Narragansett Beer’s Dynasty: How Locale is Central to its Brand Identity
Narragansett Beer’s Dynasty: How Locale is Central to its Brand Identity
Alex Colburn, Brand Strategist, Colburn Strategic Partners
A 125 Year Old Dynasty
Narragansett Brewing Company (NBC), now a 125 year old brand, has deep ties to New England and its home in Rhode Island. Surviving through the Prohibition and the Great Depression, it grew to be an instantly recognizable brand through its sponsorship of the Boston Red Sox. It’s slogan, “Hi Neighbor, Have a ‘Gansett!” was the crux of the sponsorship marketing, announced by American sportscaster Curt Gowdy and others every Red Sox game for nearly two decades. In a time when beer was simply beer, Narragansett had a Lager, an Ale, and a Porter.
Narragansett was a beer for the people, and locals have stuck by the brand despite its tumultuous history. In the mid 1960’s Narragansett Brewing Company switched ownership, and sales declined gradually through until 1981 when the main brewery in Rhode Island was shut down. In 1998 the main brewery in Cranston RI was demolished; Narragansett became a shell of its past glory, supported by die-hard locals and bars.
A New Beginning for the Brand
It was this local pride for the ‘Gansett that attracted Mark Hellendrung to the brand. Hellendrung was formerly the president of the Rhode Island-based juice company Nantucket Nectars, and sales management for Vermont-based brewery Magic Hat. He noticed that breweries such as Yuengling and Lone Star were successful as local heritage brands, in Pennsylvania and Texas respectively. “My original thought was that New England is so parochial and provincial, if anyone should have their old beer back, it should be New England,” said Hellendrung.
Just like that, Narragansett was rebuilt, a 115 year old brand revival brought on by Rhode Island native Hellendrung. Nowadays, it is sold in nearly every bar in New England, and their beer offerings go much further than the original three beer styles. How did Narragansett so seamlessly enter back into our beer-sphere, when 20 years ago the brand was heading nowhere fast?
Narragansett came back with an extremely focused marketing campaign, centered on the brand’s ties to local New England. With the purchase in 2005, a radio sales campaign voiced by Hellendrung encouraged listeners to “Drink Your Part,” “Buy a Case, We’ll Build a Brewery,” and “Every case you buy is a brick in the brewery.” This marketing campaign played into the Rhode Island local grudge that the once-local Cranston RI brewery has been superseded by contract brewing from Genesee beers in Rochester NY.
This urge to bring Narragansett back to Rhode Island, in coordination with its “Drink Your Part!” campaign, launched Narragansett back and reinforced its ties to local heritage. Nearly every marketing and publicity move since 2005 has been focused around its ties to New England history and locations, brands, and people. This focus has been the sole reason for Narragansett’s success since the turn of the millennia, and has served as a focal point for the company’s brand identity.
In order to understand Narragansett Brewing Company’s ties to New England’s regionalism and localism, we will look at some examples of their beer offerings and determine what each means to their brand identity.
Rhode Island Brands
Narragansett’s “Mash-Ups”: Del’s Shandy and Del’s Black Cherry Shandy, Autocrat Coffee Stout, Allie’s Donuts Double Chocolate Porter
Rhode Island is somewhat unique in that it is host to a number of brands that are available only within the state. Del’s Lemonade, a staple for anyone that visits Lil’ Rhody during the summer, has deep roots in the local Italian American communities. Its distinctive frozen lemonade is only available in Rhode Island and a select few other locations. Autocrat Coffee Syrup, the necessary ingredient for coffee milk, is native to Rhode Island. Coffee milk is so hard to find in other states that the syrup often is bought and smuggled back home for people living elsewhere that are in the know. Allie’s Donuts is a family owned shop that has been serving donuts to RI’s South County since 1968. Their donuts are handmade and locals will line up as early as 5:00 AM to get coffee and donuts before work.
What Autocrat, Allie’s, Del’s, and Narragansett all have in common is that they are steeped in deep-rooted local nostalgia. Generations of New Englanders have grown up with these brands, and for many these brands are connected to a sense of family and home.
“People grow up and die here in New England. They have generations of families… If any region deserves its own beer, it’s New England.’’ Mark Hellendrung
Narragansett Brewing Co. has tapped into this nostalgia, reestablishing themselves as the brand of this region by teaming up with these three local icons. Their “Mash-Ups” with Allie’s, Autocrat, and Del’s reaffirm their focus around locality and heritage.
