Crafting brands: shaping the stories behind beverage marketing

Bulleit Bourbon bottle design / Sandstrom Design | Portland, Oregon

Continuing a series focused on industry craft, Fine partner and chief strategist Josh Kelly looks at how a craft mindset has come to define the beverage industry and influence all aspects of branding, from making to serving, and (most of all) how creatives are guiding the story.

There’s never been a more confusing and refreshing time to be thirsty.

A dizzying array of drinkable brands crams grocery store aisles, bar shelves, and restaurant menus. In the U.S., that’s 6,000+ craft breweries, 9,600+ wineries, 1,500+ craft distilleries, and ubiquitous options in coffee, tea, sodas, bottled waters, energy drinks, and even exotic new ciders, coconut waters, kombuchas, bubble matchas, and chais. Now you’re just making this stuff up.

All these brands can’t reasonably be looking for mass consumer adoption; they’re looking for a more limited, but highly involved, audience. In beverage categories, it falls to marketers to find points all along the “supply chain” to win over those willing to pay a higher price point for a brand that has a story behind every sip.

It’s why craft in the creative trade has become more critical than ever, adding perceived value to the brands you drink.

Wait, what’s craft again?

If there is a poster child product in the craft brand universe, it’s craft beer. While in many industries craft is a self-imposed distinction or aesthetic, the craft beer industry’s Brewers Association has an actual, published definition — one that’s been a subject of some debate.

It’s hard to argue with the general idea that “a craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional,” though some would dispute whether their 6 million barrel limit translates to “small,” or if “independent” leaves some loopholes for larger owners.

But one thing any debate makes clear is that a lot of what goes into the definition of drinkable craft is not directly a judgment about the quality of whatever’s in the bottle or can. That’s not to say the association and its members aren’t highly concerned with that as well, but that the definition reveals there’s more added value than ever in the story behind the beverage.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is, did you enjoy the beer while you were drinking it? Would you want another when you’re done?” Scott Ungermann, Brewmaster at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, asks the bottom-line question you might ask of any drinkable product.

What branders have found is that, more than ever, goes into influencing your answer. Maybe back in the good ol’ days, you could infuse water with your choice of sugar, malt, or beans, design a cheery can, write a jaunty jingle, and load up the trucks. But now, a growing consumer segment wants a lot more from their beverage brand. They may not decide whether they enjoy what they’re drinking until they get a true feel for where it’s made, how it’s made, what’s in it, what’s its story, and even how it’s personally served.

The wonkification of beverages

Provenance has always been a headliner in wine, right down to the vineyard parcel; in recent years, it’s permeated other product categories, renewing emphasis on inviting people into the source, whether it’s a region, neighborhood, or right into Willy Wonka’s proverbial chocolate factory itself.

“There’s a heart and soul of craft when you walk around this building,” says Ungermann. “If you look at how we make beer – everything done by hand, time-honored traditions, the people — it’s strange to think we’d no longer be technically defined as craft [owing to their 2017 acquisition by Sapporo Holdings] when I really believe what we do is the original way of crafting small-batch beer in America, and more specifically, in San Francisco, since the 1800s.”

That sense of source and place manifests in a variety of ways beyond the beer, from the intimate photography of their copper brew kettles and traditional process on the website, to video origin stories that evoke the Gold Rush, the meticulous line drawings of Sausalito label artist Jim Stitt, and their collaboration with local sports teams like the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors. All of it serves to draw you closer to Anchor’s sphere — its city, its brewery — even when you can’t get a reservation.

“For us, it’s not a headline of craft,” says Steve Hawley, Director of Marketing for Westland Distillery and Principal at 51 Eggs Branding in Seattle, Washington. “We’re trying to express our sense of time and place in whiskey. In a way, we are introducing a new category of whiskey into a 600-year-old industry.”

With an identity and labels that evoke Pacific Northwest industry, a video anthem that celebrates their context with visual immersion and poetic narration, and a pioneering “Our West is Whiskey” message, the brand takes pains to ground consumers in a place that hasn’t traditionally been associated with whiskey, creating meaningful difference in an industry where even the varieties of oak used in barrels have historically been limited.

“Some of the most interesting studies around wine, in particular, show how much perception influences reality,” says Kenn Fine, Executive Creative Director at Fine. “Most people won’t develop the expertise to distinguish nuances of taste, so you have to connect them to experience. These aren’t just bullet points; they’re emotional connections to the true genius loci that contextualize the image you seek when you drink.”

Fine’s perspective may come from working across industries like wine/beer and hospitality/placemaking to both engineer experience and express it. If you can’t visit a winery, for instance, a digital destination may be the best place to get a depth of content, functionality, and imagery that mimics the experience. Design for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ online destination was consciously inspired by a new offline visitor’s center. Frank Family Vineyards visually invites you in with a time-lapse of how “A Lot Happens in a Day.” For Ashes & Diamonds, the same millennial community drawn to their winery on famed HWY 29 gathers around the modern, streamlined experience where the brand lives online.

Bottles and cans and clap your hands

Bookended by where it’s made and where it’s consumed, traditional brand tactics like packaging and promotion begin to shift their approach to beverages. Whether it’s creating a distinction on grocery store shelves, or making the connection direct to consumers, it’s finding ways to revive old traditions, or innovate new ones and attach them to a tangible artifact you can see and feel to inform your taste.

