It’s happy hour on Friday at BiaCraft, one of Saigon’s best-known craft beer bars. Mask-less drinkers gingerly sit down at tables, perhaps for the first time in months. With a pleasant view of one of the city’s meandering canals, the smaller-than-usual crowd - spaced out between tables - ogle at the vast beer menu.
Just down the street, Vietnam’s famous nhậu culture of street-side drinking & snacking is firmly back in action. Stir-fried snails, glasses of Tiger laden with ice, and warm cheers of “dzô!”.
Vietnam is roaring back to life. Bars are getting busier; breweries are producing beer and starting to win new accounts; karaoke parlours, one of the last business types to be restricted, have just reopened. The much-touted ‘new normal’ looks positively like business as usual. Which, for Saigon’s brewers, isn’t bad at all.
As weeks of no community cases become months, Vietnam’s competent Covid-19 response has increasingly won international acclaim. The government’s swift, early action was life-saving for the 97 million people who call this country home. It was also a lifeline for the country’s beer industry.
Already reeling from a 25% monthly sales drop in January due to stricter alcohol laws, Saigon’s (relatively short) lockdown was a particularly painful double-punch to the F&B scene.
Yes, many bars and restaurants closed, salaries and jobs were cut, and brewers and importers struggled to match supply with demand. However, the swift bounce back of the wider craft beer scene demonstrates the resilience of the brewers that call Saigon home.
Despite there being more than twenty local craft beer brands in greater Ho Chi Minh City, peaceful coexistence reigns.
The more serious array - young brands in the global scheme of craft beer - have carved out distinctive, differentiated positions in the vast local market to win over drinkers. Some of the defining features of success include investment in branding, unique marketing strategies and other innovative tactics that drive healthy, differentiated competition.
Vietnam is an outlier when it comes to beer. While global beer consumption is in decline, the country’s beer consumption is a rare growth story. In 2018, Vietnam was in the top ten beer consuming countries in the world (by volume, not per capita!) and in 2019, they drank a staggering four billion litres of beer. What is more impressive (or perhaps concerning for public health authorities) is that it represented a year-on-year increase of 29%.
While the vast majority (one report estimates 95%) of the market is controlled by the major local brewers and imported beer, craft beer production anecdotally surged significantly in 2019.
Given this vast opportunity for expansion in a buoyant beer-swilling market- and one that is not heading into a recession despite global doom and gloom - it is no wonder that one of the defining features of conversations with senior leaders at Saigon’s craft breweries is a forward-looking optimism.
An ever-consistent theme of any conversation with brewers is an upbeat pragmatism that seeks to make the most of challenging market conditions. John Pemberton, CEO of Heart of Darkness, used the enforced closure of their inner-city taproom and relative downtime to course correct their strategy.
“We have taken this opportunity to rethink our entire structure and ways of working to streamline the operation and rebuild it based on years of data versus the assumptions we built the original structure around.”
In a similar vein, East West Brewing Company used the slowdown in business and lockdown to ensure their team was kept productive and busy “planning for the future, and fixing bad habits that we didn’t like before.”
“We look at this as an opportunity to come out better whether it is offering, servicing, processes, and building a better company culture for the long run,” says Loc Truong, East West’s Co-Founder & General Manager.
With at least thirteen million people living in Saigon, a city with a proud beer-swilling culture, craft breweries have plenty of bandwidth to target and win over drinkers.
In 2015, the early days of the scene, much of the city’s craft beer market was driven by the hordes of tourists visiting the city, amongst whom there was an existing familiarity for American, Antipodean and European beer styles. Such was the popularity that multiple craft beer tours popped up on TripAdvisor, while a coalition of brewers created the ‘Ale Trail’ (replete with a t-shirt for those adventurous enough to visit all the participating taprooms!).
While some breweries had focused on winning a local audience prior to this year’s madness (70% of East West’s taproom customers were Vietnamese even prior to the lockdown) this ‘tourist tap’ is now firmly shut-off for the short term.
Fortunately, the increasing popularity of craft beer amongst a local Vietnamese audience has been able to make up for some (though certainly not all) of the lost potential revenue.
The imperative today to win over Saigonese young & old has added urgency. And the brewers are game: launching targeted marketing campaigns, expansion into broader sales channels, and developing beer recipes that are more suitable to local palettes and hot, humid weather.
“As the craft beer segment in Vietnam has continued to grow, the growth has mostly been in local Vietnamese consumers.” shares Alex Violette, CEO of Pasteur Street Brewing Company. “We see this reflected in the types and locations of new on trade and off trade partners, and in the demographics at our Taprooms.”
Like many other senior leaders in Saigon’s craft beer scene, Pasteur Street are bullish about long-term prospects of converting more Vietnamese drinkers to the gospel of craft. “Our primary source of growth over the next few years will be in this demographic, which makes us very excited for this trend to continue”
Branding and advertising have sometimes been seen as dirty words in the world of craft beer. In Saigon, brewers are much more pragmatic and hard-headed, unconcerned with accusations that marketing pollutes a ‘hand-crafted’ product.
Rooster Beers is a prime example of an unapologetic investment in brand-building to win over a local audience. “We wanted a Vietnamese-centric angle for the rebrand and dual language in the brand name helps that. In turn, it's a lot easier for the local market to read and grip the name Rooster/Bia Gà,” shares Don Hurst, Rooster’s Brand Ambassador.
“90% of our customers are local Vietnamese and with craft beer still new to this part of the world, we usually hear: "Bia Gà? What's that?" And from that curiosity sparks a journey into craft beer.”
