Last week, Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch began posting a series of cryptic Tweets as a lead-up to a “scrap” that would go down at noon today. Having worked for Stone for numerous years and coordinated on various marketing campaigns with Koch, this had all the earmarks of such an initiative. They are interwoven into the DNA of the 22-year-old, Escondido brewing company, which rose to prominence in the late-nineties and early-thousands thanks as much to its extremely hoppy beers (especially for the marketplace at the time) as Koch’s adventurous marketing, most notably the taunting verbiage on the back of bottles of Arrogant Bastard Ale. But a video and press release that went out earlier today attest that this melee—a lawsuit filed against MillerCoors over the branding of its Keystone line of beers—is quite serious.
The suit alleges that multi-national “Big Beer” conglomerate MillerCoors is purposely trying to create confusion in the marketplace with a recent rebranding of the products in Keystone’s portfolio. A prime example are 12-ounce cans, which break the word “Keystone” into two words on separate lines that read “Key” and “Stone” (which appear in all capital letters). When rotated a certain way, all that is visible is the word Stone. Furthermore, on 30-pack cases, the word “Keystone” appears, but it is depicted so that only the word “Stone” is shown on a can (which is rotated in the manner noted above) and the “Key” merely precedes it. From there, other terms like “Light” are tacked on, again, independent of the can.
“Are we doing this for publicity…no. We figured you ought to know the facts,” says Koch in his video message to consumers (which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here). “The point is, there’s an intentional obfuscation that they are attempting to run, confusing people with our brand.”
“Keystone’s rebranding is no accident,” adds Stone CEO Dominic Engels. “MillerCoors tried to register our name years ago and was rejected.” He also notes that Keystone’s social-media posts have “almost universally dropped the ‘Key.’”
As an observer employed in a marketing capacity within the brewing industry, I will say that the first time I saw Keystone’s rebrand, I wondered how it would be received by my previous employer. It struck me the same way as it did Koch, as an attempt to piggyback off a legitimate craft brand, albeit through one of the most blatant and sophomoric attempts at subterfuge I’ve seen by a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
In the video, Koch switches from fact- and opinion-driven summation of the lawsuit filing to his trademark, dryly-comedic bashing of Big Beer. He insults the “flavorless and watery” nature of Keystone products and performs multiple spit takes with the beer. While a court of public opinion will not provide judgment on this case (in which Stone is being represented by BraunHagey & Borden LLP), in this day and age, there is no way that craft-beer consumers and the population at large won’t make up their own minds about the merits of the suit. It would seem Koch’s delivery leaves the door open for doubters who would say that, while there is substantial cause for taking MillerCoors to court, Stone is attempting to benefit from as much publicity as possible in the process.
Stone has set up a social-media hashtag—#TrueStonevsKeystone—for people to follow along, primarily with Koch. Of course, this case may never make it to court. As Koch says when addressing MillerCoors in his video: “You can end all of this right here and now by one simple move that reinforces your brand that you’ve built. Put the ‘Key’ back in ‘Keystone.’ Stop using Stone as a stand-alone word. It’s ours.”