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How a craft beer collaboration helped Vermont Public Radio grow audience and revenue

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: What does your target audience like…to drink? When the Vermont brewery Lawson’s Finest Liquids approached Vermont Public Radio about a craft beer in honor of the station’s award-winning narrative podcast, VPR saw an opportunity to reach new listeners.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Angela Evancie, the director of engagement journalism and the executive producer of Brave Little State at Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS. VPR participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2019-20, with a focus on Brave Little State.

Question: What communities do you serve? What can you tell us about the history of your organization and Brave Little State?

Answer: Brave Little State is Vermont Public Radio’s people-powered journalism project. We answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by our audience, and we bring our listeners along for the reporting, because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, more transparent and more fun. 

Our show’s listener-first process — we are inspired by Hearken’s philosophy and powered by their engagement tools — has resulted in stories that run the gamut, with no topic too frivolous (“Why do people like Phish?”) or too serious (“I have Black children, and wonder if they would be made to feel uncomfortable if we moved to Vermont?”). We answer each question in the most creative and thorough way possible, in sound-rich, narrative podcast episodes that we produce roughly twice a month.

Since its founding in 2016, the show has won three National Edward R. Murrow Awards, for best podcast and news documentary, numerous regional Murrows and a 1st place PMJA award for audience engagement. These awards are just as meaningful as praise from our community of listeners. A favorite: “A new episode of BLS is now more anticipated by me than a new episode of Project Runway.” 

About our home station: VPR and Vermont PBS merged in July 2021 to become Vermont’s unified public media organization, serving the community with trusted journalism, quality entertainment and rich educational programming that is accessible and inclusive to all. Its statewide radio and TV networks reach all of Vermont, as well as parts of New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and Quebec, Canada. 

Q: How did your collaboration with Lawson’s Finest Liquids come about

A: Believe it or not, this collaboration is the result of a veritable driveway moment. Sean Lawson, the founder and CEO of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, was listening to VPR in his car one day when he had an idea for a beer called Brave Little State: “a Vermont beer made with Vermont-grown ingredients,” as he put it, “that might embody a small portion of the incredible spirit and essence of your brilliant show, and financially benefit Vermont Public Radio.” He came to us with the idea in March 2021, and we were thrilled to start the conversation.

Less than a year later, in December 2021, Brave Little State Pale Ale began flowing off tap at the Lawson’s Finest Liquids Taproom in Waitsfield, Vt., and hit the shelves at Vermont retailers. The beer is now part of Lawson’s Finest’s permanent Vermont lineup and is available year-round throughout the state.

A toast with Team BLS and Lawson’s Founder and CEO Sean Lawson at the brewery on canning day. (Courtesy of Lawson’s Finest)

Q: How is this collaboration strategically important for Brave Little State?

A: We have always thought of our audience as both Vermonters and “Vermonters at heart” — people who may have some emotional connection to Vermont thanks to their childhood, education or travels, but don’t live here full time. 

So we see this collaboration as a unique opportunity to reach some of those folks by way of a beloved Vermont brewery — one that attracts beer-lovers from far and wide — and grow our community of listeners as more people discover our show via this brew. The side panel on the Brave Little State Pale Ale can includes a brief description of our show, our logo and a QR code that brings the beer-drinker straight to our show’s landing page.

Of course, we are also grateful for the generous donations that come to VPR by way of this collaboration, and we’re excited about the establishment of a new and potentially ongoing revenue stream for the station. A portion of proceeds from sales of Brave Little State Pale Ale comes directly to our station to help further our journalistic mission, including the podcast. This is thanks to Lawson’s Finest’s Good Brews for a Cause initiative, as part of their Social Impact Program, wherein the brewery develops “collaborative batches for worthwhile causes.” We’re also happy to be part of a project that supports Vermont growers, as Brave Little State Pale Ale is brewed with locally sourced barley, wheat and hops.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This approach is directly related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) and Table Stake No. 5 (“Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build”).

In 2019/2020, a small group of VPR employees — President & CEO Scott Finn, Senior VP for Development Brendan Kinney, Senior VP of Content Sarah Ashworth, Digital Director Jonathan Butler (now at NPR) and Brave Little State Executive Producer Angela Evancie — attended Poynter’s Table Stakes program, with an express focus on growing Brave Little State’s audience and transforming BLS “from a ‘special’ project to a sustainable community and a new way to do business.” 

