“Whenever there is a need, before long, you will find an entrepreneur with a better idea”

Brewers in Grand Rapids didn’t like the feeling of a tie, so they used a well-orchestrated local social media campaign, along with an old-fashioned retail political blitzkrieg of local celebrities and politicians to claim the top prize in Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian’s annual contest.

As a result of their better idea, Grand Rapids is Beer City USA, one year after sharing the crown with Asheville, North Carolina.

Let’s begin with the question, what does it mean to be Beer City USA?

This was Charlie Papazian’s better idea. The president of the Brewers Association created the contest about five years ago through his column on the Examiner.com website.

“The craft beer community gets inundated with so many statistical facts about volume and size and how many of this and per capita of that,” he said, “and they are useful tools, but I wanted to address a little bit more fundamentally what is really going in the relationships that brewers have with beer drinkers and beer drinkers have with breweries. That was at the core of things.”

Then he asked, just what is it that makes any city, a Beer City?

“What I found is that it isn’t just about taste, or volume, or dollars cents. It is kind of a relationship that is hard to measure.”

Relationships between beer drinkers and the people who make their beer may be hard to quantify, but brewers in Grand Rapids were able to use their relationships with customers and each other to mobilize voters.

The 2013 Grand Rapids campaign began when Wob Wanhatalo, the head brewer at Mitten Brewing Company in Grand Rapids and one of the founders of the Grand Rapids Society of Brewers formed an alliance with Janet Korn, the vice president of marketing at the Experience Grand Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau, the organization that has been leading the effort to market Grand Rapids as a beer-tourism destination. This was their better idea. The first phase was traditional. Experience Grand Rapids created T-shirts and billboards to celebrate the 2012 Beer City USA first-place tie.

Social media was to play an important part of the 2013 Beer City USA campaign in Grand Rapids just has it has for the city’s craft brewers because it is relatively inexpensive, simple to put together and is very flexible.

“Starting up a Facebook page is kind of a useful tool for them to use as a communication vehicle,” Korn said. “It is inexpensive of course and it gives them a place where they can bring this group of people together. The platform really works for building that audience.”

The marketing strategy included content specific to the beer industry to “tell the Grand Rapids beer story from an informational perspective and included pieces of content that people could take and share,” Korn said. “I think it was the sharing among the fan base that was part of the 27,000 votes for Grand Rapids.’

For social media platforms, they chose the Experience Grand Rapids blog, Facebook and Twitter.

However, the campaign would not rely strictly on social media. Some very traditional point-of-purchase elements were thrown into the mix. Experience Grand Rapids made table coasters that read, “Vote Grand Rapids Beer City USA” that were handed out at all of breweries and beer bars in Grand Rapids.

Then feet hit the street.

A grassroots, political style campaign was the final piece of the Beer City USA effort. MiBeers.com organized three “Tap The Vote” pub crawls featuring local celebrities, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and other supporters who targeted the beer bars in the Grand Rapids area.

“We knew we had the breweries supporting us, so we went to all of the beer bars in town that served Grand Rapids or Michigan beer,” Wanhatalo said. Social media still played a role. They used the hashtag#Beer City GR on Twitter during the pub crawls.

“We made sure people knew the voting was happening, and reminded them to vote, too.”

Of course, they didn’t forget the importance of beer. Wanhatalo said they decided to create some special for their customers.

The Grand Rapids brewers collaborated on four “project” beers which were brewed on a single idea or theme. The first was Beer City Pale Ale.

“The guys all pointed at me and said, ‘You come up with the recipe and we will brew it,’” said Wanhatalo.

After that they did the Grand Pumpkin beer. Brewers could do whatever they wanted for that one as long as the recipe included pumpkin.

“The way we look at it as brewers and owners is a shared celebration. We are all in this together,” Wanhatalo said. “The more cooperation, the better.”

That is their best idea.

What about your better idea? What better idea has attracted your attention. Let me know. That could be the next subject.

Rod Kackley is an author and  journalist. He has written for Crain’s Detroit Business, The Detroit News, and MiBiz.  He is a former news director for WOOD-AM/FM and has written a book that tells the story of the creation of Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile, Last Chance Mile: The Reinvention of an American Community.

(C) 2013 Lyons Circle Publishing Inc.