“The overall response has been amazing with Rooster. We're seeing our beer in more Vietnamese owned and frequented venues, stores and houses' with the release of the cans. We want to be the beer brand in your fridge you come to home to everyday.”
Phuc Tran, founder of Hoprizon Craft Beer, is part of a new generation of Vietnamese taking on the mantle of craft brewer. His perspective is that communications plays a role beyond merely building awareness for his brand, and instead sees it as intertwined with the drinking experience and customer loyalty.
“I believe branding and marketing contribute enormously to not only developing but also fostering one's consumer base,” says Phuc. “To earn and retain consumer loyalty, apart from a strong consistency on quality, activities like event activation, social media engagement, label revamp, innovative packaging plays a vital role in keeping your current customers excited while attracting new one.”
To be seriously competitive in any form of consumer marketing in Vietnam, brands have to invest in digital. 2019 was the first year that Google overtook television as the most common way people find out about brands & products.
While digital is deeply integrated into every aspect of Vietnamese life, craft beer has arguably lagged behind other sectors in adopting Facebook, YouTube and other digital platforms as a core part of their marketing strategy.
As bars began to empty during the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic, many breweries swiftly moved to improve their online presences. Craft beer fans suddenly found their newsfeeds crowded with targeted ads promoting delivery and special offers.
Other brands took a more thoughtful approach. Besides launching delivery campaigns on platforms like Facebook & Instagram, Pasteur Street Brewing Company launched a nightly ‘Virtual Taproom’ on Zoom to temporarily replace the off-line experience of their staff and customers.
“The Virtual Taproom was a perfect place for us to do the same thing. Connecting with our fans over a comfortable format that spawns some great conversations,” says Alex. “We were able to connect with local fans, international fans, personal friends, family, and other brewers from all over the world”.
While all the breweries are proud of the local provenance of their beers, some delve deeper into producer nationalism than others. This is only a natural strategy considering the emboldened nationalism, epitomised by the spectacular masses of people flooding through Saigon’s streets whenever the national football team plays.
But how can relatively new breweries win over local drinkers, particularly considering the depth of mental and physical availability that brands like Bia Saigon command?
East West’s Loc sees no compromise between conveying quality, local provenance and cost, and this forms his strategy for communicating to Vietnamese drinkers “We always try to convey that we are a local Vietnamese brand, making good tasting high quality (and a bit more expensive than lagers) beers.”
“We also have been communicating ‘Made In Vietnam’ quite a bit lately, to make people proud that a Vietnamese beer company can make global beers.”
Besides sharing information about product origin and brewing processes, Saigon’s brewers have a knack for telling a good story. Hoprizon’s nautically-themed beer range is “carefully curated to reflect the champion’s journey in realising one’s dream”, opening with a Full Sail White Ale, entering the Sea Breeze Blonde Ale and completing your journey with the Storm Eye Raw IPA.
“For Hoprizon, our key message has always been focusing on "Encourage people to pursue their dreams,” shares Phuc. “The idea is, on a rough day, no matter where you are on your journey, Hoprizon always has something to accommodate & comfort your emotion.”
Heart of Darkness’ brand narrative takes inspiration from the eponymous novella by Joseph Conrad, tapping into the power of storytelling to win and engage an audience.
“The book is a story of an epic journey, an adventure both physically and metaphorically. We feel these are very relevant to our current mission. We are working to take new craft beer customers on a journey of exploration to a new world of flavours. So our branding is around adventure and exploration and you’ll note there is a river running through all of our labels. It is there to remind us we are taking our customers on a journey of exploration deep into the Heart of Darkness.”
Winking Seal, a brewery launched in Saigon in 2017, takes a unique approach when developing their beers that blends place, positioning and product.
Co-Founder & General Director Mark Nerney shares the formula for the brewery’s success: easy-drinking, beach-friendly beer with “colourful packaging that stands out on the shelf” and a passion for “collaboration across industries, from hospitality and F&B to MICE.”
Two notable examples of the strategy in action are the Watermelon Summer Sour, a cross-border collab with Burmese brewers Burbrit, and the Dragon Fruit Pale Ale, an ode to Mui Ne’s dragon fruit in conjunction with the Sailing Club Leisure Group, a Vietnamese hospitality brand.
Says Mark “We can’t survive without partnerships and people: beer diplomacy.”
Despite looming threats on the horizon - a second-wave of Covid, a global recession, a medium-term halt to international tourism - Saigon’s brewers have a sanguine yet sober outlook. Heart of Darkness’ Pemberton sees much to learn from the interlocked health and economic crises.
“Think long and hard about how things will look when we emerge from this and try and pivot your businesses to the most efficient models possible. Take this unique opportunity to look at your businesses prior to the pandemic. Were you running things efficiently, or did you cobble together a bunch of band aid solutions to run your business as it was all growing too fast?”
Platinum Beverage’s Michael Comerton, one of Vietnam’s pioneering craft brewers whose career has spanned 20 years and 12 countries, has an upbeat perspective to share with other breweries locally and abroad.
“To quote Heraclitus, “The only constant in life is change.” This is not the first crisis humanity has experienced, nor the first pandemic. We don’t see people stopping drinking beer anytime soon. Keep going.”
Writer Bio: Oliver Woods is a marketing strategist and craft beer enthusiast. He is the founder of Beer Asia, a consumer-focused beer publication, and co-founder of Kakilang Brewing Company. Oliver lives, works and drinks in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.