By Joe Rowland
Lovers of craft ales may take their brand loyalty as a given, but there’s far more that goes into branding than just what meets—literally—the eye.
Throughout the many years I spent working in the marketing and design industry, I honed my creative talent to create and execute meaningful and effective campaigns. I had the opportunity to work on household brands, including Phillips, Miller Brewing, Smirnoff, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and a long list of others, allowing me to expand my skills well beyond the drafting table. Ideas such as “concept to consumption” and measuring new brands and campaigns by asking, “Is this own-able?” helped me forge a point of view beyond critical thinking; it became a way of life.
Now, all these years later, with my marketing firm days long behind me, these lessons still resonate. After seven years, I moved on from a high-pace marketing and design firm and began an outfitting company that I ran for over a decade. Then in 2009, I co-founded a small craft brewery in Bryson City, North Carolina, and within five years we were looking to make the leap beyond large format 22-ounce bottles and into packaging 12-ounce six-packs. With this jump, our product would join the hundreds of other packages already on the bottle shop and grocery store shelves.
But we found ourselves at a crossroads, between sharing a product we love, and determining the most effective way to convey that message both to existing fans and to those who had never experienced our liquid. It was time to reach back to my marketing days and take a hard look at who we were, what we represented, and how we connected to our consumers. We needed to understand how consumers experienced our brand, and how conveying that message with the right packaging design might influence them to choose our products over other options.
This process was frequently painful, but it was always insightful. I found that it was an opportunity to look at how other brands in our industry tackled the same challenges. Oftentimes, their solutions inspired our own.
Here are some of the key points we learned from the process.
1. Know your brand and what it means to your consumers.
Starting a design project without an in-depth understanding of the brand is like tossing darts at a dartboard to see what sticks. When we moved to Bryson City, we did so to get away from the big city and enjoy all the amenities of the National Park. After some market research and a bit of soul searching, we determined that the millions of people who came to the area each year visited for the same reasons we had moved there: whitewater paddling, mountain biking, and hiking, as well as the incredible views, abundant wildlife, and slower pace of living. The National Park was the glue that not only held our city together, but also was the foundation for our new lives and our brand.
2.Cohesiveness makes concepts easier to understand.
Many craft breweries had the foresight to build a brand around a singular concept and use that idea as their foundation. Tampa’s Cigar City Brewery, for example, connected themselves with their community and represented its rich history and culture. From the design of their labels (made to look like a cigar label) to the names of their beers to the actual cigars hand-made in their taproom, each element reflected their brand’s core concept. All this upfront legwork ensured that, despite the enormous growth of the beer industry in the Tampa area, where over 25 breweries now reside, Cigar City is still considered Tampa’s original and most recognizable craft brewery.
3. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).
Labels, six-pack carriers, and case cartons with lots of images and complexity could be viewed as attention grabbing, but more isn’t always better. New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colorado (it also has a location in Asheville), recently re-branded their packaging, and instead of an elaborate design, they chose to focus on one graphic or photo to represent each beer’s identity. This simplicity was intentional, as graphics don’t just end up on labels—they are incorporated into merchandise, point of sale items, sales sheets, banners, koozies, and a plethora of other marketing materials. Breweries that do incorporate a complex element on their label, such as an ornate background, should make sure that simple graphics overlay or complement the complexity to avoid busy, distracting, and unreadable labels.
4. The correct use of color can make all the difference.
In addition to graphics; a thoughtful use of color can help define a brand. Choosing a striking color to represent each brand can set the individual beer brands apart from each other. Denver’s Great Divide Brewing does a great job of incorporating a vivid color to identify each brand. This color is also used on the carriers, case cartons, and other marketing materials for each brand. To a consumer, color-coding your brand portfolio can make it easier to identify the product they are searching for and can result in higher sales.
5. Get the logo right.
At our brewery we established branding guidelines early on. Our logo, for example, represents the nature that surrounds us, including three of the most popular animals that live in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park: the black bear, the bald eagle, and the reintroduced elk. Those elements were then pulled from the logo and incorporated into case cartons, carriers, and labels. Repeated use of these elements helped to create continuity and reinforce our branding, making it easy to pick our products out of the crowd.
6. You’re nobody without a name.
Naming a beer is an important task, especially when it is going to sit on a shelf alongside a dozen other brands of the same style. While everyone can appreciate a great pun, product names that reflect the core brand create stronger product recognition and provide cohesiveness within your portfolio. Many successful brewers have chosen to just go with the style names, including Sierra Nevada, who started simply using names such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and they continue to do so with many of their core brands today. This path is a great way to get beer on the shelves without having to worry about complicated and messy trademark issues.
Ultimately, it is important to know your brand and what that brand means to the consumer who interacts with it from concept to consumption. Great design is significant, but it can’t solve the big problems that every brand will face at some point in its lifetime. It can, however, create and reinforce the intangible connections we make with the brands we love.
is co-owner of Nantahala Brewing Co. in Bryson City and a member of the Asheville Brewers Alliance board of directors.
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