Corporate Brand Coverups

Last week I made a big deal about the fact that Starbucks is opening stores disguised as an independently-owned businesses. The reality is that this isn't a new phenomenon; but it does seem to differ by industry.

When it comes to branding, it's often said that the key is consistency. An example I hear often goes like this: you're on a cross-country road trip, driving through a state you've never visited, and you're hungry. You pull off the interstate and approach two buildings. On the left is a McDonalds. On the right is a "Bob's Burger Shack" which also sells cheap greasy burgers and fries. In this case, most people will opt for McDonalds. Not necessarily because the food is good or because Bob's food is bad; but because McDonald's is consistent. It's tolerable. It's low-risk.

Last weekend I ate at Fat Head's, a brewpub in suburban Cleveland. They do a pretty good job of hiding the fact that the brand originally comes from Pittsburgh. For instance, many sandwiches are named after Cleveland culture: The Dawg Pounder, The Cuyahoga, and The Euclid Beach Burger. A friend of the blog who convinced me Fat Head's was worth a visit had no idea another location existed. I'd bet many of the restaurant's customers didn't know either.

Breweries and beer companies seem more likely than most to engage in this behavior. Rock Bottom Restaurants, a Denver company, has over a hundred restaurants across the country. From my experience, they do the same thing as Fat Head's, naming food and beer based on the local culture.

Or think about Blue Moon, the orange-colored beer that got a bit of attention back when President Obama held the famous "beer summit" at the White House.

(from flickr user maya the bee)

Although technically brewed by Molson Coors, the giant international beer corporation, you wouldn't know it from reading the label on the bottles, which claims the beer is produced by the Blue Moon Brewing Company (presumably some sort of subsidiary). Indeed, it would be tough to claim Blue Moon as a "craft beer" if enough people knew it was produced in huge quantities and distributed like any of the other "king beers". Nor does it appeal to beer snobs to claim a product produced in the same facility as some of the most infamously bad beer out there.

This brand differentiation seems to be strongest in products with a strong "snob" factor. In which case, the fact that it's happening with coffee and beer seems pretty reasonable.