Brewing great beer is the most important thing any brewer can do, but in a market where differentiation isn’t measured in good versus bad but great versus also great, it’s increasingly important for breweries to put time, thought, and effort into the brands they’re building. Whether your focus is taproom sales, limited releases of tradable bottles, or main-line core brands in a multi-state footprint, these eight elements of branding should be first and foremost in your mind.
At the Core of Every Great Brand Is Values
Before they named their company or brewed their first beer, Urban Chestnut Brewing Company (St. Louis, Missouri) Founders David Wolfe and Florian Kuplent started with a statement of values. As former AB-InBev employees—Wolfe on the marketing side, Kuplent on the technical-brewing side—they were familiar with building brand-positioning statements when launching new beers for the international behemoth, but this was personal and a departure since it focused not on the customer they were trying to attract for a certain beer, but on the very nature of the company they wanted to create.
“We looked at ourselves and decided … to focus on the tension between Florian’s old-world technique and styles and a modern, creative approach to brewing,” Wolfe says. “We articulated that by defining the divergent ideals of ‘reverence’ and ‘revolution,’ and that philosophy expresses itself in everything from the beer styles we’ve focused on (from reverential traditional German-style lagers to very contemporary hoppy IPAs) to the name of our brewery. ‘Urban’ expresses that contemporary energy, while ‘Chestnut’ is a nod to the trees and roots commonly found in German beer gardens.”
While most brewers start with the beer they want to brew and their brewery name, this values-first approach to branding and naming has proven particularly successful in a market dominated by customer loyalty to that exceedingly large brewer known for its light lagers.
On a smaller scale, Side Project Brewing’s Cory King staked out his values before naming and launching his boutique brand.
“The Side Project brand means two things,” says King. “All the beer is aged in oak, and I make all the beer.”
Whether one’s values are adherence to tradition, an unwavering pursuit of excellence, a dedication to constant experimentation and discovery, a ragtag punk-rock rejection of the status quo, or something entirely different, that value statement should be the first thing on every brewery’s mind as it fundamentally informs all brand development that succeeds it.
Defining a Niche
After crafting that statement of values, it’s important to consider the niche you intend to fill. With significant competition throughout the craft-beer marketplace, it’s no longer good enough to make great beer for everyone in every style or to make a single beer that you will market to every consumer. The days when a brewery could attempt to be everything to everyone are long gone as consumers focus on value propositions such as “fresh and local,” “authentic,” “award-winning,” and “style-focused.”
This increasingly broad market of consumers is often looking for different things in its craft beer, and that creates opportunities for brewers who focus on a more limited set of specialties. The challenge, of course, is building a brand that is large enough to embody these different impulses while still remaining cohesive. Josh Emrich, of branding agency Emrich Office, has helped a number of successful brands (including Uinta, Speakeasy, Grimm Brothers, Bottle Logic, and Copper Kettle) find their voice, and in his experience, the hard work is balancing the need for the brand to be easily understood as craft beer with the need for each brand to stand out and differentiate itself from its local, regional, and national competition.
“How you read to a consumer is really important,” Emrich says. “You have to be different to differentiate yourself, but craft beer still has to feel like craft beer and can’t look like anything else. You have to take the risks that the big guys cannot—a lot of times, a brand won’t feel like ‘craft’ to the consumer if it plays it too safe or tries to appeal to everyone.”
Building Emotional Investment: The Importance of Storytelling
“When I work with brands, we do quite a bit of work to develop that very detailed [back] story,” says Emrich. “The consumer may not see all of it, but the story creates an authentic reason and logic for everything that we do. The best brands on the shelf think this all the way through.”
One of the best examples of this branding through storytelling is that of New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, Colorado): Their historical “creation myth” of Cofounder Jeff Lebesch’s 1989 bike tour of Belgium manifests itself in everything, from the brewery logo to the retelling by brewery tour guides to their primary beer brand (Fat Tire Ale) and their major source of community outreach and experiential marketing, the Tour De Fat bicycle parade series. It’s a depth of brand storytelling that is relatively unmatched, not just in the craft-beer industry, but in any industry.
