to kind of see the fruits of your labor, in that respect.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. The three straight Super Bowls also were a plus, too.
Reid: Well, and so elevating that a bit, I think from a passion standpoint. I mean, you were at Anheuser-Busch, or AB, for the last three years, prior to coming to Green Flash.
Reid: But you grew up in San Diego.
Reid: And I think that this was a bit of a homecoming, going from there to now back to San Diego. Why was this transition important to you?
You were at Anheuser-Busch for 3 years prior to joining Green Flash. Why was this transition important to you?
Ben: Yeah. I think you always have this perfect world situation, where you're able to go home to where you grew up, and be close to your family and friends. For me, that was important. I think what was just as important, though, was finding the right situation from a brewery standpoint, that kind of checked the boxes of the things that I was looking to do. And Green Flash is one of those legendary breweries that is in the fabric of San Diego craft beer, and when you have the opportunity to transition and work on a brand like that, most times you don't say no to it.
Reid: Does it still feel like home?
Ben: Oh, 100%. It's like I never left. You know, it's nice not having to answer those questions. When people ask you, you know, "Are you insane for leaving San Diego and living here?" Now I don't have to be asked that. Yeah.
Reid: Yeah. Well, and it's cool. I mean, you get to live up to that fabric of... You know, San Diego. Because, I mean, Green Flash, as we know, is such a San Diego beer brand.
Reid: And we identify... I think San Diego does... with the craft beer scene. So, kind of put those two things together. It's pretty powerful here on the local level, from that standpoint.
Reid: Now, still knowing that AB is huge. I mean, you left a job that was so many different resources. You talk about the phenomenal people there. What are the major differences, when you go from an AB to where we are here?
You went from big beer with tons of resources to something quite a bit smaller. What are the major differences?
Ben: Yeah, sure. You know, the obvious thing is resources.
Ben: You have a X, minute percentage of what you had at a company like AB. But really, from a work standpoint, for me it was really around prioritization and focus. You know. You don't have the types of resources where you could be wrong in what you're doing, and when I go into things, I want to make sure that you research it enough, that you have a high level of confidence investing in things. Because you only have so many things that you could invest in, and if you're wrong on even one of them, it could be pretty detrimental to the business. So it's really that idea, around making sure what you're doing is the right thing.
Reid: Well, okay. So, getting into... Because a big part of what you had to do when you got to Green Flash, I know was, as we talked about in your career, rebranding.
Reid: You know, the other... You've got other brands on your charge, though. You got Alpine.
Reid: So, I think we'll get into that. But both of these have different brand personalities, goals, that sort of thing. So, what did you find when you kind of arrived on the scene, for now Green Flash and Alpine and the business as a whole? What did you have to do first?
You have both Green Flash and Alpine under your charge – each with different brand personalities, goals, etc. What did you find when you arrived on the scene with both brands?
Ben: Yeah. So, I think it's really first understanding what consumer perception is of these brands. Working in marketing, you always want to have that pulse on where your brand is kind of oriented with your consumer base. And after doing that, it was very quickly made clear that these brands were in two totally different brand life cycles. Green Flash, as I mentioned, had kind of reached the pinnacle of craft beer. It was distributed in all 50 states. There was a super high positive sentiment with the brand. And then last year, there were some of those financial issues that the company ran into, and suddenly it fell off a cliff.
Ben: People thought that the company was out of business. People stopped buying our products, and we really fell off their awareness radar. So that was where Green Flash was, after doing some assessment. On the flip side and conversely, looking at Alpine, Alpine was almost this little brewing brand. You know, where they had made great beer for a long time. They had had these super loyal consumer bases, and now it was time to grow the brand, both from a sales and distribution standpoint, and also a brand standpoint. So, you have one that you're trying to kind of get back up in the upswing, and you have one that's just on the cusp of accelerating forward. So, I think from my standpoint, it was just first orienting myself with where these brands stood.
Reid: Yeah. Now, do you feel like from a career standpoint, that's the best time to come into a brand? I mean, there's something to be said for being on something that's already kind of got, it's staying the course. But you've been involved in a lot of rebrands.
Reid: I mean, this is kind of a cool spot to be in.
