When you’re opening a brewery, you need to understand, very succinctly, how you’re different from every other brewery in your town. Or even your region, depending on your concept and long-term goals. While you can get really technical with this (with market and trend analyses, etc.), we’re approaching it from a branding perspective. We like to nail down three main points to define your positioning:
What do you do?
What type of beer do you brew?
What’s your concept?
Who do you do it for?
Who do you want drinking your beer?
Who don’t you want drinking your beer?
Who makes up your tribe?
Why do they need your company?
How are you different from your competition?
What makes you not necessarily better, but unique?
Use a Matrix
One of our favorite tools to kick off this process is a matrix. This simple graph is composed of an X- and a Y-axis, each of which represents a different attribute. It can relate to price (low-to-high), visual style (approachable-to-ultra beer geek, colorful-to-monotone, etc.), and so on. This is an iterative, “back-of-the-napkin” method for thinking about your brewery culture, your fans, your competition, and how this all comes together to reveal opportunities for brand strategy and ongoing marketing.
We find matrices are great tools to use at a few different stages throughout the startup process. You can use them at the very beginning when you’ve got a 30,000-foot bare-bones idea and maybe a few partners/capital/potential location and want to make sure you can produce a product that people will want. And you can use them shortly thereafter to help establish visual tone, look, and feel.
For now, let’s use a matrix to help you determine where the breweries in your town fall to gain a quick eagle’s-eye view of what is, and isn’t, being done in your market (these are all made up). Follow along.
- Are the other breweries brewpubs or bigger production breweries? What’s their overall concept?
- Do they package? Growlers/pints/flights only?
- Are they new or established?
- Are they involved in the local community?
- What styles do they each hang their hats on?
- Are they well-branded?
- How are their tasting rooms/breweries styled?
- Are they approachable places, or are they more hardcore beer-geek hangouts?
- How do their prices compare to everyone else’s on-premise? off-premise?
Choose a few of these and plot them on a matrix where you think they fall. Using the group of breweries in the matrix above as an example, we see a lot of inclusive brewpubs featuring well-made, drinkable, non-offensive beers. Nothing crazy; standard lineup stuff. And while there are a few breweries in the region packaging more specialty beers (barrel-aged stouts, imperial IPAs, and sours, for example), there’s no brewpub to visit to regularly try these beers. Admittedly, this is an oversimplified look at the market, but there could be an opportunity if the local beer scene is mature enough to support this type of concept.
How Your Local Community Should Shape Your Positioning
Working through your branding and positioning is an invigorating, challenging, and aspirational process. And while a lot of the work involves looking in toward yourself and your partners, you need to remember to consider one of the most important aspects of any business—who are your customers and what problems do they have?
This sounds strange when you’re talking about brewing beer (People want beer; I make beer. Simple!), but think about your potential customers and consider how your concept can best fit into their lives. What does your community lack? Is there no local brewpub where people can congregate? How about a great pizza and beer joint? Does your region have a brewery to call its own? Maybe there’s no live music venue that supports smaller acts?
What purpose do you serve? How are you different from your competition? What role do you play in people’s lives? Getting this nailed down will give you a solid foundation to build your brand and brew great beer for the right people.
It Takes a Village
Keep your matrices loose and have other people make them as well. It’s fun to see how three or four people’s opinions can differ when you look at them side by side. Bonus points if you can get some completely unbiased people to participate. We’ve actually gone to a few bars here in Indiana to find people to fill these out to help a client (this is a grenade upon which we’re always willing to fall).
Producing these matrices also hammers home how subjective this entire process is, especially when you’re considering how different people interpret brand messaging.
All That Glitters Isn’t Gold
It sounds obvious, but there could be a very good reason no one is brewing or packaging a particular style in your market. Using the aforementioned example, opening an all-sour brewery could be a gamble in an area with very few other breweries. The market may just be getting used to craft beer itself and not ready for something more “niche.”
Not Just for Breweries in Planning
Say you’ve been open for a few years and are considering a rebrand. Matrices are still a valuable tool to use because at their core, they identify opportunities. And the beautiful thing here is you can tailor a matrix to define whatever you want, from beer styles to tasting-room experience to package design and beyond.
Concretely Positioning Your Brewery
Now that we’ve explored what branding and positioning are, let’s get a bit more hands-on by looking at a few different strategies to clearly define your positioning.
Through the lens of an increasingly crowded craft-beer market, we think it’s fair to say that concrete positioning will become more and more difficult to achieve based on the beer you brew alone. Or to put it another way, there are a lot of great breweries making a lot of great beer.
So, how else can a new craft brewery differentiate itself?
Concept & Story
Aside from great beer, it’s important to have a compelling story. Why are you brewing your beer? How did you get your start? Why does your beer (and your story) matter? This idea needs to align with your overall concept—that is, a collection of ideas including your business model, beer styles, brewery atmosphere, and pricing.
