There could be all manner of factors that sway your next beer purchase. You might be after something low in alcohol because you're driving or in the mood for something particularly hoppy or sour. Maybe it's based on a recommendation from a mate or a website, maybe it's driven by your love of a particular brewery: who they are, the way they present themselves, what they stand for. Or maybe it's driven by nothing more than which label, can or tap decal leaps out and grabs your attention.
Whatever goes through the mind of the consumer, it's clear that as the beer landscape in Australia becomes ever more crowded, with competition and general interest intensifying, brewers are faced with challenges beyond the walls of the brewery. These days it may not even be – if it ever was – enough to succeed simply by making good beer.
In a market where one beer can often be substituted with something similar, and with relative ease, how a brewery defines and presents itself and its beers is crucial. Branding is, perhaps, more important than ever. And so it is the subject of our second "Big Issue" feature (following on from Ownership).
As before, we put a series of questions to people in different parts of the industry to see what they had to say: to find out what they think is important, why it's important and how businesses can do it better and thus give themselves a better chance of surviving and thriving.
- Scott Wilson-Browne – co-owner and head brewer at Red Duck Brewery, which has just unveiled a new look (or looks) for its limited releases. Scott is also a graphic designer by trade and recently redesigned Tooborac Brewery's look.
- Chris Menichelli – co-owner of Slowbeer and Two Row, thus someone who buys and sells a greater variety of beers than almost anyone else in the Australian beer industry.
- Mark Mayo – the creative director behind Heart Branding, who has worked with craft breweries throughout his decade-plus in the industry.
- Loren Kelly – Moon Dog's "wonderful graphic designer" who has been with the Melbourne brewery since before it was "a thing" and "makes Moon Dog look pretty, doing design, marketing and brand stuff."
- Jaron Mitchell – co-owner of 4 Pines, who took out the trophy for packaging at this year's Australian International Beer Awards.
We approached Jimmy "A Craft Beer Ideot" Swinglehurst, one of the country's more colourful beer Instagrammers and lover of pretty looking (and fine tasting) beers, for a punter's point of view but he was unable to meet our drifting deadline as he's working on something so important it's even eating into his Instagramming time. Must be serious business.
THE Q & A
How important is a beer / brewery's branding as part of the entire package?
Scott Wilson-Browne (pictured above with some of his latest releases): The three equally important aspects are sales, marketing and product.
Branding is the fundamental basis of marketing... so that means image is everything.
Good branding is about inspiring your customers with confidence, desire and respect. It's also about expectation: so the product quality must be equal to the promise. If you over or under deliver on the expectation created by the brand, then you lose the customer. That's what targeted marketing is about.
Now, if you have a great product, but poor branding, you won’t get the initial sale. No one will buy on impulse if you don't appeal. And the sales team won't be able to sell it, except at a discount. Great advertising campaigns, if you have a big bucket of money, can sell ice to eskimos, but after the campaign finishes, you have a whole lot of customers wondering why they bought the poorly branded or sub-standard product to begin with. Thus the only way to keep selling is to keep advertising... but eventually, if the product doesn't match the expectations of branding, then sales will fail. Or if the product doesn't deliver, then the brand and sales will fail.You need all three aspects, equally balanced.
A sound business plan has the product quality set first, so that the brand and marketing is accurate, and then the sales can happen.
Jaron Mitchell: Hugely important.
Let’s look beyond beer towards other products and services. We all know there is a lot of crap sold out there, purely because it has been packaged up and fed to us in a digestible format we are led to believe it'ss the ducks nuts or it just happens to appeal to something deep in our psyche and / or is something we identify with.
Equally, the are some brilliant beers (and other things we consume) that go completely unnoticed because the brand wrapped around it sucks.
In fact, it can even get worse than this, in that a terrible brand can even go as far as dragging down the perception of the underlying product – even if it is red hot. In saying all of this, obviously utopia is that the beers that sit inside the bottle / keg and the brand that is wrapped around it is all aligned and A1.
Chris Menichelli: These days people are generally very visual and, as with any product, branding is crucial in enabling consumers to relate to a brewery and their range. Branding gives the punters an idea of what to expect in the bottle.