Personal brewery history isn’t the only building block for storytelling, however. Emrich has built fictitious back stories for brands such as Speakeasy that similarly form a basis for product naming and imagery.
“My packaging work for Speakeasy subconsciously ties this bigger story together, and in fact the illustrations across all of the Usual Suspects Series packaging connect into one long, continuous scene,” says Emrich.
Visual Identification and Rebranding
If you’re wondering how we’ve gone so far in a discussion of branding without talking about logos, there’s a very good reason for it—too many brands focus on logos first without building a framework, logic, and story for the brand that supports it. This is the most common mistake that new businesses make—hurriedly conceiving of a logo mark then slapping it onto product and pushing it out the door in order to meet a business’s financial goals.
But even in brands with firm foundations, fast growth can lead to new products and product lines that expand on the original brand vision but do so in a way that, in retrospect, creates confusion rather than cohesion on crowded store shelves. This was the situation New Belgium found themselves in back in 2013. The historical core brands, such as Fat Tire, Sunshine, and 1554, maintained a legacy look and feel while the Explorer Series beers such as Ranger and Rampant IPAs sported a more contemporary flat feel and their risk-taking “Lips of Faith” bomber-only releases each featured cool, contemporary abstract illustrations, drawn by one of their in-house artists, that changed with every release.
“We took a long look at our portfolio,” says New Belgium Spokesperson Bryan Simpson, “And decided we wanted more consistency across the cold box. We needed to look like one family of brands—to freshen up the watercolor look—and innovate and progress in our product and look.”
But altering the packaging of a core brand that makes up a significant percentage of the brewery’s overall output—a single beer brand whose production is measured in the hundreds of thousands of barrels per year—is no small feat. The process took the company more than a year, involved two outside firms as well as a large in-house team of strategists and designers, included testing and focus groups for consumer perspectives on the changes, and by all accounts, was a big success.
“While it’s difficult to quantify the results [of the packaging refresh], we rolled it out in 2014 and had an excellent year with 19 percent growth. Some of that could be attributed to opening new markets, of course, but the rebrand gave us a nice lift throughout the year,” says Simpson.
One trend that continues to gain steam in craft-beer branding is the use of color in driving brand recognition. While the concept is taken for granted in macro beer—Bud is red, Bud Light is blue—craft brewers historically have been less reliant on color as an identifying factor for their product brands. With New Belgium’s 2014 rebrand, color billboards became a fundamental piece of the new design, as half of the bottle label and six-pack carrier were now covered in solid fields of a single color.
“We typically use color in a way that’s evocative of flavor,” says Simpson. “But with Fat Tire, the blue references our historical red and blue color scheme, and in our recent seasonal Portage porter, the bluish teal evokes a feeling of water.”
More importantly, the consistent brand presentation in a retail cooler draws consumers in, and the color increasingly serves as a way to quickly differentiate and navigate through a range of different product brands in that cooler. Humans have a strong memory for color, and over time, customers no longer have to read the name of a beer and simply learn to grab the six-pack with the familiar color on it.
“The best way to use color is to differentiate products within a family,” says Emrich. “Stores tend to merchandise brands together, so if you’re looking at a case full of Uinta, you’re buying the parent brewery, and that color provides subtle cues about the individual beer brand.”
But color can be used as much more than just flavor signifier, when it serves other brand goals.
“Color should also tell the story and feel appropriate to the overall brand,” says Emrich. “One brand I’m working with now is located in a port city, and the shipping containers at the port have inspired the color palette. It’s another way to use something simple [such as color] to reinforce the story of the brand.”
For Urban Chestnut, color is another way to reinforce their concept of beer divergence, and the competing ideals of reverence and revolution each have their associated color—blue and orange, respectively. Each of those thematic colors plays a prominent role in everything from the company logo to retail packaging to taproom beer lists.
