CRAFT-WASHING: MARKETING VS. TRUE CRAFT

Skill, quality, authenticity, and uniqueness. These qualities have traditionally been associated with craft production and crafted products. Until recently, the badge of “Craft” was worn proudly by those small companies that obsess over every step of their manufacturing process. For food and beverage makers, maniacal scrutiny over things like ingredients, sourcing those ingredients, creating recipes, and final output comprise the soulfulness of what it truly means to be “craft.” It’s part and parcel to a company’s story. To minimize any of the steps in the process challenges whether that label can authentically be applied. 

The power of the craft movement is undeniable. Which is why brands like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, and others are trying to capitalize. With hipsters speaking with their wallets, the big guys don’t want to be left out. Welcome to “craft-washing.” By using savvy marketing misdirection techniques, packaging, and turns of phrase like “artisanal,” large brands are co-opting the aesthetic but not the full end-to-end process. This creates a moral dilemma for those consumers willing to pay a premium for a product they believe has subscribed to the craft “code.”

Craft involves risk, unpredictability, curiosity, and bravery. Many times the process and the brand’s story are so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. Mass manufacturing, on the other hand, involves predictable and uniform outcomes. It employs assembly line techniques and then passes them off as “hand-crafted” or “bespoke.”

To be truly Craft, the creative element is at the forefront. The leaders of these companies know the idea for their product preceded any fancy marketing spin. However, they likely did not have to try too hard to develop that once the time came. As long as the vision was clear, the eventual consumer-facing story nearly formed itself. It’s a reliance on honesty and the bravery to say, “This is what we are about. If it’s not for you, then that’s okay.” All of them believe wholeheartedly in their own process and that it informs every touchpoint of their journey. More than that, they allow for experimentation and creative investigation. Many boast of a nimbleness to try creative concepts and the ability to scale once the experiments bear fruit. Mass manufacturing and its division of labor, by definition, negates any possible claim to this ethos.

Max Lents of Baltimore Spirits Company quality checks a batch of their craft gin.

Max Lents of Baltimore Spirits Company quality checks a batch of their craft gin.

So the next time you’re at a place like McDonald’s or in the grocery store and your package or menu says something like artisanal, hand-crafted, handmade, or craft, peel back the layers of the story. See if the true definition of “Craft” can really apply. Chances are it’s a thin veneer that only serves to undermine the true small-scale producers out there hustling to try and make a difference all the way through the production process.

Check out our podcasts with some of these great Craft businesses below. Incidentally, we asked each of these great, creative entrepreneurs what “craft” meant to them. Their answers help illuminate the notion of craft-washing in even greater detail. Listen to the podcasts to learn more.

Jaime Windon - Lyon Distilling

Max Lents - Baltimore Spirits Company

Jon Zerivitz - Union Craft Brewing