Rhode Island History and Art
Narragansett’s H.P. Lovecraft Series: Lovecraft Honey Ale, Innsmouth Olde Ale, Reanimator Helles Lager
Narragansett has grown and evolved with the history of Rhode Island. It was created first during a time when barrels were delivered by horse-drawn carriage, exploded in popularity during the Golden Age of Baseball, and now exists as an active brand in the digital age. Just as Narraganset pulls from local brand heritage for inspiration, it also pulls from local history and art. H.P. Lovecraft, born in Providence RI the same year that Narragansett was formed, was an author that wrote some of the most influential horror fiction. Despite writing a solid body of works, he lived the majority of his life in poverty, his works discovered largely posthumously.
Narragansett has created a series of beers using Lovecraft’s rich body of works as a narrative in which to brew and brand select beers around. The Lovecraft Honey Ale uses Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” to parallel the company’s history; from NBCo.’s website:
”When the brewery was shut down, the spirit of Narragansett never died; it went underground, to a deep and dark place. Since reclaiming our beer in 2005, we’ve worked hard to stay true to our roots. But after being in that dungeon for so long, we came back with some baggage. Just like the nameless protagonist from “The Outsider”, we emerged in the light a little different. A little…strange. Think of this brew as our bold, our obscure, our tampered-with mind. It won’t be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know exactly who it IS for. This is OUR Lovecraft.” – Mark Hellendrung”
“HP Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West—Reanimator’ and the 1985 film adaptation, Re-Animator, are horror fan favorites. In the story, Dr. West and his accomplice experiments with human reanimation by injecting fresh corpses with a serum meant to bring the dead back to life. We wanted to create a serum to resurrect one of our own; our beloved Bock beer.”
“Chapter 2 in the Lovecraft Series draws its inspiration from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” one of our favorite Lovecraft stories which chronicles one man’s ominous visit to the fictional sea town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. The dark, malty Innsmouth Olde Ale represents the shadow that hangs over the blighted town of Innsmouth and its strange inhabitants that spawn from the “Deep Ones.”
Being the Father of Modern Horror and a Providence RI native, Lovecraft has quite a local following. NBC has created a niche for literary and history buffs to connect with their beer. They also have hired several Rhode Island natives to design the artwork for their 16 oz “tallboy” cans. The first to come out, the Honey Ale artwork was designed by Providence-based artist AJ Paglia. The Innsmouth Old Ale artwork was designed by Rhode Island artist, Jason C. Eckhardt. Most recently, the Reanimator Helles Lager design is an illustration by Cranston, R.I. resident Aaron Bosworth. Narragansett Brewing Company is using this local history to intertwine its narrative with the people that live and have lived there. It is attempting to connect with the local community at every level.
Rhode Island Locations
One local connection that Narragansett Brewing Company has always had is with the coast, in part because of its relationship with its namesake, the town Narragansett. In fact, the town Narragansett was incorporated in 1888, just two years before Narragansett Brewing Company opened its doors. A beach town historically home to the states elite, Narragansett becomes flooded with tourists and beach-goers during the summer season.
Narragansett Brewing Company has used this connection with the coast as a branding mechanism. In their Town Beach IPA, the label depicts a late 1800’s beach scene from Narragansett’s Town Beach. While the “town beach” in Narragansett can be seen populated by families from all walks of life present day, this image depicts a scene of the actual residents of 1900’s Narragansett, bourgeois and of a slightly higher stature.
A similar effect is created with the Summer Ale. Depicted is the “Old Towers” in Narragansett, also known as the “Old Casino Arch.” This Arch, located present day along Narragansett’s sprawling sea wall, was once the entrance-way to Narragansett’s Pier Casino. While the Casino is long gone, burnt down in 1900, the towers are still there and act as a central point for Narragansett’s tourist economy. As one of the most recognizable structures in Narragansett, it is no surprise that Narragansett Brewing Company used it as the illustration for their Summer Ale. These scenes of beach living represent a unique Rhode Island subculture of elite, most famously known by the Newport Mansions.
Today, Narragansett also came out with its Big Mamie Indestructible Ale, a collaboration with Fall River’s Battleship Cove, home to the USS Massachusetts. This beer both commemorates a physical location, but also plays a part in bringing attention to the historical preservation of the WWII warship and shows Narragansett’s commitment to everything local.
21st Century Beer Dynasty
With all of these beer offerings, Narragansett is trying to connect with the community on multiple levels. They have a top-notch digital marketing team getting out the word about their latest and greatest, yet I would argue that it has not been email newsletters and radio advertisements that has put them back on the map. Rather, Narragansett Brewing Company came back with an extremely focused branding campaign that connected them with locals of New England, and specifically Rhode Island, on every level. Involving themselves with the narrative of the people around them, Narragansett has become the fastest growing beer brand in New England, and it looks like this time they are here to stay.
Bennett, Ashleigh. “11. Narragansett Brewing Company.” Rhode Island Beer: Ocean State History on Tap. Charleston, SC: American Palate, a Division of History, 2015. 86-89. Print.