Ben: No, it's a great spot. It's certainly kind of betting on your skill set. There's no real safety net. If this doesn't work out, I can't just get rotated on to a different brand in the portfolio. But, you know, that's what I wanted. I think that when you have the opportunity to work on really big brands, the upside is that you could work on very big brands. The downside is that the changes that you make are very incremental.
Ben: Whereas when you come on to a smaller brand, you have a much higher opportunity to make a large impact. For me, that's what was really appealing.
Reid: So, on the Green Flash brand, to focus on that one for a second. What are you trying to do with the Green Flash brand?
Tell us about the Green Flash brand, what are you trying to do with it?
Ben: Yeah. So, for Green Flash it's really just reestablishing the brand in San Diego. You know, in craft beer especially, it's tremendously important that you have a solid foundation in your home market. When we were looking at all the measurables from a commercial standpoint, as far as sales and marketing and consumer insights, you saw that that was eroding under us. And so, the first order of business is to make sure that you are building that positive sentiment in your home territory, which is San Diego, and making sure that you're reconnecting your brand with consumers.
Reid: Well, so for listeners, I mean obviously I encourage, for beyond just the sales part of it... But go check out what the rebrand does look like, in a full line, full portfolio. Tell us about, for the sake of everyone who can't see it at the moment because they're driving on their commute-
Reid: ... like, what's the story? What story are we telling right now with the packaging?
Ben: Yeah. So, the packaging, if you're not familiar with their previous packaging, it was this very kind of modern, what I would call cold design. It was mostly black backgrounds that were used, and very graphic styles, with no real imagery. So, we actually wanted to go into the exact opposite direction. We wanted to modernize it, but then also reconnect it. And so, what you'll notice is each one of the cans and packaging that we use is an illustration that we see that connects back to San Diego. You know, our kind of headline West Coast IPA beer. It's really this beautiful coastal shot, that you don't even have to be from San Diego necessarily to connect with. It's just all about this idea of escapism, coastal, that sort of stuff, that we're trying to provoke or evoke with consumers.
Reid: And obviously, what's in the can is fantastic, and certainly-
Ben: Thank you.
Reid: I'm certainly biased, but I absolutely love it.
Ben: Thank you.
Reid: And I think that what you've done with the packaging really starts to distinguish itself on what it stands for.
Ben: Sure. Exactly. Thank you.
Reid: So, that's fun. I mean, now one of the other cooler things, which is unique for a brand like Green Flash, is now you've got this collaboration with Jameson.
Reid: I mean, collabs. Super hot right now, I think. But to have a brand like this, like Green Flash, partnered with a brand like Jameson, with such equity, but also such history and heritage.
Reid: How did a deal like this come about, and now how is it shaping up as kind of a win-win for these two brands?
One of the cooler things you have going right now is this collaboration with Jameson. How did that deal come about and how is that shaping up as a "win-win" for both brands?
Ben: Yup. So, Jameson rolled out a product called Jameson Caskmates IPA from their end. What it is, is their whiskey, that are aged on IPA beer barrels. So, it's kind of that reverse aging process that's happening. And so, they were already starting to build relationships nationally with craft brewers, through programs that they were doing regionally. We had had an existing relationship, more so to help promote their own Caskmates IPA whiskey. When I joined the team, there was someone who had brought up the idea of creating a beer that was made just for drinking in conjunction with whiskey. Not with whiskey in it, not aged on barrels, nothing like that. And so, those conversations really gained some momentum as we talked about it more, and one of the things that I'm really trying to impress on our team are doing things differently. You know, when you look at craft beer, lots of craft brewers, you know, of course have aged their beers on different sorts of barrels; whiskey barrels, scotch barrels, that sort of stuff. But no one's really done a beer that's designed to be drank with whiskey, that's not aged on anything. So, that was kind of where it started, and we kept... You know, we were the ones that were really pushing the agenda. From Jameson's perspective, we weren't a huge priority. But I think we imposed enough to make it a priority, and kind of willed this product into existence, which was really exciting to see to come to life. Ultimately, this wasn't a play about selling millions of barrels of beer. It was really to send a message to the marketplace, to say, "Hey, Green Flash is still in business. And not only are we still in business, big global brands like Jameson are willing to do collaborations with us." You know?
