Drinking an ice cold beer on a hot summer’s day is a great British tradition, but our choice of refreshment appears to be changing, with sales of mass-market beer brands declining by 3.5 per cent overall in 2011. This is in marked contrast to the rising fortunes of small independent craft breweries, which are experiencing growth that is outpacing the overall market. Indeed, the Society of Independent Brewers reports that its members increased sales by 9.7 per cent in 2011.
It is not just the robust flavours of craft brews that is driving the growth in sales, it is also the eye-catching labels and bottle designs.
BrewDog, one of the UK’s best-known purveyors of craft beer, has repeatedly set the bar for ostentatious bottle design.
The brand, which is known for employing shock tactics to gain publicity, has created one beer packaged inside dead squirrels and another served from a deer’s head. Most recently, it produced a batch of steroid-laced ‘anti-Olympic’ brew called Never Mind the Anabolics, although steroids aren’t included in the beer that actually reaches consumers (see Case Study, below).
BrewDog founder James Watt says: “The entire ethos of your brand should be reflected in your branding and packaging. Most craft breweries seem to subscribe to a packaging template of being folksy and homemade, but that’s such a restrictive mode of thinking. We’d much rather express our crazy personalities.”
American brewer Flying Dog’s packaging design (pictured above), while less outrageous than BrewDog’s, follows similar subversive traditions.
The company enlisted artist Ralph Steadman – famous for illustrating articles by ‘gonzo’ journalist Hunter S Thompson – to design its bottle labels, which went on to define its overall brand identity.
Thompson – a friend and former tenant of Flying Dog founder George Stranahan – has had a lot of influence over the brewery. Its “Good people drink good beer” motto is taken from a toast given by the journalist at a brewery event.
Flying Dog PR manager Erin Biles explains: “When George said he wanted to start a brewery in the late 1980s, Hunter introduced him to Ralph Steadman.
“In 1995, Flying Dog began working with Steadman, and it took on the gonzo ideology -standing up for what we believe in, not taking shit from anyone and looking at life and any expression of creativity as an art form.”
Craft brewers’ individualism isn’t always about outrageous packaging. South London-based brewery The Kernel uses simple and minimal labels for its bottles. Each brown paper label has details of the beer printed in black, sans-serif block capitals.
The Kernel’s founder Evin O’Riordain explains: “The genesis of it was not from branding, it stemmed from home brew labels. When I was home brewing, I would use card, which would help protect bottles when they banged against each other. I would wrap the card around the bottle, then stamp the name of the beer on the label, along with its alcoholic strength and when it was made.”
Although the design was born out of practicality rather than aesthetics, preserving the lack of ornamentation on the bottle labels is not self-conscious “anti-branding”, says O’Riordain. Rather, it remains as a statement that “it’s what is in the bottle that’s important”.
The established beer industry is now following the example of craft brewers. The first multinational brewer to see the potential of craft beer was US-based Molson Coors, which launched launched Blue Moon – a Belgian-style wheat beer often served with a slice of orange – in 1995.
Blue Moon’s branding evokes the hand-made style of many craft beers – both through the bottle label, which looks like a woodcut print, and the beer’s “Artfully crafted” strapline. The label suggests that it is produced by the seemingly independent Blue Moon Brewing Company, although this is a trademark owned by Molson Coors.
The success of Blue Moon led MillerCoors – the joint venture between Molson Coors and London-based SABMiller – to establish a ‘craft beer division’ called Tenth and Blake, which is responsible for distributing Blue Moon and other beers in the US.
SABMiller has also made its own moves into craft brewing. It has used its St Stefanus brand since 2011 to distribute beers outside Belgium for the Van Steenberge brewery near Ghent, which uses brewing methods first used by monks at the nearby St Stefanus Abbey.
The design of its St Stefanus packaging, created by design agency Brandhouse, emulates the individualism of craft beers, packaged in wine bottles etched with the St Stefanus name in a black-letter typeface, which was inspired by text from a songbook in the monastery’s library. The bottle caps take their design from a stained-glass window in the abbey, depicting the flaming heart of St Augustine.
SABMiller Europe marketing director Stefan Homeister says: “The St Stefanus label features the date from which the beer was released from the ageing cellars in Belgium. That’s so consumers can decide whether they want to drink it when it’s younger, or set it aside for six months to enjoy a more mature taste.
“There’s a maturation key featured on the label and in many other pieces of brand materials. It shows that when St Stefanus is younger, it will taste fresh and fruity. As it matures, it becomes more complex and aromatic.”
Packaging is an important – though not the only – element of making a brew stand out in the craft beer market, Homeister adds. “In Belgium alone, there are hundreds of brands in the craft and speciality category. To cut through such a crowded segment, your brand has to work very hard.”
The most recent packaging trend through which craft beers differentiate themselves, perhaps surprisingly, is aluminium cans. In branding terms, cans still have a stigma of cheap booze attached to them, yet independent breweries see big benefits to cans over bottles and the negative connotations are beginning to wear off.
