Bell’s Oberon – The Microbrew Microcosm of the New Economy?

The first week of April represents many things to many people – it’s April Fool’s Day, it’s the first week of the second fiscal quarter, it’s the two-week warning until tax day, etc. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, and an ever-expanding radius (which now spans from Kansas City to North Carolina) around it, it represents the release of Bell’s Brewery’s summertime microbrew, Bell’s Oberon, with release parties scheduled all week. How can future business leaders learn from this event?

A not-insigificant lesson to be learned from the current economic downswing is that many businesses were guilty of trying to be too many things to too many consumers. The swing in ideology turned from an era in which even restaurants and convenience stores broadcasted a rule of “no shirt, no shoes, no service” to mortgage companies and banks screaming “no credit, no downpayment, no problem!” In other words, in their haste to expand the market by any means necessary, lenders moved away from targeting qualified clients with profitable products, and took on massive amounts of risk to have something for everyone.

This ideology pervades throughout the business world today. Twitter seems to be all the rage nowadays (even we’re on Twitter now), promising marketers the opportunity to remain in constant contact with their target consumers. Is that constant contact a good thing, however? A marketing specialist recently described Twitter as a dating chat room for marketing professionals, in which marketers play the role of men, who outnumber thier targets by a large margin, often unknowingly. Companies send out messages, and a large percentage of recipients consists of competitors and/or employees. Even when the messages do reach consumers, do consumers need to be consistently updated on product offers or “news”?

Twitter precursor, Facebook, may also fall victim to its own expansion plans; for years, it was the virtual place to be for college students and recent graduates, a place to find out about their classmates, friends, and potential romantic interests. But once their parents join – a trend that rivals any other social fad of the beginning of 2009 – how long will young people hang around? When inside jokes and what-happens-here-stays-here photos are available to the masses, a large porton of Facebook’s allure evaporates. In trying to be a social network for the masses, Facebook may well be missing one of the key attributes of socialization – people tend to congregate around cliques and niches.

Niche brands and specialized products, in contrast, capitalize on a key element of capitalism – specialization allows firms to prosper by excelling at one particular thing. Which brings us back to Bell’s. By offering seasonal products with a regional distribution plan, Bell’s creates demand for its beers simply through scarcity. The inability to have it at all times inspires purchases at the times when it is available, and generates a buzz among loyal consumers. A native of Michigan now living in California, I both anxiously await and nervously dread the day when Bell’s is available on the West Coast. As I write this, I’d do just about anything for a pint of Oberon right now…but I know that if I had it on demand it would eventually lose some of its allure.

The post-recession economy will offer a great deal of opportunity for new and revised businesses, but the improvements in technology that will inevitably occur in that time will also create unprecedented opportunities for overexposure and overambition. While everything-to-everyone businesses like Google and Wal-Mart will undoubtedly spawn, entrepreneurs and managers would be wise to consider the case of Bell’s when plotting their strategy…either as a model for success, or a delicious break from the boardroom.