As a result of our challenge, we doubled the production of our content, launched a podcast newsletter, more than doubled the size of our email list, grew our annual sponsorship revenue by 60% and attracted more than 600 members to VPR (new members, sustaining members and sustainers who increased their donation). We also experimented with a digital-only pledge drive featuring BLS merchandise, as well as a (COVID virtual) BLS Trivia Night. 

Our momentum continued well after the Table Stakes challenge ended: In 2021, in addition to embarking on this collaboration, we were able to hire two new engagement producers to work on the podcast and help incubate new listener-driven reporting projects across our newsroom.

All that said, this collaboration with Lawson’s Finest Liquids feels very much like an exciting continuation of our Table Stakes work.

Q: What did you learn in creating an agreement with Lawson’s Finest?

A: We’re huge craft beer fans here at VPR, so we would not have explored a potential collaboration with just any brewery. Lawson’s Finest brews some of the best beers around, so we knew the product itself would be top-notch. 

BLS Producers Myra Flynn (right) and Josh Crane get to work at the brewery on packaging day. (Courtesy of  Lawson’s Finest)

But before we committed, we took the time to really get to know Sean and Karen Lawson and their team, and learned about their company’s ethic and approach to their work. It didn’t take long to realize that our organizations have much in common in terms of our commitment to community, and belief in the power of community; it also didn’t take long to build a foundation of trust. In retrospect, this was a critical first step, as the process we eventually embarked upon involved lots of teamwork in areas that were uncharted territory for our respective companies.

Q: What worked?

A: We agreed at the outset to collaborate fully on the branding and marketing strategies for this collaboration (VPR left the beer recipe to the experts!). It was an interesting challenge to unite the visual identities of two well-established brands; the art on the front of the can is inspired by the Brave Little State logo, which is in turn inspired by the Vermont state flag. 

We appreciated how open the Lawson’s Finest team was to our feedback on the can design, and they took the time to make sure we were comfortable with everything from the side panel copy to the Pantone colors. To this day, our teams run things like marketing copy and on-air promo language by one another.

We’ve also had initial conversations with Lawson’s Finest and an agency that specializes in beer marketing about a broader marketing campaign for the beer. We’re looking forward to a day when we can safely gather for live events that center around Brave Little State while we all enjoy Brave Little State Pale Ale. 

Q: What was challenging?

A: Probably the most challenging aspect of this collaboration, from our perspective, was navigating a risk that the brand and identity of “Brave Little State the podcast” could potentially be eclipsed by the creation — by a powerhouse company and brand unto itself — of “Brave Little State the beer.” 

An image of the Brave Little State pale ale. (Courtesy of Lawson’s Finest)

Like Lawson’s Finest’s brand, our podcast is quirky and welcoming, and emphasizes fun. Unlike the brewery, we are a journalistic outfit with a vision to explore the whole Vermont story. We do episodes that celebrate “quintessential” Vermonty-ness, to be sure (think: co-ops and one-room schoolhouses and our state’s beef with New Hampshire), but we also don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics (“Why do some Vermonters display the Confederate flag?”). So a primary consideration for us was ensuring that our show’s editorial range wasn’t oversimplified in any aspect of the beer’s branding and marketing. 

Ultimately, we have been beyond pleased with the journalism-to-beer ratio in all the messaging around this beer, and we were especially gratified to be able to depict our commitment to people-power, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion, front and center on every can.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: The beer flew off the shelves! The first batch of four-packs to be distributed throughout the state sold more quickly than anticipated. We knew we were working with an expert brewer, and from our pre-launch tastings we had firsthand knowledge of how truly delicious this beer is. But still, it was exciting to see such a successful launch, and see the positive response from both BLS listeners and folks excited about supporting local journalism. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Vet your collaborators, make sure you have a strong foundation of trust and formalize your agreement in a legally binding contract. We developed an agreement that protected both organizations and their intellectual property. But more importantly, we created expectations in the agreement that protect the spirit of the project, which includes our ongoing collaboration on marketing, events and more. 

In our case, Lawson’s was a longtime underwriter that understands the need for a strict firewall between sponsors and content. They maintain underwriting on VPR that is separate from the collaboration but have used their on-air messages to promote the new beer.

That being said, it’s worth setting expectations at the outset about how any collaboration like this will or won’t affect the content your outlet produces. We have been very clear from the beginning that this collaboration does not mean we will be doing branded content for Lawson’s Finest Liquids. Our podcast will continue to live behind an editorial firewall, and remain journalistically independent and beholden first and foremost to our listeners.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Don’t drink and pledge drive!

More on collaboration: How a 1-pound bag of coffee helped the Keene Sentinel reduce its digital subscriber churn