Most importantly, cans are more effective than glass at protecting the product from light and oxygen, even compared with the dark amber glass that virtually all craft brewers use for this purpose.
The seal keeps the beer fresh and preserves the flavours for longer, which means it is easier to export. Cans also tend to be lighter and more recyclable. But there are more basic marketing advantages too, according to Magic Rock Brewing founder Richard Burhouse (see Viewpoint, below).
“The big attraction from my point of view is that we would be one of the first to do it in the UK, and it would be a branding tool as much as anything else for us. There is much more room on a can to display your brand. I also like the portability. The people who have had good American canned beers understand it, and the ones who don’t aren’t our customer base.”
Again, US brewers have led the rebirth of beer cans as a fashionable packaging choice. Oskar Blues, based in Colorado, claims to have been the first craft beer to use cans in 2002, and Flying Dog now sells two of its beers in cans.
In the UK, BrewDog has marketed its best-selling Punk IPA in cans since last year, claiming to be the first craft brewery in this country to do so. However, O’Riordain at The Kernel points out that many UK craft breweries are hampered in their ambitions to use canning lines because of their relatively low production volumes.
“To get our own canning line would be unfeasible, and to use someone else’s we would need to be producing a hell of a lot more beer than we can because it would be very expensive. But it has been very popular in the US.”
Although the taste remains the deciding factor on whether a craft beer will be popular, the art of brewing certainly now extends to its packaging and branding.
Case study: BrewDog
Even though BrewDog now makes own-brand beers for Tesco, the Scottish craft brewer is still not shy about causing controversy. Its most recent publicity stunt came just days before the opening of the London Olympics when it launched a beer containing steroids and other “performance-enhancing” substances banned for athletes by the International Olympic Committee.
The shock tactics don’t stop there. The label design for the Never Mind the Anabolics beer incorporates elements of London 2012’s branding, including a similar typeface, pink and yellow logo colours and the Olympic rings.
Only the first batch of the beer actually contained steroids as a PR stunt, since they are illegal to sell, but the new line could still be banned if it is found to breach Olympic branding rules.
BrewDog founder James Watt is unapologetic about the company’s actions. “The Olympics have become so hyper-commercialised that you wonder if these are the people’s games or the multinationals’ games,” he says.
“Almost every day you hear stories about what brands you can or cannot bring within a five-mile radius of Olympic venues. It’s absolutely ridiculous. We created Never Mind the Anabolics exactly because this ‘brand police’ exists. It’s our BrewDog way of pushing back.”
Previous BrewDog packaging designs have been even more eccentric. In 2010, the brewery released a limited edition beer called The End of History. Claimed at the time to be the world’s highest strength and most expensive beer at 55 per cent ABV and up to £700 each, only 12 bottles were brewed, each of them packaged within a taxidermied stoat, hare or squirrel. In 2011, another ale, Ghost Deer, was brewed solely to be served from a bespoke pump located within the head of a stag, mounted on the wall of BrewDog’s Edinburgh bar.
It is not just BrewDog’s special-edition ales that have grabbed attention. The Portman Group, a self-regulatory association funded by multinational alcohol companies, accused BrewDog in 2008 of trying to glamorise alcohol to young drinkers.
But that just added fuel to BrewDog’s fire. The brewer hit back hard, calling the Portman Group “a suppressive monopolistic cartel”. Five years since the company formed on Scotland’s north-east coast, it shows no signs of changing its tactics.
Magic Rock Brewing
The name Magic Rock comes from the fact I used to be a rocks, minerals and crystals wholesaler. Healing people would use them, believing they were magic. The design theme is a play on the word magic, using a circus sideshow.
The branding of craft beers is different from what we have traditionally seen in British beers. It is much more modern and much more youthful in its approach, going to a younger audience. I got a friend of mine, a graphic designer called Richard Norgate, to give our branding that same youthful approach.
The whole brand had to be a package. There aren’t that many breweries making the types of beers we make – although there are more every week, it seems – but I knew the packaging had to stand up to the product itself.
We wanted to be irreverent; fun, but with a slightly dark edge. In this country, there are breweries with very solid brands, like Fullers, but they are a bit fusty and based on tradition. They don’t speak to a new market. We are not bothered about the “real ale” angle, we are just saying that our beers have exciting flavours and they are interesting to drink.
It is good the bigger brewers are starting to take an interest in the craft scene. Beers like Blue Moon introduce people to wheat beers, and it’s good to have people trying different flavours in beer. But it is in their interests to attract as many people as possible, so I think they definitely dumb them down slightly.
Bottles like BrewDog’s are designed to provoke a reaction, whereas The Kernel’s are just there to provide basic information [it uses brown paper labels and simple fonts]. If we hadn’t done it our way, I would like to have done it The Kernel’s way because I am fond of its branding.
We would love to have a bottling or canning line, but the cost of the investment is quite considerable. The quantity is very prohibitive as well because the canning companies want you to have a million cans. A lot of real ale people dismiss canning out of hand, but it’s because they haven’t bothered to look into it.