Location & Collaboration
Location used to be a great way for new breweries to differentiate, but again, with more and more new brewers opening up shop, it’ll be harder to hang your hat on your geography (see “Finding a Sweet Spot,” page 40, for approaches different brewers have taken to finding a location). The exception may be in hyper-local partnerships with local farmers and producers, coffee roasters, and other breweries.
It may sound old-fashioned, but if your tasting room is staffed by assholes, people won’t want to come back. If your delivery drivers are rude, don’t clean tap lines, or drive recklessly, people won’t want to support you. Believe it or not, service can still be a great differentiator, particularly if paired with a unique brand attribute.
And finally, everything we’ve discussed up to now has to be directly aligned with your branding, that is, the visual design of your identity, packaging, responsive website, merchandise, and brewery space.
Consider the alternate route: spending years to enmesh your beer into local bars and peoples’ minds and then having to backtrack and address branding issues after the fact.
If this sounds like a lot of information, fear not. As much as we stress the importance of compelling branding and positioning for craft breweries, you should never forget that the most important thing you can do as a new brewery is make the best beer you can possibly brew. While branding can attract people initially, it’s your beer that will turn them into loyal fans.
Write a Brand-Positioning Statement
We don’t always craft brand-positioning statements because it’s rare that you’d ever need to use it in the wild (and if you did, you’d sound like some sort of weird spam bot). So while we don’t always think it’s necessary, it can lend a sense of finality to the entire positioning process.
Your goal is to put together a sentence that clearly states what you offer, who it’s meant for, why it’s special, and the role you play in their lives. It should look something like this:
Here’s an example:
Big Lug Canteen serves Nora residents English-style beers and hearty gastropub fare in a fun, airy, and creative spot.
Branding: Not an Afterthought
You probably already understand the advantage that branding can give your brewery. But if not, we should mention that branding isn’t window dressing and shouldn’t be placed on the back burner. Branding is not merely a way to “pretty something up” after the fact. When handled properly, branding can unite your internal team and community behind a compelling story and drive business decisions as well as it can drive design decisions. Further, it gives you a touchstone to check decisions against.
A Closer Look: Positioning Indiana’s Farm Brewery
Our foundational work with 450 North Brewing Co. (Columbus, Indiana) explored vintage seed bags, tractor badge typography, and the visual vocabulary of highway Americana—resulting in a nostalgic, Mayberry-esque brand identity. The idea was simple—the Simmons family has been farming for generations. And they’ve been brewing for just as long.
How could we position them as Indiana’s farm brewery? Their flagship packaging line tells this tale with sun-faded colors, industrial patterning, and no-nonsense Midwestern beer descriptions.
450 North came to market with a lineup of well-made, approachable beer styles (above). This allowed them to quickly become one of the fastest growing breweries in the state, and they’ve since added more eclectic, experimental styles to their portfolio.
Children of the Bourbon Barrel (above) was a specialty R.I.S. brewed by 450 North to be released at their inaugural corn-maze beer festival. This pushed their positioning as Indiana’s farm brewery by creating a corn maze that was more than an acre in size.
A Closer Look: Big Lug Canteen, Rethinking the Traditional Brewpub Experience
Brewpubs have a certain look: dark wood, reclaimed everything, industrial finishes—the entire industry seems hell-bent on dwelling within hyper-masculine beer dungeons. Eddie and Scott of Big Lug Canteen wanted to turn this canon on its head and create an airy, fun, bright brewpub in Nora, Indiana. For more than a year, we took them through our hands-on branding process en route to developing a brand foundation (naming, messaging, brand essence, and positioning), a modular identity system, copywriting, print menu system, drinkware, huge environmental signage, merchandise, tap handles, keg collars, festival kit, and a fully responsive, menu-forward website.
Big Lug Canteen’s modular identity system (above) consisted of several builds of their canteen mark as well as a robust icon system and pattern to denote individual beers.
The centerpiece of Big Lug Canteen’s brewpub is a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mural (pictured at top) comprised of all the absurd things that would float by in a Big Lug’s dream. Don’t laugh, we know you dream about chicken wings, too!
We helped Big Lug Canteen build their brand around the idea of their neighborhood as a “stomping grounds” (above). This brand essence provided a lot of room for fun illustrations and storytelling.
CODO Design is a branding firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana, founded on the belief that they can create better work by directly including clients in the creative process. They’ve worked with breweries across the country, and increasingly, the world, on branding, packaging, environmental, and interactive design. After years of working in this field, they’ve collected their experience to help breweries navigate each stage of the branding process.
Originally published as a free online resource, The Craft Beer Branding Guide is now a printed book created in partnership with Neenah Packaging and features their BELLA® Label papers for craft beer. This article is excerpted from the book and reprinted with permission.
PHOTOS: COURTESY CODO DESIGN