“I often look for a little quirk, something that feels handmade, imperfect, a sign that there are people and hands behind it,” says Steve Sandstrom of Portland-based Sandstrom Partners. “I think people have just lived their whole lives experiencing the shortcuts, the value engineering. Now you have to do something that changes that. You have to be true to, or reflect, who’s making it, and probably more importantly, WHY they’re making it. The challenge is how do we tell that story better?”

Those cues could be something as simple as the string-tied carton for Smith Tea. “You can’t do that on a machine. And if you’re going to spend $15 on a box of tea, maybe you want to think that it was done by hand, which it is.”

Or a more direct connection between packaging and promotion, as with Bulleit Bourbon. “For us, it was don’t do advertising. It’s not a brand ever built by advertising, but by bartenders who liked making drinks with it. The outdoor ads purposefully avoid marketing speak. No headlines telling you what to do or not to do. They’re just showing you interesting photographs of the bottle or label that you either already know or would want to find out about. If you’re going to take up people’s space and attention, why not make it less of a sales pitch and more of a gift?”

Colby Nichols and Josh Kenyon of Portland-based creative studio Jolby & Friends describe it this way. “As designers and makers and thinkers and writers in this digital age, where everything is just a few clicks away from being done, it’s our responsibility to challenge ourselves to a put a hand feel, a unique touch, to what we do. So even if we’re drawing in Photoshop or something, we’ve made all our own digital brushes from our own pen writing or paint brushes.”

In recent work for Stash Tea, “each box had to be like what the tea tasted like.” Great pains were taken in the composition and photography of 1,000 ingredients across more than 80 SKUs, in fine-tuning the brand’s trademark compass logo that echoes the global spirit and its name (from the captain’s personal stash on a clipper ship), down to the intricate textural patterns and colors custom made to associate with each product.

Their work on Hopworks, a brand they say “inspires us from a craft perspective,” called for labels and t-shirt designs that were hand drawn or made from woodblock, allowed to have “some grime around the edges, but still have a structure to it,” creating an identifiable system and a similar visual aesthetic. In that visual, Jolby’s own “origin story” and grounding in 2D and 3D animators shines through.

Customers by the cupful

Wineries have always used their destinations as the ideal place to connect with their brand. And what seems to have driven much of craft beer lately is the experience created not just when you invite people into the breweries where the beer is made, but also into taprooms where the beer is consumed under ideal conditions.

This approach finds its parallel in the one-cup pourover coffee shops that have gained so much steam in coffee and even filtered into big changes in home consumption brands and behaviors.

“Things can be copied, but culture can’t,” says Jacob Jaber, CEO of San Francisco-based Philz Coffee. “For us, craft is a continuous commitment to quality and experience, and at a really personal, individual level. That’s why you order direct with a barista, who guides you based on preferences and then asks you to take a sip and make sure it’s perfect.”

Philz has grown from a single store in San Francisco’s Mission District to more than 40 stores across California and now into Washington, DC. They’ve stuck to the mantra “one store, one thousand times,” and focused on finding perfect locations, decorating each store with local artwork, and adapting more to the local vibe than to some master brand formula. How each store is thoughtfully designed to be different, and how each barista practices their craft, become the key details of brand delivery.

“There’s absolutely as much a sense of craft in how we deliver our service as to how we create our product,” says Jaber. “People value that because we’re used to having everything at our fingertips… we sacrifice warmth and connection for convenience and speed. I think more and more people are craving connection and authenticity. When people do experience that connection, they feel uplifted.”

After years of focusing solely on channels, Anchor Brewing’s rolled out ballpark venues and a new taproom to focus on creating ideal conditions because, Ungermann notes, “You have to consider the quality of the beer all the way through the process and out into the trade. When you walk into a bar that has Anchor Steam on draft and get a nice, clean steam beer that’s fresh and served through clean lines and glassware – that holistic approach that looks just right and tastes just right getting to the customer is really important.”

For Westland, as with many distilling brands, making sure the experience is just right means arming bartenders with the story. “What really becomes important for us is the content,” says Hawley. “This business and our brands in particular are very much a hand-selling exercise. One person at a time. We train the trainer, who is often a bartender. But even the end consumers are people who care a whole lot about where stuff comes from, how it’s made, the intention behind it. It’s not about 10-word elevator pitches, you have to give them depth of understanding.”

“It’s a seeking mindset, not a pushing mindset. Unless you’re a brand with massive distribution inroads, you need to meet customers through a more direct connection to what they seek,” says Fine. “It’s not an arm’s length, send you to the supermarket with our ads, mass brand approach. It’s how do we pull you in, make this personal, give you something substantial to inform and shape your taste? It’s where beverage product brands begin to seem more like service brands.”

“There are 4 million ways to enjoy Philz, but we believe the best cup of coffee is one that comes to your own taste,” says Jaber.

This view takes beverage branding full circle, to thinking about all the ways to “gift” consumers, and reward them experientially, so the next time they’re thirsty, they’ll be refreshed, rather than confused, by their options.

It also opens the door for how a craft mindset takes a turn toward a broader set of service-based industries, where you may not always be able to taste a difference, but can still see, feel, and experience it.

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