Your favorite imported beer may not be imported after all. 

That, at least, is the low-hanging takeaway from a recently settled class-action lawsuit claiming the maker of Beck's beer--Anheuser-Busch InBev NV--"tricked American consumers into believing that the beer was an authentic German pilsner, when it is really brewed in St. Louis," reports the Wall Street Journal. (If you bought some Beck's recently, you'll soon be eligible for a refund: $50 if you still have your receipts, $12 if you don't.) 

Here's the real question: Why does it matter if a beer is imported? 

Turns out, it matters quite a bit. That one word carries a load of connotations for consumers--whether it's slapped on bottles of beer or applied, in a different fashion, to designer chairs. And marketers are quick to use this to their advantage.

95 Calories Never Tasted So Imported

Remember when President Obama hosted a beer hangout at the White House? Obama invited a Cambridge cop and a Harvard professor in the summer of 2009 and he drank a Bud Light at the occasion. 

It seemed like a safe choice. Bud Light. From Anheuser-Busch. In St. Louis. Except Anheuser-Busch was already Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, having been acquired the previous year by the Belgian-Brazilian company that also makes Beck's. American brewers criticized the president's choice of a "foreign" brew. 

Six years later, it's useful to invoke the playful nationalism of that occasion to raise a few questions about how beer is marketed and branded. You might think: Who cares where a beer is made--or where its corporate owners are headquartered--as long as you like how it tastes? 

Yet the history of beer marketing suggests claims like "imported" really matter to consumers. "95 calories never tasted so imported," was the prominent jingle of Amstel Light ads in the 1980s. Heineken used the tagline "America's No. 1-selling imported beer," for 15 years, according to AdAge.

Today, as the class-action settlement makes clear, beer makers and beer drinkers still give a darn about a beer's purported country of origin. Courtesy of Time's Brad Tuttle, here's a list of beers brewed in the U.S. whose marketing deems them international: Beck's (Germany), Kirin (Japan), Bass Ale (England).

In addition, as the Wall Street Journal points out, "Beck's isn't the only brand to trade on its foreign roots." Red Stripe calls itself a "Jamaican-style Lager" but is owned by London-based Diageo PLC and brewed in the U.S. Foster's--despite the Australian kangaroo on the bottle--is made by MillerCoors LLC in the U.S.; likewise, Killian's Irish Red, another MillerCoors brand, is brewed in America. 

The Artisan Aura of Authenticity

So why did Beck's have to settle a lawsuit, while some other beers have remained free from the courtroom's clutches? One reason is packaging. Red Stripe, Foster's, and Killian's all say on their packaging that they are brewed in the U.S.

By contrast, the suit against AB InBev alleged that "phrases featured on Beck's packaging, such as 'German Quality' beer and 'Originated in Bremen, Germany,' gave consumers a false impression about where the beer was made," notes the Wall Street Journal.

Still, the question remains: What is the advantage of claiming foreign roots? One advantage is the association in consumer's minds between "import" and artisan-like quality--the aura of handmade authenticity. Marketing professors call this the concept of "contagion." The general idea is that a consumer is more likely to infer "quality" about a product, if she believes it was made in its original manufacturing location.

In a Journal of Marketing Research paper, professors Ravi Dhar and George Newman of the Yale School of Management explain:

It is well established that differences in manufacturing location can impact consumer preferences through lay inferences about production quality... Specifically, we find that due to a belief in contagion, products from a company's original manufacturing location are seen as containing the essence of the brand. In turn, this belief in transferred essence leads consumers to view products from the original factory as more authentic and valuable than identical products made elsewhere.

The main takeaway here is that consumers place a higher value on products they believe contain the aura of authenticity. This idea corresponds with another of Newman's studies, which he presented last year at Yale SOM's Art, Mind + Markets conference. In the study, Newman showed consumers a new chair with a stated value of $1,000. He then asked: If this chair was destroyed, how much would you pay for a replacement?

When a Chair Is Not a Chair

One group of consumers was told the $1,000 chair was a piece of furniture. A separate group was told the chair was a work of art. Of the consumers who believed the chair was furniture, 44 percent said they'd still pay $1,000 for a replacement. The average price they said they'd pay was just under $400. Of the consumers who believed the chair was a work of art, only 21 percent said they'd pay $1,000 for a replacement. The average price they said they'd pay was just over $200.

When asked why, the "furniture" consumers explained the replacement chair was identical--made from the same materials, in the same manner. By contrast, the "art" consumers explained that only an original would have the same worth. They also expressed concern the replacement would not be made by the original artist.

And that's how two completely identical chairs can come to possess different values, in the eyes of consumers. 

Substitute "import" for "art," and you get a sense of why many consumers still care about whether a beer is made in its country of origin.

Published on: Jun 26, 2015