After a quarter century, after pioneering a beer area that is now known around the globe, and after introducing a region to new styles and recipes, the folks at Highland Brewing Co. realized that even though things were still going okay, maybe it was time to see if they could do something new and better.
“We were getting different streams of input. Some were gentle nudges from industry friends, such as ‘Have you thought about refreshing?’ And then there were the more important pieces, the internal conversations we were having,” says brewery President Leah Wong Ashburn. “The company had changed; people had changed. There was a lot of excitement about who we could become, and we couldn’t become that if we looked and felt the same as we did in 1994.”
The path to Highland’s “refresh” of its look, its beers, and the way it communicated its ethos to customers was not a quick one. It involved years of thought, planning, execution, “and a lot of money,” says Ashburn.
At its start, the brewery had adopted a Scottish theme—a bagpiper perched on a high ridge, and many of the beers it turned out were the kind you saw in the early days of American craft beer: a red ale, a stout, and others like them.
“If we were going to update the brand, we needed to start with the beer,” says Molly McQuillan, the brewery’s marketing director. “It couldn’t be just about updating our logo or packaging. We wanted to be a beer-led company, so the natural move for us was to start with the beer and follow with a logo and then packaging and then the story to come after.”
The first beer was introduced in 2015, a West Coast IPA, and it was the first change to the brewery’s year-round lineup in a decade. While common all over the United States, it was something the brewery hadn’t done before. By taking time with research and development, the brewery produced a beer that was a hit with customers right out of the gate.
“Oscar Wong is a Chinese guy who was born and raised in Jamaica and majored in civil engineering at Notre Dame. He eventually moved to Asheville to found the Scottish-style Highland Brewing Co.” That is how Southern Living, in a profile, describes the man behind the founding of the brewery.
A fixture on both the North Carolina and national beer scene for decades, Wong is an intense and affable man who (even now, in retirement) still takes time to walk visitors through the brewery, talk about the beer, and (like any proud dad) express his admiration for what Ashburn has been doing with the company since she joined the ranks a few years back.
Wong started the brewery at a time when there wasn’t much happening beer-wise in Asheville. The first location was in a basement before moving to a hilltop facility (befitting its name) where it would be, for a time, the largest brewery in the region. Of course, such breweries as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues installed outposts in the area, and a whole crop of small-to-midsize breweries popped up. Many of these were able to catch the excitement of the current craft-beer times, leaving some of the older players, the pioneers, to scratch their heads.
“The market is different now than it was back then, and you can trudge along doing what you’ve always been doing and die a slow death, or you can embrace what’s going on and work with a team of people who are excited about the potential,” says Ashburn.
“The original message was so Scottish. But we weren’t Scottish beer. We didn’t want to be a Scottish brewery, but that’s what all our messaging was saying,” says Ashburn. “We wanted to get to the core of who we are and who we aspire to be. We’re an Asheville pioneer brewery, and we wanted to show that we will keep going.” The bagpiper was replaced with a compass, which the brewery says encapsulates both its history (the founding year of 1994 is prominently featured) and its location in the mountains.
The brewery took a dual approach to the refresh. Internally Ashburn began asking the staff to describe the brewery in just a few words. The results were promising: quality, family, independence, community, responsibility were the words that kept popping up. She then looked at the Nielsen numbers for the brewery, examined sales trends, and looked at what was working and what wasn’t.
Brewers started working on new batches of beer that were tapped in the taproom where feedback was gathered from the public as well as internally. New recipes and potential larger public offerings began to emerge.
The brewery also engaged the Helms Workshop, an Austin, Texas-based company that is no stranger to brewery rebranding. What Highland had working for it was that the branding studio’s founder, Christian Helms, had spent time in Asheville, making him intimately aware of the area.
“It was so revealing that our internal profile aligned perfectly with the branding company’s assessment,” says Ashburn. “It showed us that we knew who we were and where we could be going.” While there was input solicited from every level, the branding team was about ten people from the brewery. There were a few people involved in the final decision, which was rolled out officially in February 2018.
There was an all hands-on-deck company meeting, something designed to reinforce the family and community aspects of the business. Ashburn laid out the rationale for the rebranding, and there was a bit of theatrical reveal with mockups being concealed behind black curtains and pulled at just the right moment. There was a standing ovation. It was an opportunity for a brewery, closing in on a symbolic twenty-fifth anniversary, to communicate the vision for the future.
“We weren’t dying,” Ashburn says. “But we were also aware that inaccuracy had increased over time, and people didn’t know what we were. And that disconnect was going to be harmful going forward.”
Through it all, Wong, who did not have a seat on the leadership and rebranding team, kept expressing his trust and faith in Ashburn. “I was completely in awe of him during this because it takes guts to have something that has been around for two decades—that you created, cared for, and have been the living face of—change so completely.”
Ashburn says she asked the branding company what to expect after the rollout and was told that “change can be hard” for some customers and that different responses—from the positive to not-so-positive—were to be expected.
“What matters more to me is that we’re selling more beer,” she says. “Something has resonated with consumers because we clarified our message. So right off the bat, this has been positive and worth every penny. It was expensive as hell, but worth every penny, and once we made that commitment, we never looked back.”
McQuillan cautions that brewers who are thinking about going down a similar path should think about the process as more than a way to sell more beer “because that’s not guaranteed. It’s about aligning your beer with your brand, creating authenticity with customers, and telling your story in the right way.”
Of course, the refresh and rebranding aren’t done with just a rollout. With a new look and new momentum, Ashburn and her team need to keep things moving along at a steady and straight clip.
“The market is always wondering, ‘what have you done for me lately,’ so we need to make sure that our beers continue to be exciting. We have a 3-barrel pilot system that is turning out a lot of recipes that we could scale up.”
Each new beer also gives them the opportunity to tell their story again, not just locally, but throughout their seven-state footprint. The brewery, which is committed to live music (you can find acts at least five nights a week) on a sprawling forty-acre site, has seen an uptick in the number of visitors.
“We have so much excitement about what we’re doing,” says Ashburn. “We’ve defined ourselves over a long period of time, and now we’ve redefined ourselves, and we’re riding our own wave.”