The beer aisle is a colorful place. It’s one of the few remaining places in the grocery store where strong branding and scintillating package design is a central focus. Some beer makers spend over $1 billion on advertising annually, carefully maintaining a specific identity they want to convey to consumers.
Craft brewers recognize the importance of branding and spend their own limited dollars on high-quality design for their various beers. In fact, craft beer label design has become a veritable playground for graphic designers and illustrators around the globe. Unlike Murray Jay Siskind in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who found tranquility in the plain white packaging of generic products, craft beer enthusiasts embrace the brilliant packaging on their brews and tend to be as equally snobbish about their beer’s label design as they are about the selection of hops in their IPAs.
The incredible growth in the craft beer industry has taken the big beer companies by surprise. Multinational corporations, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, have noticed the growth in this segment and have reevaluated their strategies. Many of them have begun offering their own craft-style brews and others have capitalized on brand nostalgia and reintroduced throwback labels. Miller Lite is a recent example of this trend. Meanwhile, craft brewers continue to flourish, transcending the niche market they developed in, and becoming mainstream themselves, giving all consumers an opportunity to enjoy different styles of beer. The average beer drinker has become adventurous, embracing the session nature of craft beer drinking, exploring the different flavor combinations craft beer offers. In fact, according to a recent study by Technomic, craft beer production is up 9.6 percent, while overall beer production fell 1.4 percent.
Craft breweries have found an innovative position to fill in the consumer’s mind (and belly). They’ve also opened the doors to a renaissance of creativity among graphic designers and illustrators. According to an article from CNBC, there are over 2,700 craft breweries operating in the U.S., the highest total since the late 1800s. This explosion in growth has produced over 100,000 new jobs and many happy beer drinkers. The focus on exquisite label design reflects the brewer’s equal focus on exquisite brewing practices. The synthesis between the two makes sense.
Jacksonville’s own craft beer design expert, Kendrick Kidd, who has been responsible for all of Bold City Brewery’s artwork, observes that the average craft beer drinker is always looking for new beers to try.
“Unless a consumer is being recommended a brand by a coworker or friend, the label design is often their first impression. Right or wrong, a well-designed label can affect the grazing habits of a wandering enthusiast,” Kidd said.
Another instance is brand recall. If a person can’t remember the name, a distinct label can help them identify a specific brew they drank last weekend. “Oh, it was that one with a fish on it. Named 60-minute something”, someone may say, meaning Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA.
Kidd also finds that unique label design can help when a consumer is seeking out the newest seasonal offering from their favorite craft brewer by offering a cohesive look across all craft brew company’s offerings.
A designer’s approach is similar to a brewer when it comes to starting a project. As the head brewer carefully selects elements to flavor his next batch, a designer spends time carefully considering what the design needs to accomplish. Kidd wants his designs to reflect the brewer’s unique identity.
“I want the labels to stay true to who the brewery is. Sometimes brewer’s stories can be similar, which is challenging, but the individuals are always distinct – kind of like the beer,” Kidd explained. “My goal is to reflect that in the label design. The sweet spot is when you can create a cohesive series with enough variation that each beer label feels unique.”
In addition to the design considerations of any artist, Kidd also recognizes the unique position that graphic designers straddle as both business communicators and brand artisans. Which brings up another important aspect in the craft brewer’s label design, scalability and profit – will this design make people buy my beer? Kidd said he likes to approach his work with a long goal in mind.
“What are the label plans for the next six months and ten years beyond. Even if we can’t answer all of the questions, coming up with a solution that’s scalable is paramount,” he said.
In other words, it can’t be all about the design. There is always the question of what the audience needs or wants. Will this design be easy to reproduce and repurpose? Will this design effectively communicate what this beer is? These are all questions that a designer needs to go over with his client when crafting a beer label.
Although it is obvious how important branding is to big beer corporations, based on their advertising budgets, their own label design leaves something to be desired by some in the design community. Kidd doesn’t see it that way.
“Even though it’s all beer, I think there’s a different set of considerations for macro labeling. They’re catering to their audience in a way that works for them, just like craft breweries,” he said.
In other words, sometimes after mowing the lawn, cracking open an ice cold “light” beer is what you need. And honestly, who doesn’t enjoy the occasional PBR during a show at Jack Rabbits? It’s all about context and a craft brewer or the folks at InBev have to take that into consideration.
So next time you’re scanning the rows at your local craft beer shop, think about the time and thought that went into crafting not only your frothy beverage, but the refined label art that adorns the labels.