You’re on a pirate ship from the 1600s, in the San Diego Bay, during Comic Con. It’s a scorching hot day, and in your hand is a cold beer. This beer is the reason behind this tall ship activation. This beer makes more sense being at a comic convention than a beer fest. This beer is performing better in-market than any other beverage of its type. This beer is New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger.

“Of the Top 30 brands growing dollars YTD, pretty much all of them are IPA, and about half belong to New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger family,” says an August article from Craft Business Daily. For a beer that has only been around for six years, Voodoo Ranger has become a staple to New Belgium’s growth, as well as an innovative brand pushing the boundaries of product development and marketing tactics within the beer space. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Creating a New Beer Identity

“One of the things I find most impressive about the Voodoo Ranger family is the way New Belgium was able to create a brand under its umbrella that can stand on its own, but also contains subtle nods to the parent brand,” says Jessica Infante, managing editor of Brewbound. New Belgium, founded in 1991, continues to produce notable core offerings such as an amber ale and sour brown ale. And while those styles might seem a bit antiquated at this point, the company ethos has always been daring with progressive beer programs and sustainable initiatives. Indeed, it was named one of Inc.’s Most Audacious Companies of 2013. So when Voodoo Ranger launched in 2017, it was clear they had this intrepid spirit in mind.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

Voodoo Ranger’s identity revolves a bit more toward its antihero skeleton mascot than the liquid itself. Unlike other beer social media profiles, where users usually find curated beer photos of pour shots and lifestyle content, Voodoo Ranger’s Instagram is more of a collection of memes, “served with a side of sarcasm.” This approach has worked to create a craft beer that caters to a more contemporary drinker. “Voodoo Ranger can attract younger drinkers into the New Belgium fold who came of age in a highly fragmented craft beer landscape and likely have never drunk a Fat Tire,” Infante says. “At the same time, the Voodoo Ranger fam offers trendier styles to longtime craft drinkers who know and appreciate New Belgium.”

While the Voodoo Ranger brand voice maintains a casual and playful tone, it seems deliberate, and effective, in marketing one of today’s best-selling craft beers. Since Aug. 7, 2021, sales of Voodoo Ranger’s Imperial IPA are up 20.9 percent, to $92.7 million YTD. Its other SKUs, such as Juicy Haze, its hazy IPA, increased by 15.3 percent, to $26.2 million, and its Variety Pack increased dollar sales by 34.1 percent, to $20.4 million, according to IRI-data reported by Brewbound. That’s a lot of hoppy beer.

And in a sea of IPAs, the brand maintains relevancy by leaning into subcultures like video gaming communities — hence its appearance at Comic Con — and activations like “Vote Voodoo,” a fully integrated marketing campaign where drinkers can vote on upcoming releases and their aesthetic. More recently, Voodoo Ranger has continued innovation by branching out into other beer styles, like its Atomic Pumpkin pumpkin ale, with a lager on the way by 2023.

New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger has shifted the relevancy of the brand.
Credit: Voodoo Ranger

Dave Knospe, senior brand manager of Voodoo Ranger, compares the brand to Dollar Shave Club. “There is something in finding a high-quality product that doesn’t focus on exclusive messaging,” he says. Knospe calls attention to the technical language in an industry that sometimes goes over the purchaser’s head. Who cares about nine blades of titanium steel, when people just want to just shave their face? “We use all the same high-quality hops, we have the same team sourcing those great ingredients, the same brewers,” Knospe says. “We’ve chosen that maybe we don’t have to hit people over the head about what Nelson Sauvin hops are. We’re just going to take a different approach and say ‘What do these drinkers actually want?’ They want to have fun. They want to drink with their friends. They want to game. They want to do all these other things that they associate with beer rather than hop profiles.”

Building on a Legacy

That said, the beer is just as important. From a total production level for New Belgium, Imperial IPA is the No. 1 SKU, with Juice Force, its hazy imperial IPA, right behind it getting larger every year. “Since 2019, [Voodoo Ranger] has become a top priority for New Belgium,” says Knospe. “For the previous 20 years it had been Fat Tire, which is still a huge part of our legacy.” While New Belgium and Voodoo Ranger have their own discrete identities, to Infante’s point, there is definitely some crossover between the two brands.

“The New Belgium brand on the package definitely lends some level of equity to our beer. There is such a rich tradition there that when faced with the question of if we should even include the New Belgium logo on the Voodoo Ranger beers, we feel pretty strongly that the value is immeasurable,” Knospe says. “It’s a part of every Voodoo Ranger beer. There’s definitely a different consumer that we’ve brought in, but it’s less of a Voodoo versus New Belgium and more of a Voodoo versus ‘craft.’”

Six years ago, making the decision to spin off New Belgium’s original Ranger IPA to create a whole standalone line and identity seemed a bit risky. But at that time, the Voodoo Ranger team knew that they had to modernize the liquid, and a new range seemed like the perfect opportunity. “We needed to make an IPA that would work in 2017 and beyond,” Knospe explains. “It kind of made sense to make a new brand. We were an ‘also ran’ in IPA at that point, which is wild to think about now.” And for many loyal Voodoo Ranger drinkers, these IPAs exist in a world beyond the beer style.

Currently, with a whole universe created for this product and character, the team has more freedom and flexibility to chase fantasies. And the fans love it. You can find Voodoo Ranger action figures, Discord channels, and placement in fairly non-conventional craft beer settings. “We don’t want to make Voodoo Ranger redundant of New Belgium, but we also want to support the key values of New Belgium at the same time,” Knospe says.

Since New Belgium donates $1 per barrel to non-profits and causes, Voodoo Ranger is contributing substantially to that. “We let the parent brand, New Belgium, own that messaging, while we go off and make silly things and make people laugh,” Knospe jokes, adding, “They work in concert. I don’t think Voodoo Ranger works without New Belgium and I don’t think New Belgium works without Voodoo Ranger at this point.” This may or may not be the case for the scads of drinkers who buy into the Voodoo Ranger brand, but for New Belgium, it was a wily marketing decision that continues to pay off.

This story is a part of VP Pro, our free platform and newsletter for drinks industry professionals, covering wine, beer, liquor, and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!