Mark Mayo: Ensuring your brand converses clearly with its customers is key to sales success. Brands create imaginations and direct behaviour patterns amongst customers, a great brand simplifies the ability to distinguish products from amongst a wide range of offerings; the importance cannot be stressed enough… if your brand doesn’t instigate action to purchase, sales will suffer. It’s imperative to make sure that the branding that you have created in order to communicate with consumers is carefully explored before you actually start communicating. If not, considerable damage could be done that could be very difficult to fix at a later stage.
Loren Kelly: Very! It’s the first thing that consumers see when they go into a bottleshop or bar. You want to stand out, to be recognisable to those looking for something familiar, and to be interesting to those looking to try something new.
The taste of the product will keep people buying the beer, but the branding is often what gets people to make the purchase and try it in the first place.
Is it becoming more important in today's increasingly crowded marketplace?
SWB: It has always been important. The way to deliver the message has become easier, and cheaper, through social media. The trade off is your reach, or penetration, is reduced severely.
Mainstream advertising still reaches the mass markets but is becoming less a good choice for value of money, as people are watching more subscriber TV (ad free) and less free to air (ads aplenty, and programs being sponsored so full of ads too).
If your product is high quality, well branded and priced accordingly, then you can gain brand loyalty. But the more brands that are competing, the more diluted your sales will be. The days of 100 percent brand loyalty are numbered. The consumer that stays with one brand is a rare animal indeed.
JM: It’s always been important but, yes, this would incrementally increase the importance to achieve cut through from the crowd.
I think there is a much bigger driver for why branding today needs to be clear and succinct, however. The increasing pace that we live our lives today, processing more data with the expectation of real time info, outcomes and results, squeezing activity time and merging activities together, meaning we have less time to concentrate on the thousands of brand messages that are thrown at us daily (in fact, our concentration spans are shrinking).
Think about this – how many of you are reading this article while you’re on the throne? Compare that to 10 years ago.
CM: As nice as it would be for the contents of the bottle to be all that matters, it’s just not the case anymore. There’s so much choice these days and more new breweries are popping up all the time. It’s great for the adventurous consumer but it’s made brand loyalty hard to capture and / or maintain.
Eye catching labelling is often the main factor in narrowing down and ultimately choosing what new beer to try.
MM: New craft beer brands are entering the scene in unparalleled numbers, so it’s massively important. In the fight to be recognised, brewers must ensure their brand homework has been done. There is still a general idea that a brand is simply a logo or a label, when it’s much more than that. Yes, the logo is important but the brand needs to be thought of much more holistically…
It’s more adequately defined as a unique combination of words, symbols, images, stories and beliefs, all employed to create an image in the consumer's mind that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors.
LK: It’s certainly becoming harder to stand out. When we first started out there wasn’t a lot of out there branding in the beer industry; now you walk into a bottle shop and there's a whole wall of different looking beers.
Are there key considerations that should go into the development of any brewery's branding or the look of a particular beer?
SWB: Yes: identify your target customers, design the beer(s) and brand to suit those tastes. If you are going for a niche, in some ways it is easier to appeal, but that is a small part of the market, and you have to be ready to change constantly. The trendsetters are at the top of the tree for trying new products, and you have to get their approval so that the followers will then try.
Think about less than 5 percent of the market as drivers, 10 to 15 percent are followers, and then the rest are only ready to try “established” brands. So think about the time span it takes to become mainstream, or the amount of publicity / advertising required to become established.
I would say that if you want to start a microbrewery or a craft brewery today, you should consider about $1m on equipment, plant and property, $1m on staff and sales team, and one to two years of that disappearing as you spend it [to become] established, and then another $1m on branding / marketing / promotions /
Don't confuse sales with marketing: two very different things.
JM: Be yourself. It’s hard to fake it, as you have to keep faking it and this gets tiring. Some people are professional fakers, mind you, and geniuses at playing a role: “C’mon, Gary: act. You have the power.”
But I think if you genuinely spend some time to understand the key underlying culture and values your brewery members collectively have and use this to transplant it into your brand (a brand identity of sort), the whole journey becomes easier, less work, less stressful, more fun and far more rewarding.
