I first discovered my love for beer while living in Strasbourg, France. I was 20, studying abroad and had never been much of a beer girl before. But if there’s one thing your first true foreign travel does for you, it opens your horizons. And one of the horizons it opened for me was beer.
Being an American, I had thought beer was the light yellow stuff my uncle drank out of a silver can. But being in France — not a beer capital, I know, but still not the States — I started to learn more options were out there. Heineken and Kronenbourg became my brands of choice. I could see the Kro factory outside my bedroom window, so at the time drinking Kronenbourg was kind of obligatory. But I won’t really touch it or Heineken now. As an adult, I’m a bit more grown up with my tastes, preferring a porter, and the darker the better. Guinness was my beer of choice for several years, but thanks to the vibrant microbrew scene in Louisville, Kentucky, where I now live, I’ve found even darker, thicker stouts to satisfy my tastes. We actually have bourbon barrel stouts in Kentucky — something I’ve not found elsewhere — and they make Guinness taste a little thin.
It’s not just translation for the food and drink industry (believe me, exports and imports in this market flow like distilling water) that we in localization can learn from beer today. It’s the existence of the craft brew itself — that ever-developing, hipster-enthralling, growing-market phenomenon. Microbrewing is all about quality, and the yellow stuff, more affectionately known as “good old fashioned American piss water,” has become a mere commodity.
Commodity. It’s the word the American Translators Association is most afraid of. And it’s what translation, for the most part, has become. There are multiple translation management systems (TMS) now that pit language service providers (LSPs) against one another in bidding wars as part of a client’s standard project management process. Not just government agencies, but now many private corporations make 100% of their translation purchasing decisions based off of request for proposals or reverse auctions that take absolutely nothing into consideration but price. Where once upon a time these agencies and companies would at least pretend to look at information regarding quality and performance of deliverables, the trend is now moving toward not even bothering to ask for it. The end result is that some translation winds up being nothing more than good old fashioned — you guessed it — piss water.
In a world, though, where quality is in the eye of the beholder, is that altogether a bad thing? Maybe if we can keep the low quality LSPs distracted by the dazzling lights of clients who just don’t care, that minimizes the noise for the rest of us when we compete for clients with more discriminating tastes. In the world of beer, what I call “The Lites,” meaning Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, all have their loyal followings. On my last birthday, a cousin of mine asked me what I even saw in “that expensive stuff” while he stood there with a Coors Light in his hand. This is the American South after all, where the drink defines the (wo)man. But there are plenty of other places in the Union where the commoditized, hoppy ale prevails. Throughout America, the Lites line gas station shelves, sit proudly on tailgates, and star in backyard barbecues. One of my best friends — a Brit, not American — likes her beer as pale as I do mine dark. It just goes to show that regardless of background, different people have different preferences and as the French would say, to each his taste (à chacun son gout).
But loyal as my cousin and others may be, 2011 sales for the stereotypical American beer were down 1.3% according to the August/September 2012 issue of Global Trade. It’s because the US beer industry is not without its own threats. As Mike Esterl reported to the Wall Street Journal, there’s been a fight to win the new generation of drinkers over to beer. In an internet video interview, Esterl pointed out that “a lot of people have been shifting over to liquor and wine, so beer’s actually been losing what you call ‘throat share’ over the last few years.” Not only has commoditization hurt individual sales for The Lites, but it’s hurt the industry as a whole as well, leaving room for bourbon, whiskey and other alcohols to come in. See, that’s what happens when you allow something to become a commodity. When the words Bud, Miller and Coors become interchangeable, you’re only left with a light, light world.
Indeed, the beer world knows its best interests are to course-correct. For the first time since opening exports to the United States in 1933, Heineken — that college beer of choice and a brand with declining US sales for the last four years in a row — has changed its iconoclastic bottle, putting a taller, sleeker model on store shelves. And they’re not the only ones trying to use packaging to stand out lately. Miller refurbished bottles to make them resealable and Coors issued “cold-activated” cans that turn blue when the beer’s temperature changes, just like a Hypercolor t-shirt from the 1990s. So that’s one step toward the solution, and the most readily done: if you can’t keep selling the same you-know-what, just make ‘em think they’re buying something new. Or in other words, differentiation via brand marketing.
To truly compete in a commoditized industry, of course, it’s not just enough to say you’re different. You must actually be different. Enter the craft beer. At the same time that many American beers have become commoditized, crafts like the bourbon barrel stout I now drink are becoming all the rage. From borderline microbreweries like Sam Adams to truer ones such as Rogue Ales, US craft brewers are sending much higher quality beer across the pond than what America has been known for since colonial days, and it’s both dark and light. As quoted by Global Trade, the US Brewer’s Association reports that in 2011 the American craft brewing industry grew 13% by volume and 15% in dollars earned. The year 2010 saw a 12% volume increase and a 15% financial one. When you compare this consistent double-digit growth to a steady decrease in the sale of commoditized beer, I’d say there’s definitely something for our industry to learn here. It isn’t just enough to change the can. In order to stand out, you have to brew a better beer. While I applaud our industry’s recent efforts to create differentiation through marketing, people aren’t stupid. At some point, your customers will figure out that they’re drinking the same American piss water sold by all the other Lites. Again, there’s a place for this in our industry since not everything needs to be translated at the top of the line. But those of us on my side of the game do have to decide what kind of businesses we run and what kind of market we want to compete in. Buyers have to decide what they really need and what they really want — what their tastes are, so to speak. Here’s the question for all of us, though: what kind of translation do we want at the forefront of our collective industry? A finely-crafted bourbon barrel stout or the same Coors Light in a fancier can?