Ben: And so, we started receiving emails from our distributors. Retailers started actually calling us, asking for the product. So, it was really exciting to kind of see the strategy play out real-time.
Reid: Yeah. And for the sake of our listeners right now, thinking about stuff like this, you've got to do things differently in order to get a different result.
Reid: And empowering a team... Because I know when something like that happens, it's not like, "Oh, one day Ben came up with this idea." It is a big effort to make something like that happen.
Reid: How do you get everyone on board with something like that? I mean, you had to get Jameson on board, obviously.
Ben: Sure, sure.
Reid: But then internally, how do you get the buy-in like that?
Ben: No, that's a good question. Because I think when you arrive at a company that has kind of gone through what Green Flash has gone through, you have a lot of doubt, honestly, that's in the air, not only from the marketing team, but the total company. Around, "Yeah, this sounds great, but it will never happen."
Ben: And so, from my standpoint when I was at AB, you're in an environment where everyone's driving forward together, and believes in the brands, and that you could really do anything. And so, coming to Green Flash, and initially walking into an environment like that, it really re-grounded me, to say, "Okay, we really have to motivate people, and we have to show them that we can get a win under our belt, and make them believe in the brand."
Ben: And so, Jameson was kind of just the first big step for us to say to people, when things come across our desk and we say we're going to do it, we're going to do it, and it's going to happen. It's not going to be something like in the past, where we may have said we were going to do something and it didn't materialize."
Ben: You know?
Reid: And that's a big win. That's not a little win. That's a big one.
Reid: Big, bold, and ambitious, and that's cool.
Reid: Now, going on to the other side of the portfolio, from a brand standpoint, now let's talk about Alpine.
Reid: Now, how is that brand different, fundamentally different?
Now, with Alpine brewing, how is that brand different? How is that responsibility different?
Ben: Sure. So Alpine, what I would say is, when you look at the two brands from a consumer standpoint, we see Green Flash really as this kind of entry-level craft product beer for consumers. Alpine is really for more of those hop craft heads, who really understand beer. They're willing to pay a lot more money for beer. And for Alpine specifically, it's consumers who have grown up with the brand. It started actually back in 1999, so these are people that have a familiar connection with it. It's really grounded in outdoors, which is awesome for us, and everything about the brand is organic. You know, fishing. There's the Alpine Fishing Team, that really started from two guys who worked at Alpine who liked fishing, who started going out and just inviting anybody to join them, and they called themselves the Alpine Fishing Team. You know, they started up an Instagram account, and now there's thousands of people who are quote/unquote, "On the Alpine Fishing Team."
Ben: So, you have all these kind of shreds of things that make the brand really authentic. And so, for me and my team, it's really making sure that as we grow, that we keep intact those elements that make the brand authentic.
Ben: We don't want to lose that, and we certainly don't want to make it come off as gimmicky. Because as soon as you do that, especially in this space, with these types of Alpine consumers that you have... You know, it's done.
Ben: They'll move on.
Reid: So it's a different responsibility, in a way.
Ben: For sure.
Reid: It's not just a brand, but it's like a different mentality.
Ben: Huge responsibility.
Reid: So, I mean, then... You know, a lot of listeners probably have multiple brands to kind of keep within their portfolio, or keep separate. But you're one person.
Reid: So how do you spend your time on two different brands, and the responsibility associated with two different brands?
How do you allocate your time and mind share differently between two brands?
Ben: Yeah, it's honestly really hard. You know, on any given day, you're spending more time with one brand than the other. At any given program, you're spending more time than with another brand. And so, I think what I've found out that works really well is looking at everything as a portfolio, and understanding what are the plans for each one of the brands in totality, so you could plan accordingly. Every single person on my team works on both brands, so it's not feasible to think that you could kind of ping pong back and forth. It really does take a tremendous amount of planning. You have to have really strong plans, and then you have to... Again going back to the prioritization piece... You really have to prioritize. I think we've gotten much better at it. I think there's still room to be able to grow. But without planning, you're really going to not do very much on both brands, if you don't have that.
