Sep 2, 2014

Is craft beer changing the codes of branding?

Five years ago I coined the term ‘the little guy’ to define an important shift in branding. Typified by innocent, this term referred to the phenomenon of brands who re-established the connection, severed perhaps a century ago, between producer and customer.

Fuelled by the explosion of choice facilitated by the internet, and the explosion of communication made possible by social media, brands like innocent gathered fans, not consumers.

They broke design and communication codes, opting for simple graphics in place of photoshopped fantasies; open and genuinely engaging conversation in place of marketing blurb.

Fast forward to today, and the fastest growing food and drink brand in the UK is Brew Dog, a Scottish craft brewer.

Like innocent they disrupted the packaging codes of their category, though this time with anarchic, finger-jabbing labels that poked fun at their ‘mass-market, watered-down’ rivals, the big brewers.

Meanwhile across the world craft breweries have sprung up like dandelions on a summer lawn. Started up by a seemingly endless supply of talented young brewers (where did they all learn their craft?), they have re-invigorated the beer world and excited drinkers with countless new (and re-discovered) tastes and styles.

So after decades of reducing options, increasing scale and crafting a brand image instead of differentiated products, the big producers are facing a dilemma: How can they get some of that lucrative craft beer action with the same brands that have studiously avoided variety and product development?

Well there may be some interesting old recipes in the archives, but they’re unlikely to look the part. And so the race is on to create a new generation of classic beers with the feeling of small batch production and an urgent injection of ‘artisanal’.

Grolsch’s Kornuit is an interesting example. It’s still a Pilsener beer, and its product proposition rests, according to its marketing blurb, on a ‘young generation of brewers’ who have ‘added a different hop’. Not quite the revolution I was hoping for then.

Its design proposition rests on a set of identikit clichés such as hand-applied-style stamps, photocopied signatures, and a made-up ‘recipe’ template. Perhaps they have identified a niche consumer typology who values the illusion of craft without taking any interest in the details.

Whilst this might keep the shelf warm for a few months, they’re going to have to try a lot harder than this to match the levels of craftsmanship that consumers are now getting used to. Take Amsterdam’s Brouwerij ’t IJ, whose recently overhauled branding combines distinctiveness, glorious attention to detail, humour and even a really organised (if subtle) design system. These design values are interpreted by people, unconsciously yet correctly, as a reflection of the product inside.

I’ve focused on beer in this blog, but the same principle is evident in dozens of food and drink markets around the store.

So if your brand suddenly feels the need for a lot more ‘craft credibility’, remember to use a craftsman (or craftswoman) for the design.

Oh, and don’t forget to craft a worthy product first.