Let me start off by admitting that I love good branding. I appreciate products that project a fully realized vision, from the packaging to the nuts and bolts inside. The easiest (and these days the most clichéd) example here is Apple, which creates a lovely and cohesive brand experience from the store where you shop to the packaging you touch to the device inside. I’m not sure if liking such things makes me a yuppy, a metrosexual, a brand snob, a moron who overpays for shiny crap, or all the above, but I am confident that a few of you will let me know in the comments.
In the beer world, the first brewery that pops into my head when thinking about a “complete brand vision” is the Bruery. Their packaging is as elegant and well-crafted as the beers you’ll find inside. It all works together beautifully. Another brewery that fits this bill for me is one I sorta loathe – Brew Dog. I bitch about their PR stunts, but their in-your-face punk ethos screams at you from the shelf when you gaze upon their products – you can’t deny that those guys have a cohesive brand. There are a bunch of other breweries that fit this bill as well, like Coney Island, Clown Shoes, Great Divide, Left Hand, Flying Dog, etc., etc., etc. You get the idea.
So those are some who get it right. There are many other breweries that make really good beer, but have wonky branding and packaging. I hate to say that this has stopped me from buying their beers, as it makes me look like a shallow brand snob, but it has certainly slowed me down in some cases. I wanted to taste Bruery Mischief the moment I saw that red and black label; I can’t say the same for Ruckus’ Hoptimus Prime (the punny name didn’t help).
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll look past the labels and buy a beer from a brewery that I’ve never tried, but if I’m being honest, the nicer the packaging and the more cohesive the “idea” of the brewery, the sooner it makes it into the cart.
Here are some examples of breweries that make great beer, but suffer from poor branding or the art on their containers:
Voodoo Brewery: I’ve adored everything I’ve ever had from the Voodoo Brewery, but their “image” is a mess (as is their website). They have a voodoo-themed brand, but aren’t located in the swamps of Louisiana or Southern Florida, rather in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Um, okay. Their beers have interesting names, like Pilzilla (which is awesome), Wynona’s Big Brown Ale (also awesome), Four Seasons IPA (again, wonderful), but none of these have anything to do with voodoo, which feels like a miss to me. Some of their other beers fit the voodoo theme, like Big Black Voodoo Daddy (just assume I wrote “awesome” after all of these – my “a” key is getting worn out), White Magick / Black Magick, Voodoo Love Child, etc. That’s a good thing, but overall, the whole “voodoo” idea doesn’t hold together, which I find unsettling. Also, the art on their packaging struck me as a little lackluster at first (I overlooked it for a few trips before they caught my eye), but after tasting their stuff, I’ve come to salivate at the sight of it, so I suppose it’s effective. Anyway, if you see something from Voodoo, buy it, despite what your inner brand snob says.
Laughing Dog: First off, I’d like to apologize to Fred Colby, owner of Laughing Dog and a dude who we adore. Fred, your beer is stellar and an incredible value, but I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out if Don didn’t turn me on to you guys. I love your brand concept (dogs and laughter and beer are go together wonderfully), but your labels don’t do justice to what’s inside. Is the label art a dealbreaker? No way, but your stuff deserves as much attention as it can get. I know we had a Rocket Dog IPA label design contest going here a while back, and some of the submission were pretty powerful – maybe Don needs to shake a leg on that. Anyway, if you’re a beer geek who has overlooked Laughing Dog in the past, you’re missing out on some seriously good beer – don’t let the labels stop you!
Dogfish Head: There, I said it. I’m talking about their six packs here, as most of their bombers, especially Fort and the recent Sony Records collaboration beers (that felt weird to type), are pretty sweet looking. But the 12oz bottles look dated and don’t reflect the creativity and craftsmanship of what’s inside. I’m not sure I’d change it at this point, as Dogfish’s humble look is becoming almost iconic in the beer world, but it would be great to see the look and feel of the cartons and bottles live up to the taste and creativity of the beer they hold. That said, I think Dogfish is doing just fine with the current packaging, so I guess if it ain’t broke…
One thing all of these breweries have in common is that they continue to be successful, which is terrific. Most hardcore beer geeks don’t really care about what’s on the label, only the beer that’s inside. We read about beer on the internet, talk about beer with our friends, and jump at the chance to expand our horizons by trying something new. In many cases, we look past packaging because we already know what a brewery or beer is all about.
But as the craft beer marketplace continues to grow and the big boys and their marketing machines begin to infiltrate our happy little world, branding and label appeal become more important than ever. Many new craft drinkers aren’t ever going to become full-fledged beer nerds, rather they’ll walk up to the shelf and pick what looks good to them. If wonderful beers like the ones above don’t make a clear emotional or intellectual connection with these new drinkers (and do it in three seconds or less), chances are they’ll be overlooked for ones with a clearer, more cohesive brand identity, like those supported by the macro brewers will surely posses. While it kind of sucks that this is where craft beer is heading, it’s important that good beer wins the day, and that means good packaging.