(Image: Tina Tiller)

How Moa’s awful marketing left it stranded in craft beer no man’s land

Its 2012 investment prospectus was all suits, cigars, guns, sports cars and models in short skirts, and its consumer advertising was possibly even worse. Did the Moa brand’s dodgy attitude to women contribute to its huge losses?

The middle of the road can wind up being a risky place for a business. Typically a conservative approach, it’s where a brand avoids the extreme or dedicated ends of the market to target a broad swathe of malleable consumers. The problem is, without a vivid identity, it can be hard to stand out against your competitors.

Moa sat in the middle of the road, but it actually did stand out – only for all the wrong reasons.

The brewery, which was founded in Blenheim in 2003, sold last week for $1.9m, a fraction of its $38m post-IPO valuation in 2012. It had reported substantial losses over the past decade, and its parent company, Moa Group wanted to offload it and continue with Savor, the more profitable hospitality side of the business that it purchased in 2019.

For the brewery, the sale was a glum coda to a wretched song. And while there are numerous reasons why the brand failed to live up to its hype, the most intriguing one can be explored through the unique market in which it operates.

In New Zealand, there are few industries that capture a classic cultural polarity better than beer. At the one end, there are the giant companies with mass-produced products: Lion Red, Steinlager, Speights – brands that dominated the market for decades, mostly targeting male drinkers with mythical tropes of stoic, cheeky, Kiwi blokedom. At the other end there’s the newer wave of smaller craft brewers selling locally made, specialist products that prioritise taste, quality ingredients and artistic packaging, and which target both men and women.

And there in the middle sat Moa, the self-styled premium craft beer brand that not only chose to adopt mainstream beer’s male-focused marketing, but mutate it into something even worse.

Its magnum opus was the infamous 2012 IPO shareholder prospectus: a 132-page magazine-style booklet with a dubious “Mad Men” theme, with photos of company directors dressed in suits, smoking cigars and drinking beer alongside models in white blouses and short skirts. It included tips on achieving “moments of modern manhood” and on other pages displayed ads for high-end companies: Beretta rifles, Aston Martins and a naked woman on a white horse peddling candles by Ecoya, a company also run by Moa CEO Geoff Ross.

Moa’s prospectus photos with general manager Gareth Hughes on the right (Screenshot: Moa’s 2012 IPO Prospectus)

It’s easy to see what they were hoping to achieve: a witty play on “investing” featuring cliched images of rich, powerful businessmen. The problem wasn’t just the unashamed sexism of the images, but the fact that it was the kind of marketing that’s typically the realm of high-end whiskies or watches. And here it was being employed by a mid-range semi-craft beer.

Kathleen Kuehn, a media studies lecturer at Victoria University with a particular interest in the beer industry, says these campaigns were part of Moa’s strategy as a market outlier. They were quickly met by a social media backlash, with Twitter critics sarcastically adopting the hashtag #momentsofmanhood to poke fun at the brand.

Says Kuehn: “With craft beer in New Zealand, one of the main points of distinction from mainstream is it appears less overtly sexist and male dominated. Even though it kind of still is, it’s a lot more subtle. But Moa always tried to push the boundaries of craft beer, by sort of adopting a macro advertising strategy.”

Left: an advertisement for Ecoya, part of the Trilogy group of brands chaired by Geoff Ross. Right: The Moa executive team. (Screenshot: Moa’s 2012 IPO Prospectus)

At the time, then-Moa CEO and New Zealand brand expert Geoff Ross was quick to defend the prospectus, which he lauded as a world first in public offering documents. He said the branding was supposed to be cutting edge and sexy, that Moa was “the domain of aspiring, affluent men”, and that his aim was to make that image synonymous with New Zealand.

Kuehn says this response did not go down well, especially among women craft beer drinkers and producers. Her research with women in the beer industry over the past four years has revealed just how enduringly negative the perception of the Moa brand actually is.

“I would say 75% of the women I’ve spoken to in New Zealand have raised the Moa campaign. I didn’t even need to. I would ask about their experience working and being a part of the industry, and Moa always came up again as one of the most egregious examples.”

Still, despite the poor taste prospectus and its disclaimer that the company was a loss-making entity still in growth phase, Moa’s IPO was oversubscribed, with around 1,200 shareholders investing $16m.

In 2016 the beermaker was called out again, this time by a shareholder who took exception to a social media video screened at an annual meeting. The video featured an anthropomorphised bottle with a female southern American accent talking about getting Botox. “It’s really not acceptable when trying to appeal to us as females,” the aggrieved shareholder said at the time.

Ross defended the videos by saying they were in draft format, and were intended to stereotype American culture, not women. “If there’s some criticism over misogynistic messages that was probably three years ago,” he said.

This time, however, he acknowledged that half of Moa’s potential market were women, noting that the Moa board was focusing on improving its diversity; he said he welcomed women to apply.

Craft beer commentator Molly Jones says it was another case of Moa brushing off valid criticism, which only cemented its reputation as a brand that would neither accept nor apologise for its mistakes.

“They seem to say things like ‘we’re not misogynists, we’re not sexist, we’re not offensive,’ but they don’t really seem to understand that it’s not their place to decide whether they are or not.”

Moa isn’t the only beer company whose advertising has caused offence in recent years, with early 2010s ads from Tui – both on TV and on billboards – being notable examples. However, most of the larger companies have since changed with the times, and moderated their tone.

“I think a lot of beer companies do successfully use New Zealand’s sense of humour to sell beer, and in this case Moa thought it was,” says Jones.

The difference with Moa, says Jones, is that it had positioned itself as an approachable product for lay drinkers to get “a foot in the door” of craft beer. Instead, its overtly offensive marketing and tarnished reputation ended up defining it.

Jones says Moa’s “level of arrogance when dealing with concerns” had become common knowledge among potential beer purchasers. “It’s pretty alienating to set yourself that reputation,” she says.

Aside from the controversy over its ads, the brewery was plagued by other operating problems over the years. BusinessDesk reports it didn’t meet ambitious sales targets and blamed its distribution partner for the failure. Despite numerous strategies and efforts from Geoff Ross, and sales increasing by $10m since 2013, the company repeatedly had to go back to shareholders to cover losses of almost $30m.

Just how much Moa’s sour brand reputation contributed to its unprofitability can only be speculated. But when women make up half of your potential market, it certainly pays not to offend them – or at the very least apologise when you mess up.

According to Kathleen Kuehn, such slights to do not die quick deaths in today’s market. And in the case of Moa, they only meant there was one more product women wouldn’t be picking up off the shelf.

This was abundantly evident when she conducted her research into the industry:

“Of all the women and I spoke with who brought up Moa, most of them to this day will not purchase its products.”

This story has been amended to remove an image featuring a satirical advertisement not created by Moa. The Spinoff regrets the error.




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