Rob Wiles has been in the craft brewing industry for ten weeks. In that time the Tuatara Interim General Manager has seen his new gig pick up Champion NZ Brewer for a second time, then lose some friends.
Tuatara’s media coverage over the past fortnight has been up, then down.
It celebrated winning the Big BGONZA. It defended trademarking ‘Amarillo’, for beers using the popular hop variety. It defended trademarking ‘Kapai’, which Mata Beer has used for years. Then it dropped its applications for ‘Amarillo’ and ‘Kapai’, while still pursuing ‘Tuatara Kapai’.
What should have been a week to celebrate its unprecedented two-time Champ status turned into a week of damage control. It must have felt like the hangover without the party.
(For a more detailed analysis of events to yesterday morning, see Jono Galuszka’s blog What the hell was Tuatara thinking?)
Tuatara raised eyebrows when it collected BGONZA trophies for beer brands that are not commercially available – a big no-no under the Award rules. Beertown.NZ correctly predicted this was part of an unannounced rebranding exercise, and the prizewinners are new names for familiar brews.
Sitting down with Rob and Tuatara Head Brewer Carl Vasta yesterday, both look like they wish it would all go away. If they could do the last two weeks over again, would they do anything differently?
“We wouldn’t have been overzealous around registering Amarillo, because that could have just sat back and waited”, Rob says. “We’ve got no objection to Mata continuing with their registration of Kapai. We just want to be able to use Tuatara Kapai.”
Mata’s Gloria Viitakangas told Fairfax she was surprised by Tuatara’s actions because “Tuatara's head brewer Carl Vasta had been at the launch of Mata Kapai”.
Carl says he cannot recall being at the launch: “was it at a Festival? I wasn’t aware of Mata’s Kapai, though I must have been at some stage. I wasn’t aware that they were using Kapai, nor was I really involved in our relabelling.”
Rob says the management team knew about Mata Kapai before Tuatara attempted to register the brand.
“We were aware of Mata Kapai. The team spent a lot of time coming up with a new name for Aotearoa Pale Ale. NZAPA has been one of our best sellers in overseas markets. We wanted to differentiate with a Kiwi-type name that takes advantage of the APA, and after scores of names we came up with Kapai.
“We found the perfect name, and when the research was done we found, actually, there is a little brewery that is making a beer called Kapai. We identified it was a seasonal beer, it’s called Mata Kapai with a whole bunch of other words after it depending on which (seasonal) beer it is. We looked at and thought the label is very different to ours and it’s a very different beer.
“It’s common word and we didn’t feel it was something that can be registered and we thought they were clearly distinct.”
So why bother? Rob says it was part of a series of decisions, dating back to January this year when it was first decided to rebrand. “The challenge going forward is differentiating ourselves from the competition on the shelves, while looking to retain the Tuatara characteristics. The other aspect is international. We are growing rapidly internationally, so our challenge then is to find names and looks and feel that also work in those markets.”
Tuatara then decided not to register the new names, to avoid alerting the market to the rebranding, scheduled for this weekend, Labour Weekend.
But it also decided to enter existing beers into the BGONZAs under their new names, and got the Guild’s approval to do so.
Then whammo! The new, unknown, names pick up a bunch of BGONZAs. And Pow!! Tuatara wins Champion Brewer for a record second time. The brewing world notices and starts to ask questions about these unheard-of winners.
“We created a rod for our own back to some extent”, Rob admits. “We had a discussion six, eight weeks ago before we entered the awards about how we tell the customers. Ideally we did it all on one weekend, or ideally we don’t win any prizes and don’t have this media attention! To be honest, to be this successful caught us by surprise.”
Social media flared up and noticed 1) Kapai was already in use, and 2) none of the new names were trademarked. Tuatara ran for cover.
“We could have registered those names weeks ago, but that wasn’t the plan. It was just an unfortunate, defensive, overzealous reaction”, says Rob.
“Someone in social media suggested there could be a free-for-all to register our new names. So then we got legal advice – the clear risk was that someone could register one of our new names and beat us to the punch. So we went and registered our unique names, then thought long and hard about protecting Amarillo. We’re fully aware it’s the name of a hop and there’s issues around that, but we had a two-week window before we launch when the name was not out there yet. In hindsight we could have sat back for two weeks and hoped nobody tried to register it, but we decided to register. We were not expecting to get it approved but it was a defensive position to protect the new launch this weekend.”
Tuatara has since dropped its applications to trademark beers named after hop varieties Amarillo and Tomahawk. It has kept its application to trademark Tuatara Kapai, but let Kapai itself go. Carl Vasta says he’s continuing talks with Mata: “We are not going out there to try and create conflict with their name.”
Tuatara’s rebranding will finally happen this weekend. Rob is quick to refute the (ever-present) rumours that Tuatara is also about to announce a major deal or distribution arrangement: “No. Absolutely not. That’s never been on the table.” Rob Wiles released a statement this morning on the rebranding and the reaction to it – it’s available here.