When brand ideas are generated and brand direction is discussed, if this “brand identity” is clear it becomes very easy for the business to decide “yes” or “no”. This leads to a consistency of decision making and voice, which in turn gives consumers a reason to believe.
People aren’t stupid, they see through bullshit and believe in brands where things are generated from the heart and soul … not off the back of some market insight and strategy report delivered by a third party consultant.
CM: The brewery needs to know their own identity and from that branding should be a natural progression. Whether they’re a contract label, gypsy brewer or otherwise, the branding should be a true representation of who they are and what they do.
There’s obviously a lot of freedom and scope for creativity, so we see some really interesting stuff but, on the flip side, some pretty safe branding too. Even so, if it reflects the brewery and the styles they produce, then they’ll manage to attract certain customers.
Red Hill have classic branding to match their European influenced styles, while Moon Dog (see the ice cream-themed "Tupac" above) have quirky branding that accurately reflects the beers they produce. In both cases you have a pretty fair idea of what you’re in for.
MM: The best brands are built on strong strategic foundations, planning is crucial. From category audits to consumer insight… the more you know about your customers and your competitors the better chance you have of compelling your target market to purchase your product rather than someone else’s.
Mainstream beer products follow branding rules that are particular to product types or flavours, this includes bottle shape and colour. For instance, would you expect IPA to taste different if you drank it from a green bottle? The colour, even before tasting the product, would signal it being a different taste all together. This is because we are educated to expecting certain product types being packaged in certain ways; it makes it easier to shop by sub-categorising products into smaller segments.
These category signals do not tend to exist in craft beer, just mainly bottle shape and colour. Craft beer design calls for creative ingenuity and style unmatched by large, mainstream brands. Microbreweries should consider and aim to establish a distinct brand and identity that breaks away from the mainstream – the brand as crafted and individual as the beer itself and a story that emotionally connects.
Craft beer drinkers tend to take pride in the product and value quality over price. They’re completely receptive to designs that differ from the mainstream norm – whether funky or just plain crazy. They also tend to be more educated than the general beer-guzzling public about what goes into the creation of their favourite brew, and what sets it apart from others.
With craft beer, labels in particular, branding rules can be bent to the point of no return, It’s why we enjoy working on craft beer so much here at Heart Branding: finally an industry that allows us to vent our wildest creative thoughts!
LK: The main aim is to give the beer a visual representation of the concept behind the brewery and the beer, so the customers to get a vibe of what the beer is going to be like.
Is it important to keep refreshing or should a strong brand be timeless?
SWB: It's important to keep refreshing a strong, timeless brand.
JM: Relatively timeless.
The best brands globally slightly refresh very seldom. And if it’s a strong brand it will be a refresh at most, with the key elements remaining intact. A brand that changes too often tells the consumer: “We don’t even know ourselves.”
CM: Strong branding should be timeless but the reality is that sometimes people don’t get it right from the outset (or at all!). As the industry grows, a brewery may need to reposition their products relative to others, so a refresh seems like a logical decision. (See Slowbeer's evolution, old on left, current on right.)
For the most part, the broader reaching the product, the safer or more timeless you’d need to be. A key example is Mountain Goat’s gradual shift away from the goat head and toward more text based branding. The core beers are aimed more broadly, while the more unique Rare Breed are targeted a little more narrowly.
MM: A brewery having a strong brand is better protected from crisis and from the impact of competitors, but a strong brand needs to be able to ‘flex’ with social changes and trends and the competitive realities it faces in the marketplace. Ideally, it must stay true to its core values – that part should remain timeless.
For instance, we may view Heineken as being ‘timeless’ yet it evolves – even the logo has changed a number of times since the famous brew’s creation – yet it still evokes the same emotional response as it did back then because it never deviates from communicating its core values and brand ethos.
LK: A bit of both. Our brand has been an evolution, the general feel has remained the same, but it has matured (a little!) and changed as the brewery and beers have. There needs to be a balance between keeping up to date and looking fresh, and staying recognisable to your current audience.
Which brewery's brands do you admire? And why?
SWB: I admire whisky and gin labels much more these days...Archie Rose, The Botanist, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Timboon Distillery (I designed their labels).
