How Craft Beer Producers Can Incentivize Distributors and Wholesalers to Help Them Go to Market

By: Nichole Gunn, Vice President of Marketing and Creative Services, Incentive Solutions

As a craft beer producer, competition is fierce. According to the Brewers Association, there were 7,346 craft beer producers in the U.S. last year competing for $27.6 billion in sales. That’s a lot of beer! And, that doesn’t even take into account competition from “The Big Five” or import beer for shares of the overall U.S. beer market.

  For craft beer producers who are looking to scale and increase sales, it might be tempting to start pouring your marketing funds into consumer marketing. But will that really make a splash? Think of the hundreds of millions in media spend by beer companies every year that you’ll be going up against.

  Could there possibly be a more efficient way to use that marketing spend? For craft beers producers who are trying to go to market, it’s important to sit down and ask yourself, “Who has the biggest impact on whether or not end consumers find my beer? And how can I motivate them to prioritize my business?”

Understanding the Craft Beer Sales Channel 

  When it comes to connecting with end consumers, craft beer producers have four options:

•    On-Site: Selling directly to consumers at your brewery.

•    E-Commerce: Selling directly to consumers online.

•    Retail: Selling to consumers through other retailers.

•    On-Premise: Selling to consumers through bars and restaurants.

  However, on-site sales are limited by geography and e-commerce sales require brand familiarity or extremely creative (or very expensive) marketing. For a scalable sales and marketing strategy, craft beer producers have to turn their attention to retail and on-premise sales and the indirect sales force that helps them achieve penetration with these vendors.

Incentivizing Distributor and Wholesaler Sales Reps

  Outside of smaller, highly localized breweries, most craft beer producers rely on distributors, wholesalers and other supply chain trading partners to market to retailers and restaurants. Distributor and wholesaler sales reps are responsible for selling vendors on the value of your beer, negotiating pricing and terms of sale agreements and ultimately getting your craft beer to market.

  There’s one small problem: no matter how awesome your craft beer is, it only a small fraction of your distributor or wholesaler’s supply mix. In this battle for mindshare, it’s up to you to educate reps about your brand, enable them to sell your product and supply them with a value proposition that inspires them to take action on your account.

  This is where an incentive program comes into play. When many people think of incentive programs, they think about rewards. But while rewards play a big role in building relationships with your channel partners and adding to your overall value proposition, modern incentive programs take a more holistic, software-driven approach.

  Today’s incentive programs act as comprehensive sales and marketing platforms that enable craft beer producers to:

•   Build mindshare with distributor and wholesaler sales reps.

•   Target promotions by qualifying participant type, regions or product line.

•   Fill data gaps within their channel.

•   Enable sales reps to sell their product to vendors.

•   Deepen relationships with partners throughout their channel.

Building Mindshare with Distributors and Wholesaler Sales Reps

  Sales reps, for the most part, sell what they know. However, in a crowded supply mix, building this awareness and product knowledge with sales reps can be challenging. While every supplier wants something from these outside sales reps, far fewer supplier focus on offering value and creating memorable brand interactions.

  Inviting these sale reps to enroll in an incentive program where they have the opportunity to earn millions of rewards or exclusive incentive travel opportunities (and perhaps giving them a generous point bonus upfront) is more than a nice gesture. It’s a strategic differentiator and an opportunity to stand out from your competitors.  

  Your rewards program also creates new opportunities for communication and engagement that aren’t strictly business. These brand interactions are an opportunity to improve personalization and build relationship capital, which can be difficult to achieve in supply chain partnerships.

Targeting Promotions to Minimize Cost and Maximize Return

  It’s worth noting that a channel partner program is an investment. When planning an incentive marketing strategy, craft beer producers need to focus on maximizing the return on their marketing spend. This means that they should target first and scale second.

  For instance, would it make more sense financially to target your program to the sales and brand managers at the distributor level or the individual reps who work beneath them? It depends on your go-to-market strategy and the size and number of distributors you work with. If you sell through smaller wholesalers with a handful of reps, who each are responsible for a significant portion of your overall sales volume, then it might make sense to structure your program to reward individual sales reps. On the other hand, if you’re selling through a number of wholesalers and distributors, or an extremely large distributor with thousands of reps, it might make more sense to target your incentive programs to sales and brand managers.

