The Whole is Greater than the Sum of It's Parts
Can 1+1=4? Yep.
In 2014 I explored a question with which I had always been wrestling. As some may know, I have a small brewery side business. In this industry there is a unique competitive structure. Generally, there are a large number of local and regional small, independent businesses that are not competing with each other, but are battling large, international brewing and distribution giants. I wondered if these small breweries could do more as a group in unison to protect their home territory as well as be competitive with these huge organizations. I decided to explore if this could be done through brand representations as read through their websites. So I proposed this research question: Do western PA brewery electronic brand traits (websites) communicate a regional identity?
In order to answer this research question, commonalities between breweries are explored to discover a communal brand identity. The regional brand identity can be assessed through the dominant themes of the breweries as a ground and then moving through the taxonomy by frequency. The more frequent the theme appears, the greater impact it will have on the communal identity. By measuring the frequencies of the narrative elements as a whole, the communal brand identity can be distilled. The most frequent themes from the Kress and van Leeuwen structure will be more dominant and therefore more prominently represent the region and the fewer frequencies, while still contributing, their contribution is less from these elements.
On first examination of the regional brand identity of the western PA brewing industry, two themes emerge as dominant for the region. These themes are communicated through fantasy and offer in a way that allows the identity of the region to be read as a story. The storybook-like quality of the religion/myth/fable theme creates a platform for the imagination as the ideal is presented. This is reinforced by the evidence that the ideal/new and ideal/given are prevalent in this communal identity. The ideal is a platform to separate the viewer from reality and present close framed elements for reference and association to a dream like place. The western PA breweries are places that nod towards traditional brewing and the roots in the German traditions; however, take those traditions and infuse a modern story tale that occasionally hints at the region of western PA.
The prevalent themes are traditional brewing and religion/myth/fable; however, it cannot be ignored that this list goes deeper and the taxonomy must be fleshed out. It is apparent that the breweries of western PA present their webpages as resources for information followed by a tool for reinforcing a consumption or a consumer theme. The western PA brewing industry focuses on their identity as a part of the western PA geographic region as the fifth most important and prominent theme. The themes of technology, nature/organic, and history/tradition round out this taxonomy as the least prominent themes, but still are present to add depth to the regional identity. The lack of focus on nature/organic and history/tradition shows that this industry is fairly young, with very little in the way of generational roots or processes that encourage ecofriendly activity.
The region represents themselves through narrative traits and how prominently these traits are represented also contribute to the communal brand identity. The western PA regional brewing industry is clearly rooted in the world of fantasy and offer. This is reinforced through the general use of a camera angle that is on the same plane as the viewer. The viewer interprets this as the region offering up a story for the consumer to engage in that helps them escape reality without dictating action or response but simply an escape. The fantasy narrative is also supported through the heavy use of a close frame on the narrative object, which removes them from context. The elements are offered up for association and interpretation more often than literal meaning. These breweries don’t literally have characters from fantasy or religious rites, but use these elements to hint at the sense of fantasy that their brewery should convey. Finally, the structure and composition of this commune of breweries heavily leverages the ideal with even balance between the given and new.
The data clearly show that the regional identity is made up of interplay of breweries. Not all contribute the same traits or identity, but all traits are repeated across the sample with some being more dominant than other. It is this hierarchy of dominance evidenced through frequency across the sample that creates the regional identity of the western PA brewing industry.
There are two clear conclusions that can be drawn from this research. Gabler (2011) comments that we are inundated with symbols and signs in technology. This has forced us to create and reference simple lists for shared ideas and meaning. This research shows these lists in each appendix as taxonomy nd identity narrative elements. As a taxonomy and list, this research has distilled each brand identity as well as the regional identity down to the brand “essence” as referred to by Aaker (2000).
The “essence” of each brand is told through its narrative elements. The narrative elements shown in each brand’s taxonomy represent the critical descriptors and building blocks as communication symbols of meaning for the brand identities. The elements are then broken down and interpreted individually for each brewery, and finally, combined as a group for a regional identity interpretation. It is these lists from which this research establishes brand identity and proves Aaker’s (2000) assertion that a webpage is where the brand identity is presented and if strong enough, it brings the viewer into brand’s world through a complex narrative.
First, each brewery clearly conveys a brand identity through its webpages as read through the semiotic lens presented by Kress and van Leeuwen. In the research analysis presented, each brewery identity is clearly defined and observable through the brewery webpage. These identities are told through narratives using semiotic elements. As narratives, certain themes begin to emerge when read as a whole. Those themes that dominate for certain breweries are responsible for crafting their brand identity including those thematic elements from the narrative.
Secondly, the region seems to convey a communal theme; however, not every brewery contributes the same traits, themes, or elements in the same quantity to this identity (See Appendix F). The data shows that while there are common themes among individual breweries, there is no single theme that is shared by all of the breweries in the sample. As Bathes communicated in relation to the study of semiotics, meaning is not linear but is more akin to a plot graph or constellation. When examined, a web or network of identity emerges with breweries sharing themes and element portrayal methods with different elements creating a singular voice.
The critical understanding developed from this research is how a regional brand identity can be constructed. Much like looking at a person as a whole made up of individual parts, the regional identity of the brewing industry in western PA can be looked at in the same way. This idea reflects Aaker (1997) and Alwi’s (2009) research that shows that brand identity can be described through the use of human personality trait descriptor words. Each individual brewery identity theme contributes some feature to the communal identity, but each brewery needs not contribute the same theme. In looking at a person as a whole, the eye contributes one trait, the bone structure another, the skin tone another. This is how the regional communal identity of the western PA brewing industry is built.
These themes are critical to these breweries being competitive on a regional landscape. By understanding each individual brewery’s identity, this group can come together to understand what each brewery presents as an identity. This has the potential to provide the basis for a start of a western PA brewers association with a marketing function. By using this research, this committee can understand not only what individual identities of each member of the group is, but they can work to better craft their regional identity. This method and research can be used to ensure a common symbolic thread is woven through each brewery identity that can be owned by the western PA breweries and is not represented anywhere else in the country. Through the ownership of this thread, this group of breweries presents a unified identity, which by the theory of the economic benefit of communal action makes the region a competitive force against major large national and international breweries.
By understanding each individual breweries major brand identity contribution to the communal identity, an understanding can be created as to what a brewery can more clearly communicate or add to their identity the better of the entire community. For example, if two breweries are both presenting a myth related identity but brewery A also represents tradition/history and brewery B is a regional identifier, it can be advised that brewery A look to incorporate a regional identifier and brewery B look to add some tradition/history theme to their webpage.
There are practical conclusions that are drawn from this research. A regional marketing committee or consortium would benefit this sample of breweries. By looking at what each member of the committee contributes to their communal identity, decisions can be made as a group as to how to better band together and also stay individually relevant and competitive. By conducting the analysis performed in this research, the group can understand who represents what brand traits of the region as well as sew a common thread through all webpages. For example, it could be decided that all of the themes seen here are common around the country except the regional identifier theme. Therefore, it could be decided that this is the resource in the Theory of RBV that will make them competitive against national and international enterprises. The conclusion would be that each brewery should do a better job of representing the region in some way while preserving the remaining themes as individual identifiers that preserves intra-region industry competition.
- This is an excerpt from my 2014 Robert Morris Doctoral Dissertation