“Our brand is defined by the interplay between old and new, reverence and revolution. The colors in our logo emphasize that contrast, with the blue representing the reverence side and the orange representing the revolution. Whether it’s the colors the beer names are written in on our taproom chalkboards or color bands on our retail packaging, we use color to reinforce this play and identify our two primary series.”
Branding can be powerful when it reflects the customer, and not every craft-beer consumer in North America is an outdoors-loving adventurous spirit looking for the hidden glacial ponds that dot so many beer labels. While an appeal to the outdoors and clean water certainly makes sense for a product such as beer, adventurous brands are pushing beyond these branding themes to make connections with different audiences.
“A great example is my work with Bottle Logic (Anaheim, California),” says Emrich. “They’ve really taken off with a strategy of releasing hard-to-get whales, so in cultivating the brand identity, we thought about the kind of customer who is drawn to that level of fandom, and we tapped into the Bottle Logic founders’ love of movies, sci-fi, and comic books. It’s beer-geek beer for geeks. We treated their entire product lineup like the expanded universe of a sci-fi movie franchise, with a whole story line behind the brand names that appeals to science and futurism. The concept of the brand is rooted in the idea of exploration, and that’s expressed in the experimental beers they brew and release.”
Matching the psychographic of the craft-beer consumer—that individual who loves to try new things, who craves authentic experience, adventure, and exploration—is key, but adventure means different things to different people. Now that beers are collected and traded like comic books, is it so strange for beer labels to look like them? It’s a direct contrast to the message of big beer, which relies on history, solidity, and unwavering consistency.
“Craft-beer branding themes are most potent when they speak to the craft-beer customer,” says Emrich. “That’s why themes of adventure, liberation, and rebellion are so popular.”
Room to Grow
A new challenge facing brands is building an identity that can grow with the brewery. Rebellious outsider themes are great at 5,000 or 10,000 barrels, but come across as less authentic or even disingenuous as the brewery climbs past the 100,000 mark. And that same branding can lead to cognitive dissonance in the event of a sale or merger.
“The breweries that are no longer independent face a difficult challenge,” explains Emrich. “Many have projected an ‘outsider’ image but became ‘insiders’ when they teamed up with InBev, Heineken, or Corona. They face the real possibility of being rejected by savvy craft-beer drinkers who might see them as sellouts. These brands must continue to be aggressive in terms of staying authentic and experimental, while doing good for their community and staff. That’s key to the idea of ‘craft.’”
Whether you’re building an internal team to manage your brand, visual identities, packaging, website and social media, and other consumer touch points or you’re working with outside creative or design firms, it can be challenging for any brewery decision-maker to give up some control over the creative direction of the work. But that trust is absolutely necessary to get the best, most creative work out of those you’re working with.
“Look for designers willing to say ‘no’ to stuff,” says Emrich. “With someone who says ‘yes’ to you all the time, you’re not getting more from that creative than you already know. When someone understands your business but is willing to say ‘no’ [and intelligently defend that position], you’re getting someone who wants the best for your business. I need clients to be okay with arguing about things that are important.”
It’s equally important to consider the age range of your consumers in your decision-making. The twenty-one- to twenty-nine-year-old age bracket is one of the fastest-growing consumers of craft beer, and brands that don’t resonate with consumers in that bracket don’t have much of a future.
Another significant challenge is the pace at which new breweries and product brands are entering the market. It’s important to protect your intellectual property as you create it—or risk having to deal with the consequences. But it’s not just an issue of doing a trademark search or a search for names on popular beer-rating platforms such as Untappd. Every reputable brewer (or their attorney) is searching, but if more than a couple of days elapse between your search and the filing, you’re at risk.
On a related note, as the market grows more and more crowded with brands, it can be tempting to forego the challenging work of creating original work. But it’s more imperative than ever to think creatively and push into new territory, however uncomfortable that might be.
“What I never want to hear is, ‘I really like what you did for so and so, and I want to do my own version of that,’” says Emrich. “To ultimately be successful, a brand has to look past what contemporaries are doing.”