  Additionally, from those managers and sales reps, craft beer producers can set qualification thresholds, based on sales volume or engagement, to ensure that their incentive program spend is allocated toward the participants who are most impactful to their sales growth.

  Another aspect of your targeting strategy is choosing to set incentive promotions by specific regions or product lines, based on strategic initiatives and opportunities for growth.   

Collecting More Complete Data Throughout Your Channel

  Craft beer producers, like many other companies who sell into a channel, often struggle with having inaccurate and incomplete data about their channel. Your incentive program is an opportunity to motivate distributors and wholesalers to provide more complete data. There are several ways craft beer producers can use their incentive program to fill in gaps in channel data:

•   Structuring enrollment forms that capture contact information and firmographic data during program registration.

•   Including automated tools for sales reps to attach invoices or other documents as part of the program’s sales verification process.

•   Offering rewards to participating sales reps for referring other reps within their organization.

•   Rewarding sales reps for completing voluntary surveys that can be used to clean up your existing database or collect more information about your participants’ interests, demographic and lifestyle.

•   Analyzing engagement datapoints the program generates to spot highly engaged accounts that are ripe for upsells and cross-sells.

  All of this information can be used to inform your sales and marketing strategy and increase the level of personalization you offer your supply chain partners.

  However, all the data in the world is useless unless you’re able to act on it. Modern incentive software includes CRM integration, data filters, reporting dashboards and custom reports to streamline this data for optimal use.

Enabling Your Distributor and Wholesaler Sales Reps

  Do you know one of the quickest ways to build brand preference with an indirect sales rep? Provide quality sales enablement. Using proven strategies to educate sales reps on your brand and your products makes it easy for them to sell your products to vendors.

  Integrating interactive quizzes and training videos with your incentive program is a powerful tool for supplying your external sales reps with the knowledge they need to sell your beer. This education can be supplemented by your incentive program’s digital communication platforms. (If you use this kind of strategy, make sure to break things up into bite-sized pieces and focus on the highlights your partners will need to help you go-to-market). Additionally, these quizzes are another opportunity for sales reps to earn rewards, increasing the overall value proposition of your program.

Deepening Relationships Throughout Your Channel

  Finally, in addition to short-term sales growth and marketing penetration, your incentive program has another benefit that will have a lasting impact on the success of your go-to-market strategy: relationship-building. Non-cash rewards are a social currency that achieve emotional impact and memorability with sales reps at distributors and wholesalers. In addition to motivating sales growth and reinforcing desired behavior, the rewards your program offers create a sense of personalization.

  For craft beer producers, your distributors and wholesalers are more than just conduits to the end consumer. They are your partners – an indispensable part of your go-to-market strategy. Offering your sales reps the opportunity to choose from exciting rewards or treating top performers to unforgettable incentive travel experiences represents the type of brand interactions that will set you apart from the competition. But more than that, these rewards inspire your distributor and wholesaler sales reps to emotionally invest in your brand and take an active interest in your success.

Unsure About Where to Start? Be Smart, Explore Your Options and Focus on Scalability

  An incentive program can be an integral part of a craft beer producer’s go-to-market strategy. However, what about companies who have never used this type of strategy before? If you are interested in creating a channel marketing program for your distributors and wholesalers, do your homework. Identify a goal for your program and the software functionalities you’ll need to achieve that goal.

  Compile a list of incentive program providers who fit your requirements and who have a proven track record, with case studies and testimonials to prove it. From there, begin reaching out to these providers and enlist their help in planning your incentive strategy. Use these conversations to refine your strategy and learn more about what has worked for companies with similar goals and similar distribution channels to yours in the past.

  Once you’ve decided on a provider, you don’t have to go all in. It’s prudent to start small, maybe with a pilot program or highly targeted incentive promotion. You can always scale, once you’ve proven that you can do this successfully.

  However, it’s also important to have a sense of urgency. As craft beer sales continues to grow, so will competition for craft beer dollars. Beating your competitors to building an incentive program for your distributor and wholesale sales reps can be a major competitive advantage. Plus, you owe it to your future customers to help them find their new favorite beer!

  Nichole Gunn is the VP of Marketing and Creative Services at Incentive Solutions (www.incentivesolutions.com), an Atlanta-based incentive company that specializes in helping B2B companies improve their channel sales, build customer loyalty, and motivate their employees. Nichole Gunn can be reached at ngunn@incentivesolutions.com

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