Asia Brewers Network

Kickstarting Your Brewing Business, Pt.1: Focus


In our new Business Kick-Starter series we ask prominent members of the region’s craft beer community to explore areas of the business new start-up’s should consider when entering the industry. In our first installment Founder & CEO of Vietnam’s Heart of Darkness, John Pemberton, takes a look at the most important first steps you’ll take into the world of setting up a new brewery – your Business Focus.

So you want to start a brewery…

As craft brewers we are united by our passion for beer. Most of us started out as homebrewers going from clones of our favorite brews to our own original recipes and then before you know it you’ve got friends saying “Hey! We should open a brewery.” I’ll never forget the rush of that moment, the excitement, potential and slight dread.

But the beer is just the start of the story.

It is of course critical to have great beer, but there is a lot of great beer out there. With all that friendly competition you need to make sure you can cut though the noise and get your message heard.

When we started Heart of Darkness, we started by asking ourselves who do we want to be as a company, where do we fit into the craft beer universe and how do we get our product out.

Have a plan

Like all good communists we stated with a five-year plan. That plan started with the five top things we wanted to achieve over the next five years. This guides our target markets, brewing approach, financial goals, and the physical footprint of our bars. That Five-year rolling plan focus’ our business decisions and direction.

We focused on becoming a strong Asian brand because that was the part of the world in which the three founders were most comfortable trading and where we were physically located making it easier to network and be on the ground.

We then took a view that if we wanted to bring craft beer to Asia, we should be true to the direction of the US craft beer market and brew bold innovative beers that challenge the way the local market looked at beer.

Create an identity

Once you have your plan you need an identity, this comes in two important forms, your brand, and your company culture. A brand is more than just a logo, it’s your identity and it is what will ultimately bond you with your customer.

It really helps if your brand comes from your heart, so you feel it and identify with it. Then everything will flow. Spend time on this, it matters as much, or possibly more, than good liquid. That may be a controversial statement in the craft world, but it is the reality of the business world.

We wanted a brand name with impact that was dark and edgy that people wouldn’t forget we wanted people to think who the f*** calls their brewery Heart of Darkness, or that’s a cool name, but they remember it.

We also wanted to link loosely back to our roots in Saigon. We considered Apocalypse Now with its opening line of “Saigon, sh** still only in Saigon” it ticked all the boxes, but it was obvious. So, we took it down a level and settled on Heart of Darkness, the book that Apocalypse Now is based upon, and my favorite book.

Having this central reference point to build the brand around has been powerful, it’s given us consistency provides a rich source of ideas. The book is set on the Congo and all our labels have a river running through them.

This represents the Congo but also it also represents the journey of exploration we take our customers on, it’s a constant reminder to the team of the mission.

All our beer names come from the book and all our labels are graphic representation of the passage the name comes from in the book. This gives us visual continuity and some amazing names that color the brand. It also gives us a brand that is personal for us and for those that love it.

Building a strong cohesive brand will bring you strong brand loyalty, that sells beer but more importantly it becomes the customer’s brand.

Heart of Darkness craft beer bottles on a table

In a busy marketplace strong brand identity is an essential business tool

Do you need a home?

The ultimate extension of your brand is a taproom a home where customers could come interact with your brand and your culture.

However, this should be a considered move. The pros are if you do the bar right you can quickly build volume and raise awareness of your brewery and your product and you can really meet your customer. But running a bar is a very different beast to running a brewery, make sure you have the time and staff for it.

I love our bars, but they are a lot of work and as we have learned painfully over the last two years, they can become a very big burden.

How will you package?

Pack form is something else you should consider. Here we need to step back from the tired old cans are better than bottles argument and look at your market, it’s not about us, what does your consumer want?

Asia for example still has a strong perception that bottles mean quality. So, forcing cans on consumers won’t help sales. But in a more advanced craft market like New Zealand, you’d do well to go cans from the start, plus they are great from marketing canvas perspective.

Build a strong team spirit

Your team are the living embodiment of your brand, they are the connection between you, your customers and suppliers. These are the people that will front your brand so make sure they are like minded spirits whose goals and values are aligned with yours.

Write up your top five values and make sure you hire people that share them and live them. Organizations are living organisms, you want them to be harmonious and pulling in the same direction not a constant ego struggle.

Face up to the reality

At Heart of Darkness, we believe everything starts and ends with good beer, but in the middle of that we have a business like any other business to run. Running a successful brewery is more than just making great beer it’s about building great teams, great brands and having a cohesive rolling strategy.

So read up on your marketing, spend time on your branding and surround yourself with a passionate team that share your dreams, you’ll need them by your side because the journey will be challenging.

The Heart of Darkness Staff celebrate

Article by:

John Pemberton

John Pemberton

Founder & CEO

Heart of Darkness, Ho Chi Minh City

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