Manley Heads ‘Home’ To Do What He Loves For Surly: Brand Developing

Bill Manley’s role at Surly Brewing is similar to roles the craft beer veteran has had in the past, only now, it’s much bigger. Recently moving from working out of Sierra Nevada‘s Mills River location in North Carolina, the Midwestern-born Manley has become the Director of Brand Development for the Minneapolis-based brewery.

Manley has been involved with product development and branding for a number of years, but this new role, he told Brewer, incorporates everything he’s done, and then some.

“At Surly, I’m working to help develop new beers and brands — the right beers for the market, brand positioning, package design, and brand look-and-feel,” he explained. “But [I’m] also doing more in-depth brand management work, as well as how we approach our launch to market.

“I’m working very closely with the brewers, the marketing department, and sales, to think more strategically about how, what, and when we release beers, and how to build systems to allow for more flexibility in what we make and how to get it out into the world.

“It’s been challenging, and exciting, and incredibly fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Manley had been a fan of Surly beer for many years.

“I’m originally from the Midwest, so when I’d go back there, I always made sure to track down some Surly beers to sample and bring back home with me,” he said. He also noted that both he and his wife had been eager to get back to the Midwest for some time. “Over the course of a couple of years, I got to know and work with Surly’s owner Omar [Ansari], and the Surly head brewers Ben Smith and Jerrod Johnson and we really hit it off.

“I like their personalities, and their approach to beer, and knew that we’d make a great team.”

As a brand, Manley noted that Surly’s look and feel has always been strong.

“The punk rock and heavy metal aesthetic, and thumb-your-nose attitude … it fits my personal tastes and the approach toward making beers was right in line with how I like to work,” he said. “It seemed like a place where together we could do great things and have a lot of fun along the way.”

Manley said Surly’s been doing a lot of things right since opening. Most specifically, they’ve never compromised on their vision for the beer and concentrated on their home markets first, which Manley feels is important.

“The bulk of Surly’s business is in Minnesota, which is saying something for a brewery that is one of craft beer’s top 50,” he said “It’s important to keep your focus local first. It allows you to listen more. We can hear firsthand what folks are saying about our beers, and we can act quickly to anticipate local tastes without worrying about the intricacies of the national macro market. There is so much to be gained by going deeper into the markets close to home, before reaching into outside avenues.”

That means thinking differently on growth. Instead of measuring by total volume, Manley feels growth can be looked at by market share in a particular area.

“We’re hoping to maintain that slice size (and ultimately grow it slowly and manageably) here in our home market,” he said. “Expanding far out of our regional footprint doesn’t make a lot of sense for us, and recently, as we’re seeing more and more stories about brewers who raced into mega-regional and national footprint struggling, we’re more reluctant than ever to approach new markets without a compelling reason to be there.”

Opening markets without strong representation is a dangerous mistake and ultimately does harm to the brand even if it brings short-term volume gains,” he said.

“Success for us is maintaining a strong brand presence, and exciting and engaging our consumers in the right way,” Manley said. “After some of the tumult in the industry fades, the goodwill that is built and maintained will last long after the allure of the new has faded and we’ll be there by-and-by.”

It’s been a smooth transition for Manley, who comes into encourage more than re-start a vision.

One of the ways Manley said he is looking forward to building on the past successes of the brewery is helping to tidy-up the brand portfolio so it’s easier for beer drinkers to find Surley products.

“And it’s easier for our wholesaler partners to manage,” he explained. “We’ve added some equipment that will help us be nimbler to get small-batch beers out quicker.

“Over time, I’d like to add some resources to help us get feedback from our fans more efficiently. I want to make sure we continue to give folks interesting and exciting beers in the right way, which will only help to strengthen the Surly brand, and keep our fans happy.”

In terms of future brands, Manley said thinking about mouthfeels and approachability in a style may be more important than a certain style.

“One of the things that the hazy IPA explosion has taught us, is that experimenting with texture (mouthfeel) in beer, as well as an intense, yet approachable flavor profile is appealing to people,” he said. “The modest, soft, bitterness and lush feeling of those beers has gained a lot of new drinkers eager to try out the latest and greatest.”

He feels some of that thinking about taste and texture combined with styles that can target a large demographic of consumers can be applied.

“I’m bullish right now on Brut IPAs as well as dry-hopped tart beers,” he noted. “Ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to be one style over another, but rather approachability without sacrificing flavor.

“I’d love to see full-flavored lagers tick up, I like the low-bitterness IPAs, and I’m excited about the rosé thing that’s happening now too.”

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