Women planning to have a beer at a barbecue this weekend have two choices: a brew from a sexist mass-market brewery or one from a sexist craft brewery.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But given the way beer is marketed, it’s not far off. For years, ads from the big beer brands have painted women as either bikini babes or nagging wives. A few have gone even further over the line—remember the Bud Light “Up For Whatever” campaign, which included the spectacularly inappropriate slogan, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night?” Craft brewers, meanwhile, have given their beers names like “Raging Bitch IPA” and “Midnight Sun Panty Peeler.” And while some companies seem to be attempting to course correct, it’s going to take an awful lot of Amy Schumer Super Bowl ads to undo the industry’s sexist rep.
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It seems silly to alienate such a large audience of potential customers. After all, women already consume about 33% of craft beer by volume, according to the Craft Brewers Society. And making beer more “gender friendly” could add about 5 million barrels to the industry’s annual U.S. sales (currently about 206 million barrels) over the next five years, according to Bloomberg reporting.
Enter High Heel Brewing, a new producer run by female master brewer Kristi McGuire. As you might have gathered from the company’s name, McGuire is targeting the women’s market. In fact, USA Today calls High Heel the only woman-run brewery “to cater specifically to women.” One of the company’s two beers, which are expected to hit shelves in June, is called “Slingback,” after the shoe style, and the packaging is heavy on traditionally feminine colors like pink and purple.
While it’s encouraging to see a woman at the helm, High Heel raises a question: Do women need a beer company devoted just to them?
After all, it’s not clear that women’s beer tastes differ drastically from men’s. Some research has found that female beer drinkers are more likely than their male counterparts to prefer some styles, such as golden ales or fruit-flavored beers, but, as McGuire says, taste isn’t binary: “There’s a whole spectrum of women out there.” She adds that she hopes men will enjoy High Heel’s beers as much as women will.
The most explicitly female-oriented aspect of High Heel, of course, is the company’s name and packaging. However, “girlie” branding can backfire if it makes female customers feel stereotyped or condescended to. “It feels tin-eared to me,” says Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at brand consulting firm Landor, of High Heel’s marketing. “This kind of thing can reduce us to tropes.” Like beer companies still trying to appeal specifically to frat boys and macho dudes, Ordahl says that aiming a beer explicitly at women “feels dated—like a holdover from the past.”
McGuire says High Heel’s branding is a big part of its strategy. “We’re definitely deliberately trying to include women in craft beer—it’s not subtle.” But she doesn’t think the company is condescending to female drinkers, saying, “It’s just meant to be eye-appealing and fashionable.”
While it remains to be seen whether women will rush to end a long day by kicking back with a High Heel Slingback, you have to give McGuire credit for being at least a little more subtle than the last women-specific beer to hit the market: Chick Beer, a lager than came in a six-pack designed to look like a purse.
“We didn’t want to make a gimmick,” says McGuire. “We didn’t make the beer pink—we could have—but we didn’t.”