But if you press me, my favourite labels at the moment are Tooborac Brewery’s. I think they fit the brief from all aspects, but I might be biased, as I designed them…
Luckily, we [at Red Duck] are small batch so we can keep doing that "update and refresh a strong timeless brand thing" so after designing Tooborac's labels, I decided to lift the game with Red Duck too.
JM: Corona. It’s a global super brand. What’s inside the bottle is so close to water it’s amazing it can be called beer. It’s made in mega factories by machines, with food engineering, such as specially cloned-for-purpose hops to avoid light strike, to allow for the use of cheaper clear bottles to be sent from centralised production in Mexico to every corner of the Earth – a shining light in the text books of 20th century food process engineering and centralised cost efficient manufacturing.
Does the drinker care? Absolutely not.
When drinking it, it means roughly the same thing to every person around the world, irrespective of their background or culture. More along the line of “going slow”, “relaxing”, “simple things in life” – rather than “I am drinking something out of a mega factory”.
The marketing and advertising is consistent globally and instantly recognisable. The photography in the ads even has a palate of “Corona colours” that is unfailingly rolled out, such that it would be recognisable as being Corona across the planet, even if there were no Corona branding in the picture.
Absolutely we do not want 4 Pines to be anything close to this, as in we strive for our story to align with who we are and what we do. But I absolutely admire the ability for Grupo Modelo to do what they have done in creating and sticking to a brand message that the consumer absolutely believes in whilst it being so far from the genesis of the underlying product inside the bottle. The brand is a million times bigger than the product and from a pure brand point of view, you can only admire that.
CM: I’m a big fan of the Garage Project branding, as they’re more a representation of the beers and their differing styles than the brewery itself. Each release has a different label (see below), some vastly different stylistically to others. It’s really just another way of emphasising creativity and keeping things fresh without actually changing the brewery branding.
I’ve always liked the Moon Dog branding too: super quirky and fun but there’s still consistency and identifiability through the range, so they look great lined up on the shelves. For similar reasons, I dig the Beavertown labels. In both cases, I feel they really reflect the excitement of the current craft beer scene. Though I understand that some might find them a little over the top.
On the less edgy but equally creative side of things, I’m really into the To Øl branding. Clean and sophisticated but very unique. Much like Garage Project, their labels can be quite varied but they’re somehow still recognisably from the same brewery.
MM: Local to Heart Branding Offices sits 4 Pines. "Beer we want to drink & that our mates are proud of!" – Their brand positioning statement evokes a simple life quality that draws me in: mateship. Drinking with your close friends, pride, commitment and respect. The brand look and feel is simple and slightly naive with its hand drawn Norfolk Pine Trees sitting hero on the label illuminating the story behind the brand quite perfectly.
I respect the simplicity of the brand and how it converses with consumers, and it’s consistent across all consumer touch points, from website to coasters.
James Squire’s Mad Brewers range (pictured right) is another favourite, a brand I personally helped create. Creating the story behind the brand was pivotal to the look and feel.
This was a brand refresh as the Mad Brewers range existed, yet had remained unchanged for some years: an ideal example of a brand that needed to morph into something that existing loyal consumers would drink, but would also appeal to a new audience.
LK: There’s a lot of great branding in the beer industry now. One that always stands out in the bottle shop fridge is Rogue, it’s had a consistent look for a long time, is instantly recognisable yet doesn’t look dated.
Beyond label artwork, what else should brewers be considering to help their design stand out – packaging type, size, tap handles, posters, etc?
SWB: Everything you can afford. You can argue that some advertising / promotion is more effective than others, depending on who you want to communicate to, but, basically, if you have a bucket of money, spread it around and spend it!
If you don't have the magic bucket of money, then you have to be really, really clever about how you spend your limited budget, and you have to over-deliver on the the other aspects to compensate. Personally, we cant compete with other breweries with sales or marketing, so we make the highest quality beer we can. We don't use cheap ingredients, we don't use fast fermentation, we don't take any short cuts. That way we can utilise the most effective marketing there is: word of mouth recommendation by retailers and customers.
JM: All of the above and then some. Rather than list off a bunch of items we are all pretty familiar with, any time someone can potentially look at your brewery (be it the physical brewery itself or anything external – including the beer of course) I guess the thought we have is: “Would we be proud to have someone see this in isolation assuming they have never seen anything from 4 Pines before and never will see anything from 4 Pines again?”
