Innovator Interviews: Truly’s Don Lane

When Don Lane first joined The Boston Beer Company, Inc.’s fast-growing hard seltzer Truly in August as VP of Truly Brand, he looked to his hometown friends as a litmus test to gauge just how wide the drink’s appeal had grown in its short four-year lifespan.

When Don Lane first joined The Boston Beer Company, Inc.’s fast-growing hard seltzer Truly in August as VP of Truly Brand, he learned a lot about just how widespread the four-year-old brand's consumption had already become. 

“Our business is an almost exactly 50/50 split [of male and female], believe it or not,” Lane says. “If you go to golf courses, the sidekick on a golf course is a hard seltzer. It's a sport where men and women both play. It's a bit of a dog whistle there, where it’s OK to drink hard seltzer for men. Because when you're bro’ing down on the golf course, there's a hard seltzer right there in your cart. When I saw that this summer, it really resonated with me that this had a broader appeal than even I had realized.” 

Truly isn’t the only brand benefitting from this behavioral shift.Nielsen recently found that off-premise sales of hard seltzers (non-bar and restaurant sales) grew $2.4 billion from the end of summer 2019 to summer 2020, with Truly ranking at No. 2 behind Mark Anthony Brands’ category leader White Claw. Truly was also one of two key growth areas for Boston Beer’s third quarter earnings, helping the company achieve a net revenue increase of 30.2% year-over-year, to $492.8 million.

What’s fueling that growth? A high conversion of consumers who are still new to the seltzer category, as well as a portfolio of 16 flavors, including Truly Lemonade, which has already become the third highest-selling hard seltzer brand just 10 months after its launch in January 2020. 

Brand Innovators caught up with Lane from his home near Truly’s headquarters in Boston to learn more about the demographic (and psychographic) trends driving the brand’s growth, its efforts to reach and empower the LGBTQ+ and Black communities, and how unexpected partnerships with the National Hockey League and “Monday Night Football” have already paid off. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: You just joined Truly this summer after spending the past two years as CMO at Saucony. What appealed to you about the opportunity?

Don Lane: There’s a few things. It was impossible not to notice, especially being in Boston, just the rise of hard seltzer. And as a consumer I was starting to dabble in it. So the opportunity to join a team that is growing a business as fast as it is, that was the first thing. As you know, Truly didn’t exist five years ago, so it's still wet cement. Even though it’s growing and it’s in a leadership position, there was an opportunity as a brand builder to work with a great team to shape what we hope is going to be a mega brand or an iconic brand.

And my personal objective is to look back, after we get our next campaign out there and connect with consumers, to be seen as one of the handful of the great American brands that roll off the tongue like Nike or Apple. I’d love to be on the top of that list of what great brands have accomplished.

And the thing that just landed for me as I met with more and more people is the culture is incredible. It’s fast, it's familial, there’s an esprit de coeur. And that's rare I think. When you've had a career as long as mine, you know what it's like when a team is aligned and wants to win and has a plan to get there. So the combination of a growth category with a leading brand, the opportunity to build an iconic brand with a great group of people, that’s what it took for me to leave. And I’m really happy because it’s been so far so good. 

You've worked across many different marketing categories through your different roles, from spirits to footwear to sports marketing to many clients on the agency side. Is that by design? Do you like to bring a fresh perspective to each of the roles you take on? 

Absolutely. My father was a creative director for a big agency, so through osmosis I didn't realize I was getting an education in advertising or brand building and marketing. So when I went to Arnold, it was just wonderful because at the agency there were incredible opportunities at the time. I spent the first half of my career on Volkswagen and the “Drivers Wanted” campaign. That was kind of my Camelot in the sense that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to work on something as amazing as that again. I've been chasing trying to find something like that again. 

I learned so much from so many people, and as my career evolved at Arnold I kept moving into different categories whether it was more digital or business development or more global, or moving into sports or other passion categories that I loved. It became clear to me that there were certain simple things that great brands do that could be applied to new categories with a fresh perspective. And I think that's the throughline, just understanding what great brands do and being part of the team to bring them to life.  

After working at Arnold for 20 years, I felt like I wasn't learning as much as I had for the first two decades, so the flip to client side was an opportunity to grow, to challenge myself and to keep learning. When I went to DraftKings, it was as the head of the brand and creative team. And it gave me the opportunity to install best practices from other clients that I’d worked on from consumer insights to integrated marketing and brand strategy. So going to DraftKings was a chance to build brand capabilities into a performance marketing organization, while also growing into myself as a creative leader. 

The next step was to learn at Saucony in a different category and be the CMO there and have a hand in everything including creative, strategy, ecommerce and bring some of the simple brand building tactics to that brand in that category. So, I think the througline is always wanting to learn and grow, and that's helped me feel fulfilled while helping other brands learn and grow to become their own iconic brands.

Boston Beer's recent Q3 earnings showed that Truly has proven to be a bright spot in the portfolio. What consumer behaviors and market conditions are driving that most recent growth? 

Truly, like some brands in other categories, has been able to navigate through a really difficult time because we have the right product at the right time. But also, we’ve been able to connect with consumers in their habitat in ways that have really resonated. People being limited to what we call the off-premise channel has played into our hand, because from the beginning we've done well at grocery stores, in convenience stores, liquor stores and clubs. So as quarantine forced more people to do more at home, hard seltzer has been right there for them and even been a bright spot for them as they enjoy Truly through a virtual happy hour or on a back porch behind masks with their friends. Quarantine has slowed our growth on premise, obviously, but that's the whole category.

