The New Belgium Brewery’s flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale was a favorite in the Rocky Mountain states, especially popular amongst outdoor enthusiasts. However, the owners of the privately-held company had much more expansive ambitions—to win over mass-market beer drinkers, to roll out distribution throughout the country, and eventually to trump Sam Adams as the nation’s number one craft beer. But the company hit a snag when it expanded aggressively to the West Coast: after the novelty of a new out-of-state craft beer wore off, Fat Tire sales fell off significantly, well below what was needed for the rollout to succeed.
New Belgium faced a problem that is common amongst entrepreneurial companies with successful niche businesses—what we call the cultural chasm. The strategic problem is the cultural analogue to that faced by many start-up technology companies when they take their technological innovation into the mass market—what Geoffrey Moore famously termed “crossing the chasm.” Working with Everett Rodgers’s seminal model for the diffusion of innovations, Moore noticed that many tech companies failed to make the leap into the mass market, having hit a dead end in the niche market comprised of early adopters of the innovation. Moore argued that early adopters differ from mass-market consumers in the value they ascribe to the innovation and in the decision-making process they go through in order to adapt the innovation. For Silicon Valley industries, this chasm has to do with an aversion to unproven technologies in applications that are critical to the company’s mission. Start-ups often fail to comprehend these differences in demand, and, so, they fail when the launch into the mass market with the same strategy that was so successful for them early on. Without evolving their strategies, they will not, in Moore’s terms, “cross the chasm.”
The same principle holds for ideological opportunities, except that the chasm is cultural rather than technological. Nike stalled because the company knew how to sell running shoes only to runners. But, when it culled from the runners’ subculture one particular ideological facet that had tremendous appeal to the mass market—the runners’ stubborn competitive tenacity to push themselves even though they were training alone—and presented it in a simple, inviting manner, Nike took off amongst mainstream consumers. The principle is a kind of cultural alchemy: the company converts an ideologically charged element of subcultural experience into a broader marketplace myth, to be enjoyed ritually by less-engaged mass-market consumers. Cultural strategy offers a powerful tool for entrepreneurs looking to break into the mass market. By crossing the cultural chasm, young companies and niche businesses can transform their offerings into mainstream successes.
We developed a cultural strategy to draw upon New Belgium’s tremendous authenticity amongst subculturalists in the mountains to advocate a potent ideology desired by its target market of upper-middle class professional men in urban metro markets, what we call the pastoral-amateur ideology. Crossing the cultural chasm requires moving from a marketplace dominated by insider customers, who often hold considerable expertise in the category, to what we call follower customers, who simply want an accessible way to tap into a valued cultural expression that the product can credibly represent. For New Belgium, this shift required stepping away from the hardcore beer aficionados, who were the opinion leaders in the craft brew market, and their artisanal–cosmopolitan ideology, to consider what value the brand could offer to satiate their particular ideological thirst of BoBos in search of self-actuating avocations.
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