Events & Media

Sticking to Growlers
Using loyalty stickers and a new mobile app, Eco-E alumni seek to "pivot" to success

By Lily Tsukayama

Customers making a purchase or returning a growler can use the Loyale app to scan QR codes on BottleBranders stickers and receive rewards through the loyalty program.

BottleBranders, a past Bren School Eco-Entrepreneurship (Eco-E) project, has recently launched a mobile app with several craft breweries around Santa Barbara. The app, called “Loyale,” creates a loyalty program linking breweries and their customers, who can use the app to scan the labels on the products they purchase. After a certain number of scans at a specific brewery, the customer receives a discount on their next purchase. Through the app, BottleBranders is helping smaller breweries create larger customer segments.

Two members of the original four-person team, Max Ludington and Harish Prather (both MESM 2014), have continued to develop the BottleBranders business model. The business was started at Bren with the idea of working with the craft beer industry to increase reuse of half-gallon “growlers,” which have the highest profit margin and the lowest environmental impact of any container in the industry.

“But growlers have a labeling problem,” says Ludington. “They’re reusable, but the breweries put their brand on them, so if you take a growler to another brewery, they don’t want to put their beer in it.”

Enter BottleBranders. Through the Eco-E focus at Bren, the group learned that they could control labels and improve marketing for craft breweries.

Like most Eco-E business models, BottleBranders has changed some since its inception, but the focus has remained on reusing growlers. The team initially planned to build their own improved growler, which incorporated CO¬2 cartridges to keep the beer fresher longer. But with other businesses already producing similar products, BottleBranders shifted its efforts to the labeling issue.

They first developed a magnetic labeling system that would allow breweries to easily replace other growler labels with their own and make it possible for customers to return growlers to any brewery. But the cost to the industry of switching to magnetic labels was too high, so BottleBranders instead created single-use stickers for the breweries to use. The team then went a step further to create Loyale.

BottleBranders provides these stickers to the breweries and each sticker has a unique QR code and the brewery’s logo. The app allows users to scan the codes each time they return a growler or purchase a product from that brewery. The stickers can be peeled off once a QR code has been used, meaning that if a growler is returned to another brewery, a new sticker can replace the old one. So any brewery with a BottleBrander sticker can put its brand onto any container it fills with its beer.

“The QR codes came out of the realization that while we were labeling breweries’ products, we could address the problem of developing and maintaining customer loyalty,” says Ludington. “So we combined the two.”

In 2014, BottleBranders won the top prize in the Market Pull Category at the UCSB Technology Management Program New Venture Competition. Since then, Ludington and Prather have continued to work on BottleBranders and expand their team, which now includes UCSB programmer Harrison Hansen and their New Venture Competition advisor, Kyle Ashby.

Having moved from growler redesign to label magnets and now stickers and a loyalty program, the team continues to refine its business model to fit the needs of the craft beer industry. Developing a product that responds to a market need rather than trying to impose a product that may not be needed is a key element of the Bren School Eco-E program’s approach to creating new ventures.

The Loyale app continues to build off of the original BottleBranders idea of reusable growlers. Customers are rewarded not only for the number of scans they make, but also for returning a growler to a brewery, a better environmental choice than recycling. Currently, BottleBranders has launched Loyale with Pure Order Brewing Company, Captain Fatty’s Craft Brewery, M. Special Brewing Co., and Rincon Brewery.

“This has been a really iterative process,” says Ludington. “In Eco-E, we always used the word ‘pivot’ and we’ve pivoted a number of a times. But that’s the challenge and the fun of it, to continue to ask ourselves what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it.”