Can chutzpah build a brand? Greg Schirf is betting the head off his lager that it can.
Starting a brewery in teetotaling Utah sounds about as smart as trying to sell pig's feet to a kosher deli. "If I had any brains, I would have stayed in Milwaukee, where people drink as a way of life and my friends could make me rich," says Greg Schirf, founder of Schirf Brewing Co., maker of Wasatch beers, in Park City, Utah. Instead Schirf declared Utah a brewer's holy land and proceeded to found not just a company but an entire industry. Before Wasatch opened its doors in 1986, there hadn't been a brewery in Utah for more than 20 years. With good reason, one might suppose. But Wasatch's counterintuitive location and its owner's predilection for regularly infuriating just about everyone have paid off consistently.
Admirers might call Schirf's in-your-face advertising and marketing strategies -- which typically poke fun at the local culture -- irreverent and playful. But those are probably not the first words that come to mind at the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which have both been mightily offended by the brewery owner's over-the-edge advertising campaigns. That's OK with Schirf, whose politically incorrect tactics -- in an era of ever increasing political correctness -- have helped grow his company into a profitable $5.8-million microbrewery and brewpub that have garnered international media attention, not to mention impressive local market share.
For years, irreverence and beer advertising have gone together like, well, pretzels and Bud. But Schirf wasn't being strategic when he first used marketing tactics that won him both fans and enemies. He was just being Schirf, a draft-card-burning wise guy with a deeply held belief that authority exists to be flouted.
Consider, for instance, Schirf's decision to launch his brewery in the most straitlaced state in the nation. In 1974 he followed his older brother, Skip, to Park City. The two worked as construction subcontractors there until Greg got fed up with the ups and downs of the Utah real estate market in the mid 1980s. At that point he figured it was as good a time as any to pursue his own entrepreneurial dream: to make microbrews in his beloved Utah. He didn't dismiss the challenge of selling beer in a state where about 70% of the residents are Mormon, for whom alcohol consumption is frowned upon. He welcomed it. "Starting a brewery was very radical," says Schirf, 49. "That was a real attraction to me."
When Wasatch Brewery opened, he gave away free beer to the community. (That turned out to be illegal. Oops!) He hired the country's only female brewmaster and plastered her fetching image on posters. And most significantly, he got an arcane Utah law changed so that he could open the state's first brewpub, paving the way for more to follow. In the wake of each of those stunts, the press lapped at his heels hungrily. But so did his competitors.
By the mid-to-late 1990s, burgeoning competition was threatening Wasatch. The beer was being distributed in paltry numbers in seven states, but Schirf was losing the marketing battle to the more robust microbreweries -- and macrobreweries -- that were muscling in on the craft-brew niche. He had built a bigger brewery, "but by the time I got it up and running, we had local competitors," he laments. "The demand I envisioned all of a sudden wasn't there."
Tough times called for radical tactics, and Schirf was just the guy to deploy them. He decided to retrench, to concentrate all his resources on Utah, and to capitalize on peculiarities of the local culture. He'd often lucked into local publicity by pushing the limits of good taste, but he'd never actually set out to provoke. What would happen if he went way out on a limb in a quest for media attention? Would he land himself in jail? Get nailed with a fine? Would it be Wasatch's death knell -- or its finest moment? Schirf decided to find out.
In July 1998, Schirf made his move for Olympic gold. With an eye toward the 2002 Olympic Winter Games slated for Salt Lake City, Schirf knew that tiny Wasatch had no hope of getting in on the sponsorship action. So he adorned his sales manager's Chevy Blazer with a sign advertising Wasatch as "The Unofficial Beer of the 2002 Winter Games." The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), and Anheuser-Busch, the official Olympic beer sponsor, were not amused. SLOC sent Schirf a cease-and-desist order. Schirf immediately called the local media. "I said that I was getting picked on by SLOC," he says. "We were the lead on local television for a week straight." Of course, that's exactly what the gleeful Schirf had in mind. He dutifully stopped using the words winter games but reignited the controversy by adding a new product called "Unofficial" Amber Ale with "2002" crossed out in the middle of the label. SLOC was not appeased and continued to threaten legal action.
But luck was on Schirf's side. "While we were still trading letters, the whole bribe scandal broke," he says. He then struck again, producing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Beer Not Bribes." Once more, publicity ensued, and keg sales, about 25% of the company's total revenues, doubled. "Unofficial" Amber Ale became the company's biggest seller. Driven by "whatever it takes to sell beer," says Schirf, he had successfully pulled the stunt that put Wasatch back in the news -- and gave the company just the boost it needed. "It was our first real case study in how advertising can have news value," he says.