CM: Packaging format (bottle/pack size) and price is a obviously a really big thing in retail. There’s no point wasting money on six-pack holders when the six-pack price is relatively expensive. I don’t know too many people who would spend $50-plus on a six-pack of 10 percent imperial stout. They’d be far more likely to just grab one or two bottles. So why bother with packs at all?
With greater competition comes the need to be price competitive. Ideally you want six-packs to be sub $25, four-packs sub $20. If that’s not possible, you’d want to look at different bottle formats, such as 500ml.
One of my biggest gripes is the actual cardboard four-pack / six-pack carriers – you’d be amazed at how many can’t hold the weight of the beer in them. So many broken bottles and ensuing profanities! [See Loren's comments on a recent change at Moon Dog below]
MM: Getting your brand to simply stand out isn’t going to make consumers launch themselves over the bar and swiftly extract it from the fridge.
Ensuring your brand and product talks to consumers along the ‘journey to purchase’ is imperative. Consumer ’touch points’ (where the brand visually and emotionally connects with consumers) should be of major consideration, this includes items such as on and offsite Point of Sale, online/social media, advertising… and yes, tap handle livery! (See Moon Dog's by Rain Gidley, below, who has since been taken on by other breweries.)
LK: The complete package. Everything that consumers see is a chance for the brewery to be promoted. Packaging, tap handles, point of sale for for bars and bottle shops, promotional items, online advertising, the odd billboard and, of course, social media!
One of the things we looked at for our recent redesign was the actual structure of packaging. We didn’t just want it to look good, we wanted it to be a great structure so when you pick up the six-pack from the fridge you don’t feel like it’s going to fall apart. You don’t want to feel like your beers are going to fall out before you even get home.
Is it important to have an instantly recognisable / consistent look and feel across everything associated with a brand? What about for one-off releases?
SWB: If you don't have ownership, then you just confuse your customers. Yes, your brand must own every product you make.
With limited releases, you have a greater opportunity to use trend driven designs, as you are designing that product to a much more targeted audience who will take the time to research your products and make the connection.
If you are heading into larger sectors, then the opportunity to explore new designs that may hide your core brand is less. The more market share you have, the less you can change or move from the core brand.
JM: The Corona (and Coca Cola and Apple) story would say yes. But I think the answer to this question really depends upon what the brand owner wants out of their brand and what they want out of that particular thing / item / product / beer they are releasing.
A classic example for us is that we want all of our core range 330ml beers to be part of a “family”, whilst our two venues – 4 Pines Manly (original brewpub/restaurant) and 4 Pines Truck Bar Brookvale (big brewery/new venue) – other than serving 4 Pines beer, could not be any different to each other. It made sense for a consistent packaging “look” for our 330ml beers, but we wanted each venue to have its own very unique feel and personality.
CM: For the most part, yes. There are examples of breweries who manage to build a strong brand without overly consistent labels. Mikkeller (pictured above) and Garage Project are of most note. Over the years I’ve lost count of how many times Mikkeller has changed his labels for the same beers but people don’t seem fussed by it. In both instances the absence of a core range as such means there is less reliance on consistent labelling.
MM: Visual consistency is king when it comes to a brand conversing with its customers, this aids to create the phenomenon of the brand ‘religion’, where the value of the brand becomes so high in the mind of the consumer that he/she will always stay loyal to it and become an advocate.
One-off releases (may) target a different consumer, so the look and feel may change considerably depending on the marketing strategy. Generally sub brands work well as they draw on the Masterbrand, which serves to provide credibility for the product, but allows the sub brand to have a unique, ownable personality.
LK: A consistent brand look is important, to ensure that there is easy recognition. This is even more important with one off and limited edition releases. With a constantly changing lineup it’s important that people can recognise what brewery it’s come from. It's about creating awareness of the overall brand, rather than for each individual beer.
Thanks all for contributing to this article.
Readers: how important is branding to your choice of beer? Who do you particularly admire? Have there been any rebrands that have made you reconsider a brewery?
Look out for another Big Issue before the end of the year, this one addressing quality.