Here’s a quick lesson in marketing 101: Building a brand — one that consumers not only recognize, but also like — takes lots of time, money, and energy. So, what do you do when you want to take a slight risk, one that has the potential to undermine some of the hard-earned trust and goodwill you’ve built up over the years? You launch another brand, one that looks and feels totally different from your core aesthetic.
Sierra Nevada did just that when it launched Hazy Little Thing in January 2018. It’s a hazy IPA, also known as a New England IPA (NEIPA), a style that’s proven wildly popular but can also be polarizing, to say the least.
The company’s executives had no idea just how much their strategic little gamble would pay off in the long run. Hazy Little Thing — the first nationally distributed hazy IPA, available on the shelves of big box stores like Walmart and Target — soon took on a life of its own. So much so that Sierra Nevada’s breweries in Chico, Calif., and Mills River, N.C., almost couldn’t keep up with demand.
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Floored by the runaway success, the company decided to take the “Little Thing” name and run with it. Sierra Nevada next launched Wild Little Thing, a sour ale with guava, hibiscus, and strawberry, in early 2020, followed by Big Little Thing (an imperial IPA), and Sunny Little Thing (a citrus wheat ale). By January 2022, Sierra Nevada had developed enough Little Things to launch a rainbow-colored party pack containing all four.
“Hazy Little Thing caught fire,” says Dave Williams, vice president of analytics and insights at BUMP Williams Consulting. “But they probably saw, and rightfully so, that craft drinkers don’t always drink hazy IPAs; they also drink wheat beers, they also drink sours, they also drink imperial IPAs. It’s a natural evolution of, ‘This is working, let’s add to it in a tactical way, a thoughtful way, a measured way.’”
Hazy Little Thing is still the big winner. This summer, it took down Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to become the No. 4 craft brand overall in the United States (Pale Ale, meanwhile, follows closely behind at No. 5), according to Nielsen off-premise sales data. It’s also the best-selling hazy IPA in the country, and the No. 2 overall IPA, trailing only New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger.
Though it’s still too early to tell for some of the individual beers and the party pack, all signs point to other members of the Little Things family succeeding, too: Sales of Big Little Thing are up 31 percent from November 2021, and the entire Little Things portfolio is up 17 percent year over year.
Little Things may as well be a textbook marketing case study: Sierra Nevada managed to retain its many long-standing customers — fans of core beers like Pale Ale and Torpedo — while also bringing in new drinkers. Even more impressive? It was somewhat of a happy accident.
“Did we know it was going to be so wildly successful? No,” says Kyle Ingram, Sierra Nevada’s brand director. “We launched this thing as a standalone beer, it was wildly successful, and then we baked in some insights we got from drinkers to expand the brand. But it’s a good reminder for craft beer in general to be OK [with] stepping outside your comfort zone, as long as you’re doing so in a way that’s in sync with what you really stand for.”
Little Thing, Big Deal
When Sierra Nevada’s leaders first began discussing a hazy IPA, not everyone was enthused about the idea, says Ingram. The style itself was controversial. But beyond that, the company’s executives were worried about how well Hazy Little Thing would match up with its reputation and what long-time Sierra Nevada consumers would think.
“When you’re experimenting, it is risky,” says Jean-Pierre Dubé, who directs the Kilts Center for Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and has studied the craft beer market. “It’s not necessarily about being able to deliver on quality — it could just be a question of image or compatibility.”
Sierra Nevada decided to forge ahead anyway. Crucially, its designers made the new hazy IPA’s cans and packaging look totally different from the brewery’s other offerings. With its vibrant teal background and prominent sunshine-yellow bubble, Hazy Little Thing gives off a lively, almost psychedelic vibe. It looks nothing like Pale Ale, with its natural green label and inlay of a wooded stream in front of snow-covered mountains, adorned with hops and malt.
Almost immediately, it became clear that Hazy Little Thing was something special. From focus groups, surveys, feedback via social media and email, and sales data, the Sierra Nevada team tried to glean exactly why.
A key theme emerged: approachability. Drinkers — including those who were new to craft beer altogether — found Hazy Little Thing to be inviting and friendly, rather than intimidating and exclusive. Sales data suggested some consumers came to Hazy Little Thing from hard seltzer and light beers like Coors Light, according to Ingram.
“You don’t have a hazy IPA trend every year — obviously that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but there are other styles that can be a little scary to some people,” says Ingram. “We like to think Little Things can be that entry point for people who maybe don’t see themselves in craft beer. It’s not just for white dudes with beards.”
That core tenet guided Sierra Nevada as it dreamed up the other Little Things styles. They made the groovy yellow overlay consistent across all four, but bathed each can in different, bold background hue: magenta for Wild Little Thing, royal purple for Big Little Thing, and orange for Sunny Little Thing. Though the cans all bear Sierra Nevada’s traditional scroll logo at the top, the beers’ names feature more prominently in big, bold font.
“This was a step forward to say these beers can have their own personality — they don’t have to live and die on the Sierra Nevada reputation,” says Ingram. “We can look at Sierra Nevada as a proof point or a reason to believe, but [Little Things] can also stand for something on its own.”
In 2022, Sierra Nevada launched its first Little Things brand campaign, “What’s Your Thing?” It plays on the idea that the 43-year-old brewery “is not a one-trick pony” that only makes hoppy IPAs, but also brews a variety of other styles for any fun situation, from a garage jam session to a pool party, says Ingram.
Blending Sierra Nevada’s Past, Present, and Future
The company didn’t set out to launch an entirely new brand family. But in the success of Hazy Little Thing — and its inclusive attributes — Sierra Nevada’s executives saw a golden opportunity for growth in an increasingly competitive industry that includes more than 9,200 breweries in the United States at last count.
“In today’s market, you have to fight to be relevant, whether you’re small, whether you’re big — it’s tough to differentiate,” says Bart Watson, chief economist for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the trade group for independent U.S. breweries. “The companies that are the most successful are the ones that find the balance between staying consistent to who they are and what they do, but also understand the changes that are occurring in the marketplace, and Sierra’s done that very, very well.”
Now, the Sierra Nevada team is focused on leveraging Little Things to boost its other beers — and, so far, that plan seems to be working. When stores display Hazy Little Thing and Pale Ale together, for example, sales of both beers rise. That’s confirmation of Ingram’s belief that Sierra Nevada can remain true to itself while also taking steps to attract new drinkers.
“If we’re just speaking to the same people over and over and over again,” he says, “we’re just fighting for a bigger share of the same pie.”