In early 2000, Schirf and one of his largest competitors, Salt Lake Brewing Co., merged to form Utah Brewers Cooperative, giving the combined companies the marketing clout they needed to grow their respective brands' share of Utah beer sales. Schirf and his new partners wanted to own the Utah microbrew market. Schirf hired an ad agency run by Paul Kirwin, an old friend, and said to him, "Let's come up with campaigns that will get us attention and make people laugh." Over a few beers one night Schirf and Kirwin developed the slogan "The Other Local Religion, Wasatch Beers. Baptize your taste buds." In the fall of 2000 they ran print ads, advertised on billboards, and aired radio spots featuring two "missionaries" on a door-to-door campaign seeking Wasatch converts. "That definitely got the attention of the prevailing culture," says Schirf.
Did it ever. "Wasatch Brewery needs to understand that there is more than one local religion that considers the association of alcohol with religion and the ordinance of baptism to be an open act of disrespect," wrote one Utah resident to the Deseret News. Some residents wanted the billboard ad removed. Schirf and Kirwin were thrilled. "The talk-radio people were all over it," says Schirf. Sales soared. Schirf and Kirwin, buoyed by the campaign's success, didn't simply stand up to their detractors; during the next two years they actually upped the ante. As Schirf's annual advertising budget grew from $25,000 to $125,000, so did his chutzpah.
Kirwin, who is less cavalier than Schirf about Wasatch's tactics, says, "We're definitely walking the line between being a smart-ass and a dumb-ass." He adds, "The secret to this [kind of advertising] is that you can have some fun with cultures and the way people act. What you don't want to do is start making fun of people's deeply held beliefs." But one might argue that that's exactly what Schirf did last fall. He renamed one of his beers Polygamy Porter (tag line: "Why have just one?") and labeled it with an illustration of a scantily clothed man surrounded by a six-pack of wives. Even Kirwin bristled. And Schirf didn't stop there. Pushing the limits even further, he had billboard ads designed for the dubiously named beer.
According to Schirf, billboards mocking polygamy were just too much for the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which last October declared a ban on using religious themes in alcohol advertising. Earl Dorius, compliance manager at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, says the ban's timing was coincidental. "[Schirf] didn't trigger it, even though he'd like to think he did," says Dorius. In fact, he says, the state commission rescinded its ban when it realized that it had inadvertently outlawed the advertising of kosher and sacramental wine and alcohol produced by monks.
Nonetheless, the controversy rattled Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Wasatch's billboard company, which refused to display the Polygamy Porter ad. A less aggressive entrepreneur might have pulled his punches at that point. But not Schirf, who searched for a less conservative billboard-advertising vendor. This time the local media had international company: The Economist, the Associated Press, and the BBC jumped on the controversy.
The fracas was great for business. Wasatch's Web site, which typically generated $2,000 a month in sales, racked up $55,000 in November, mostly through sales of Polygamy Porter T-shirts. And porter sales rose from 800 cases in October to 1,900 in December. "And that's as much beer as we could get into the marketplace," says Schirf. Sales of other Wasatch brews spiked as well. The story of the kiboshed billboard won the attention of beer distributors in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming -- and, says Schirf, "it looks like we're going to expand to those areas."
Schirf estimates that his technique has helped earn Utah Brewers Cooperative 60% of the microbrew market in Utah (a figure nearly impossible to verify). But it's clearly not the only technique that works. His biggest local competitor, Uinta Brewing Co., positions itself as an environmentally conscious company that uses Utah themes for its beer names. Schirf, whose beer revenues grew 32% from 2000 to 2001, will stick with what works. In fact, his various antics generated some terrific results for Wasatch during the winter Olympics. "February was the best month we've ever had," says Schirf. "The weather cooperated, the terrorists cooperated, and it was a real sophisticated beer-drinking crowd, which was great for us and bad for Budweiser. We were sold in the same tent as they were, and we could tell by the lines that we outsold them two to one." Indeed, Wasatch's brewpub sales for February 2002 were $489,000, up from $242,422 the previous year.
"What's next?" people often ask him. "And is it going to make me laugh?" Well, probably. Or it'll make you furious. It's all money in the bank to Schirf.
Donna Fenn is a contributing editor at Inc.
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DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen Y Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success (McGraw-Hill, 2009), about ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.