Craft-beer drinkers are, as a whole, extremely promiscuous. We’ll try just about anything once. Fail to hold our attention or to deliver the goods, however, and we’ll never come calling again. Even worse, we’ll go online and let everyone know exactly what we think about your beer.
But, as exploratory and unforgiving as craft-beer drinkers can be, there will always be a handful of brands that we come back to again and again, whose beers are not only so consistently good that we’ll reflexively buy just about anything they put out, but that also have that certain something that makes us want to go out of our way to visit the brewery, recommend the beer to friends, and sport the T-shirt.
These are the rock stars of the beer world. Whether it’s a buzzed-about up-and-comer, a beloved regional act, or a well-known national brand with a long string of hits, there’s something about these breweries that appeals to our tastes and makes us want to tout our affinity.
The beer has to be good, of course, but what else about these brands contributes to that kind of sticky appeal?
Founders and lead creatives at three top marketing and branding agencies—Moxie Sozo in Boulder, Colorado; Brady Gritton in Portland, Oregon; and Vision Concepts in Indianapolis—share a few ways that successful brands earn and keep consumers’ attention in a hyper-competitive market.
They make a strong first impression
While only about 1 percent of a brand’s customers will ever visit a brewery’s website, 100 percent of their customers will interact with the packaging, says Leif Steiner, creative director and founder of Moxie Sozo. This is a reason why smaller brands, especially, should consider concentrating the bulk of their branding and marketing efforts on eye-grabbing packaging.
“The beer category is fascinating because, more so than any category in a liquor store, you see a lot of innovation and a lot of diversity in the brands,” Steiner says. “It’s fun because you have an opportunity to do just about anything, but on the other hand, it’s a challenge because there are so many craft brewers out there who think anything that can be done has probably been done. So the question is, how do you stand out when everyone is screaming? How can you be heard?”
Whether it’s a tap handle or on a store shelf, first impressions are gut level and take just a few seconds to register. Researchers at Proctor & Gamble coined that scant three- to six-second window in which consumers form an impression about a newly encountered brand as the “first moment of truth.” If a person is intrigued enough to pick up that product from the shelf, however, research also shows that eight out of ten of them will put it into their cart.
Steiner cites this last finding in talking about the importance of making a compelling impression through the “visual language” of a beer’s packaging. “Within [the beer market] at this point, it’s hard to come up with a way of differentiating a brand or a particular product,” he says.
One answer is to zig where others zag by going with simple, minimalistic packaging and an understated, clean design. Another is to take the cereal-aisle approach and scream even louder than the competition with unusual, eye-grabbing graphics and bright, bold colors. And yet another is to prominently label beers that are made in limited quantities or are a seasonal release.
“When brands are experimenting with their beers, they should also be experimenting with their labels,” Steiner says. “People expect unusual stuff in the craft-beer category visually and personality wise.”
Whatever the approach, it must be rooted in an authentic representation of the brewery—what that brewery stands for and where it’s coming from.
“We’ve worked with brands that are very serious and that want to be humorous, and we’ve worked with brands that are new that want to look like they’ve been around for a long time,” Steiner says. “Eventually, consumers figure that out. Especially in this category, consumers want authenticity, and it’s important to capture that.”
They’re part of the conversation
Regardless how much effort, resources, and careful attention a brewery puts into crafting its brand image, how that brand is ultimately received and perceived is almost entirely in the hands of consumers.
“Your brand is what somebody says about you after you leave the room,” says Andy Askren, executive creative director and partner at Grady Britton. “People are going to have a conversation about you whether you’re in on it or not, and you should be in that conversation with them.”
Social media is a great way to gauge word of mouth and as a barometer of your brand, Askren says, but how your brand is participating in and perceived by the community is perhaps even more important.
“Whether it’s the beer community or the community where you live, are you showing up in the best bars and pubs and among other brands that are closely aligned with yours? Are you showing up at the best events? Are you supporting causes that your customers believe in?” Askren asks. “Maybe you’re closely aligned with the cycling community, or the climbing community, or the skiing community, or with music. What are these other communities saying about your brand in relation to them?”
