Wicked lessons from Wicked Pete

Last Thursday Traction had a visit from Pete Slosberg and Mark "Rhino" Bronder, the co-founders of Pete's Wicked Ales. They came by for a Traction Reaction, a speaker series we have where we invite interested people by the agency to talk about whatever they feel like talking about. It's always informative and always fun. Mark and Pete didn't disappoint on either account. 

Pete told us the story of how they built Pete's Wicked from a idea into the #2 beer in the microbrew category. It was an impressive story. Here are some of the lessons learned.

1. Have reverence for your product—and irreverence for everything else. 

To me, this was the embodiment of the Pete's Wicked brand and after spending time with Pete and Mark, I understand why. Pete's approached not taking itself seriously with purposeful intent and the result was a brand that people loved.

2. Swim in blue oceans. 

These weren't their exact words, but it was their strategy. The words come from a great marketing book called Blue Ocean Strategy that divides the world in two camps: red oceans and blue. Red oceans are ones that are already full of competitors doing the same thing. Blue oceans are ones you create by doing something new. You don't compete on someone else's turf. You create your own. The craft brew segment was tiny and just emerging when Pete's Wicked got its start. At the same time, they knew their product had to jump off the shelves so they packaged it in a way that no one else did—in bright purple with a dog on it. In today's beer aisle that might not seem to out of the realm of normalcy, but in the 1980s it stood out like a sore thumb.

3. Defy convention. 

Conventional wisdom in the beer industry said that you had to build out your own brewery, but Pete and Mark saw all of these brewers sinking all their money into tanks and equipment. They thought there might be a better way. They rented excess capacity from other brewers and instead invested in building their own sales force. Turned out to be a pretty smart choice.

4. Love your people. 

During the years that Mark and Pete owned Pete's Wicked, they had 1% annual turnover. That's a damn good number. Time after time, I've seen great business leaders—Howard Schultz from Starbucks, Jack Ma from Alibaba.com, Tony Hseigh from Zappos, David Neelemen from JetBlue—say that if you want to exceed the expectations of your customers, you first have to exceed the expectations of your own employees. Mark and Pete understood that intuitively.

5. People like people. 

That's why Pete was the face of the brand. People are drawn to people they can relate to. They loved Pete because he was one of them. Here's a TV spot Goodby did for them back twenty years or so ago.

6. PR, PR, PR. 

These guys seized on every opportunity they could to get in the press. When Goodby dropped them as a client so they could take on the $35 million Bud Ice account, they sent out a press release and Pete himself staged a protest in front of the agency on California Street.

7. Education as marketing. 

Pete spent as much time as he could visiting restaurants that served his beer and in so doing learned something interesting. Waiters were not selling Pete's because they didn't want to look stupid if customers asked questions about it. So Pete created this chart about the beer landscape. He could give waiters a schooling on how to talk about beer in just 6 minutes. He could also show restaurant buyers who were likely to just have Bud/Coors Light/Miller type beers and maybe Guiness on tap that they were only giving their customers two choices—and gained distribution just about anywhere he showed it.

Wicked Pete map

8. Acknowledging your weakness is a strong move. 

Pete and Mark weren't good at operations. They recognized it, put aside their egos, hired a CEO and achieved fantastic success. As a business leader who has hired smart people much more talented than myself to handle operations, it's a move I can appreciate.

Adam Kleinberg CEO

Adam is the CEO of Traction, an interactive agency broadly recognized as one of the top small agencies in the US. Kleinberg plays a hands-on role for all agency accounts and keeps his team at the leading edge of emerging digital channels. He is also a regular contributor to Ad Age, Forbes, Mashable, Digiday and iMediaConnection.