Reid: Yeah. Well, and one of the things I've seen in our time working with you as well, is how great of a job you do. Not just on the planning side, but part of... There's one thing to have a plan. Then the other part is communicating the plan, that people understand it, and have a passion for what's in it, and understand the strategy, the vision, and their role in it.
Reid: So you do a fantastic job, as I have seen you do it.
Ben: Oh, thank you.
Reid: Because as an agency, you sit on the other side of it. And we're not sitting next to you, or something like that. So, I feel like I really understand it, and the team really understands it. Now, where did you learn that? I mean, where did you learn that scaling capability, or is it just something you kind of had innately within you?
Ben: No. I think what's been great is that coming into this role at Green Flash and Alpine, it's really a mix of what I've done, or what I did over the past few years at Anheuser-Busch, which is really around marketing strategy and new product development, and learning and understanding the beer business, which is great. But then also going back to my roots in advertising, and being able to merge and use creativity to solve business problems.
Ben: And so, when I was able to match up both of those types of experiences, I felt very comfortable. It just felt like the right thing, coming into this role.
Reid: Yeah. So, been a year.
Reid: How's it going?
So, you’re now a year in at Green Flash. How’s it going?
Reid: I think it's going great. I mean, from my standpoint.
Ben: Yeah, no.
Reid: But how do you feel?
Ben: No, I appreciate it. I was actually reflecting on this question before I came down here, and I think the best answer was when I ran over to the brewery to go pick up beer... For those of you who aren't here, I apologize, but... You know. I picked up four cases of beer, and brought it down here with us.
Reid: And we're about halfway through it at this point. No.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. This is our 200th take right now. But really, it's we have a cold box that has all of our products and brands lined up. You know, it's a clear glass case. And when you look at it, and you see all the packaging and the new branding that we had done, that's kind of when it sinks in to you. Of, "Holy shit, we've done a lot in a year."
Ben: And, you know. It was extremely tiring. It required a lot of effort. But once you see that all lined up next to each other, it only motivates you more to continue to push forward.
Ben: So really, it was that moment as I was thinking about an answer to this question, that it sunk in.
Reid: Well, I mean, and that's again why we do it, and I think it's why some of us are crazy enough to want to do stuff like this.
Reid: But getting the wins that you've gotten, bit by bit, I imagine, just keep you going.
Reid: Because if it was a battle day in and day out, it maybe wouldn't be as fun. But getting those wins does make a big difference.
Reid: Now, looking forward. That's reflecting, but now looking forward.
Reid: How is the beer industry changing? I mean, is there anything that you really weren't expecting when you got into it, and where do you really see it going?
How is the beer industry changing right now?
Ben: Yeah, no. I think what the beer industry has proven since I've been in it is it's totally unpredictable.
Ben: You know, you see the better for you trends popping up all over the place with beer. And not only big beer, but certainly craft beer. That materializes itself even in the form of seltzers, in a lot of ways.
Ben: You know, we're not going to go into seltzers.
Ben: But that's not to say we're not thinking about those macro trends that are impacting the business, and thinking of ways to be able to create things that are authentic to the brands.
Ben: You know?
Reid: Well, I mean, and I think anyone in any category anywhere has to deal with the macro trends, and how it's going to affect their relationship with the consumer.
Reid: Because it starts to fragment a consumer's mind about other options, and things like that.
Reid: In another episode, we had Jeremy Stone from Titleist, and how is the golf industry changing. Or from Birkenstock, and kind of fashion trends. I mean, things are always changing.
Reid: So, for people to think that there's anything going to be static about any of this stuff... It probably wouldn't be as fun, actually, at the end of the day.
Ben: Yeah. No, no. I agree. I agree. It keeps you going.
Reid: Yeah. So, and I think as this continues to go, we're going to have to open some more beers-
Reid: And I do appreciate. So, for listeners, definitely you've got to go check out obviously the rebrand, and see what's happening there. Check out the Alpine Fishing Team, if that's something you're into as well.
Ben: Oh, yes.
Reid: So, Ben, really appreciate you joining us. I know listeners got a lot out of it, so thank you.
Ben: Great. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
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