By taking a close look at what people are saying as seen from a variety of perspectives, brewery owners can triangulate how their brand is doing in relation to its audience and within its community. “Whether it’s a mature brand or a new brand, you have to have a really solid understanding of your relevance to your audience,” Askren says. “It means getting into your audience’s head, figuring out where they are, and if you still have a connection to that mindset. You probably do, but maybe you’ve stopped stoking that fire and telling that part of your story.
“It may seem obvious to you, but it’s really a matter of getting out of your own feedbag for a minute, taking a look around, and really falling back on the key reasons you are making the beer you make and why you got into the business in the first place.”
They speak directly to their core beer geek
It’s tempting for beer marketers to cast their net far and wide in order to reach the largest possible audience. The current popular advice is to “be where your customers are” both online and in person and to craft your message to deliver what they want to hear when they want to hear it. But that kind of reverse-engineered messaging is like trying to make steak from hamburger meat. It’s much more effective to focus efforts around a niche group of core fans and speak to them in a very direct, relatable way.
“Think about the smallest, most nerdy audience possible and really nail it for that small audience. Make one person fall in love with you,” Askren says. “Because nine times out of ten, that small audience has a much wider ring around it that looks to that audience like, ‘what are they doing? What are they drinking?’
“Especially for a small company, that can be an attractive and effective way of pooling your resources in the most focused way,” he says. “Think small. Don’t overlook a small quantity of something very precious for the lure of going too big too fast. You can get really diluted that way, and then you lose all your effect and your momentum.”
The quality of the beer is of utmost importance, and if a brewery can effectively communicate reasons why its beer is so special and unique with a core audience of fans, that can translate into a lasting relationship and success.
“If somebody is carrying your beer around, they’re flying your colors. They’re putting their own personal seal of approval on your beer,” Askren says. “You have to reward them for that. Give them some story to talk about with their friends or information they can share with others. Ultimately, when someone is seen with your beer, I think that beer should almost be complementing the person, saying ‘this person has amazing taste. This person has an amazing story. They are the interesting one here. Go talk to them.’”
They know when to hit refresh
One of the potential pitfalls of success, however, is the risk of becoming a little too familiar. Once the buzz dies down, and as new breweries continue to open, suddenly what was once the talked-about new kid on the block has matured into a familiar face that’s easy to overlook. Or, as a brewery expands and seeks to introduce itself to a new audience, its packaging and branding may seem out-of-step with where the brand would ultimately like to be.
In both cases, a packaging refresh and realignment with a brewery’s core values may be in order.
“You see that a lot,” says Jeff Brown, creative director at Vision Concepts. “They may brew a really high-quality beer and their branding is adequate, but now that they’ve grown from a local brewery into a regional one, the branding needs to be upgraded.”
Often there’s a bit of brand slip that’s happened in the packaging designs and marketing efforts, and everything needs to be realigned with an eye toward consistent presentation and upgrading the imagery. “What we see is that breweries might start out hiring a design firm to develop a logo and maybe the four core brand labels and get the start of a packaging system in place, and then once they’re up and running and the money starts flowing in and out, they look for ways to pare things down and ultimately what gets pared down first is their creative,” Brown says. “And you can see a vast difference between the core beer creative and their seasonal releases and brands that they’ve added to their lineup.”
Askren also has some ideas along these lines. “When you start your business, you’re really focused on your product, as you should be, and probably sort of very innocent about packaging and marketing yourself,” he says. As the brand grows, a brewery “might find itself in a place where they need to retell their story and reengage their market in a new way and find that allure again.
“Maybe they’ve lost sight of how they’re being perceived in the market by audiences that are new to them and haven’t come along with them for the whole ride,” he says. “A new audience needs those touch points to kind of tap into what they’re about and discover their story.”
And the more guideposts and targeted clearly communicated messages a brewery can provide for its customers, the more likely they are to join them for the ride.
ILLUSTRATION: JAMIE BOGNER