Northbound: Pointing the way to North County craft beer

How easy is it for visitors to North County to learn about our local breweries and brewpubs?

It’s a question worth asking. With so much of the craft beer industry focused on word-of-mouth marketing, it’s not easy to passively encounter brewery signage or advertising, even with more than 100 breweries in the San Diego region.

I’m a big believer in the value of “place-based marketing,” a marketplace strategy that emphasizes the link between the quality of a product and its origin. Place-based marketing is used to differentiate products in a globalized marketplace. As consumer choices grow, product differentiation becomes increasingly important.

Consumers use place as a short cut to make confident purchasing decisions, particularly with artisanal food and beverage products (think Italian olive oil and Belgian chocolates). Place-based marketing strategies need regional branding campaigns to help drive sales. These campaigns are commonly featured on the products themselves (“Real California Cheese” labels on all California-produced cheese products), as well as in public spaces.

Across the world, the wine industry uses public signage to passively market to consumers. Roadside “wine trail” signs dot the physical landscape in wine growing regions, informing passersby of wineries in the vicinity.

Most of these signs use simple purple grape icons as a universal symbol for wine, an effective way to communicate across languages and nationalities. All wineries, new and old, large and small, benefit from the presence of common signage. These “wayfinding” signs foster orientation, exploration and tourism.

Wineries aren’t the only artisanal beverage industry to use wayfinding signs. Scottish distilleries have created a Malt Whisky Trail with brown, prominent roadway signs that welcome visitors along the countryside. The distinctive distillery pagodas found in Scotland are emblazoned in white and used as the roadway symbol for whisky distilleries.

An exhaustive investigation by this author failed to uncover a single craft beer region in the United States that uses brewery trail signage.

Why not then North County?

Brewery wayfinding signs could drive more interest and sales to local brewers. They could elevate North County reputation as a craft beer industry leader and tourist-friendly destination. They could also generate more investment from breweries and businesses that benefit from greater craft beer sales and tourism, such as hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

Maybe Vista, the city with the most breweries and brewpubs in North County, could champion this issue? Perhaps a hop floating over a beer barrel is a strong universal symbol for brewery?

Wayfinding signs wouldn’t be expensive to mint — custom steel signs can be purchased online for less than $30.

The signs could be sponsored by local business chambers, business improvement districts, or brewers themselves.

Highway placement however may be a tad trickier, but they could be placed on private property and municipal roadways with far fewer hurdles.

North County is in a unique position to take a leading role in cultivating interest and development in brewery tourism. Brewery trail signage may point the way to greater success.

Vince Vasquez is a think tank analyst based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident.

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