The other thing that’s happening with trends out there is people are stuck, we’re behind masks, separated by screens and stuck in our homes. And humans and consumers are craving a variety of flavor in their lives both literally and figuratively, Truly has been a leader in innovation. We were the first to market with a line extension like Truly Lemonade in January, it was something new to try. And it was a great product that delivered on our promise of great flavor through innovation. We also reformulated our core products right before COVID hit, we refreshed them and injected more flavor into them so there was something new and a sense of variety for people to explore. I think those are some of the trends that Truly has been able to capitalize on.

What does Truly's consumer target look like in terms of demographics? Any psychographic insights you've learned about your consumer as well? 

When you look at the demographics, the people who drink Truly tend to be younger, more educated and have a higher income than White Claw, our primary competitor, plus a higher basket ring. It’s a rich target audience in all the senses of that word demographically. But, we pay more attention to their mindset in terms of how we go to market. So psychographically, these are people who are really inclusive, open minded, engaged in the world around them. There's a sense of curiosity and spontaneity that really stands out of how those people index for Truly vs. our competitive set. What we found is that Truly fans come alive when they’re doing what they live for. They recognize that life’s full of flavor and they just want to explore it. 

That’s why our brand lives at the intersection of what our target is looking for – innovation, exploration and discovery. That’s a magic formula. Going back to the Volkswagen example, those were people that wanted to drive, but they're drivers in life. There is something under the hood, no pun intended, in terms of what Volkwagen offered that was authentic and genuine and true. For Truly, again no pun intended, we can tell the truth about our product. There's a variety and exploration for people looking for a better experience full of exploration and discovery. So it’s a pretty great combination we have to work with. We’ll just continue to innovate and bring new products to our target. We’ll be launching an iced tea at the beginning of next year. That’ll be the next new line extension and we’ll be first to market with that. So we’re looking at what are they looking for, and how do we serve them.  

You mentioned your audience is inclusive and open-minded. How do you bring that to life creatively in your marketing?

Our core philosophy as a brand is “Live Truly.” It’s more than a hashtag or a tagline, it’s a platform. It’s a north star, it’s a filter for everything that we do. We believe that what we do is more important than what we say. So we’re going to have advertising that will say things, and have activations in terms of how we go to market and behave as a brand. But one of the pillars is a real concerted effort around diversity & inclusion, which is the people we stand for and try to attract. 

We had a partnership with GLAAD, going after the LGBTQ community and looking at influencers there. When everything was happening with Black Lives Matter, we were able to pivot under the advice of GLAAD to tap Black LGBTQ influencers and elevate Black voices to celebrate the differences in all of us. That was something that wasn't in the works prior and we were able to be really resonant at a time when brands had to pick a lane. 

What was cool around the same time, I didn’t even work here yet, but there was a Truly Lemonade billboard in Times Square. And what Boston Beer did was took down that billboard and put up a Black Lives Matter poster and didn’t put our logo on it. When I saw that, I was like, “Hell yeah. Ok there’s a brand that recognizes it’s more important what you do than what you say.” It was the right thing to do and it was true to who we are and it just made sense. 

This coming year, there’s a bit of innovation. We have a Truly Pride pack in May with a rosé hard seltzer. It's both about making a statement about what’s important to us in resonating with our target, creating a product that delivers what the target’s looking for, it's about what we do. 

Hard seltzer is thought to be more of a summer/warm weather beverage. How do you plan to sustain that consumption heading deeper into Q4 and the winter?

It's funny, it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we first started, it definitely was more seasonal. But what we found though is it’s a new category, so the tide is rising for everyone including around the year. I guess it would be fair to say we are slightly stronger in spring and summer, but it is a year-round business. The proof is in the example I gave earlier with lemonade, can you imagine launching lemonade hard seltzer, which has never existed before, in January? And here we are 10 months later, and across all our competitive set, the number three hard seltzer is Truly Lemonade. It is in and of itself bigger than all of Corona Seltzer, all of Vizzy. And it has catapulted Truly to a top 10 beer brand, when you look at the top beer brands it’s No. 10, ahead of Heineken. 

That’s just evidence that it is a year-round business. There's still room to grow, but the more we surprise people, the more people come to it. With Iced Tea launching in the first quarter of the coming year, that’s another example of our confidence in our ability to not cannibalize but actually expand our offering and grow our business even after a year where it’s exploded. 

How has your media mix shifted with the rise of OTT content and social media, and the ever-fluctuating timetable for live sports and other TV tentpoles?

It's still early days, so we don’t want to overinvest in any channel. We want to make sure we’re reaching our consumers where they are, and in our category of course with TV and online video you get your eyeballs and can make a big impact. 

We've been looking at streaming audio as a good example of an opportunity for us to really connect with people where they are experiencing things or consuming things that they live for. It’s a great way for us to target, for example, the Hispanic audience that is so important to us.

And we have a good combination of big, mega-brand partnerships – we’re the official hard selzer of the NHL and we showed up in a big way throughout the season and in particular through the Stanley Cup playoffs, we have a big presence on “Monday Night Football.” These are places where you wouldn't have expected Truly a year ago, and we’ll continue to play there.

And then we’re also finding those other opportunities like streaming audio, paid social, and we want to make sure we’re also popping up around the world of our targets as they come out from hibernation. I would expect out-of-home to be an important reminder that Truly’s out there. It sounds pretty generic, it’s a little bit of everything, but we’re trying to build a mega-brand across the country so we want to leave no stone unturned to accomplish that.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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