Staring down the fluorescent abyss that is the beer aisle, even the most educated craft drinker can get a bit intimidated. Seasonals, collaborations, imports, and the like show up every day, making the already overwhelmed market even more difficult to navigate. Reaching for the slickest label is sometimes the only way to make a decision.
Of course, branding icons are prolific in the beer industry. Entire multi-million businesses have been built on simply brand recognition and alliance. Where would Budweiser be if not for that iconic label? And a Red Stripe on vacation is ordered partly to quench but also to admire that handsome bottle. Today, the craft industry is going beyond nostalgia and brand recognition when it comes to bottle design. Instead, the challenge is learning how to stand out from the ever-growing crowd. The solution for some is a drastic rebrand. Enter Stillwater Artisanal, Boulevard Brewing Company and Cascade Brewing whose recent rebrands have moved them from wallflower to center stage.
Hailing from Baltimore but now based in Brooklyn, Stillwater Artisanal has become known as one of the industry's most innovative brands, not only for cult classics like Cellar Door but also for a visual overhaul of all their offerings. “The brand has always been a an art project for me so I’ve always been aware of the aesthetics,” says Stillwater founder Brian Strumke.
When the company launched in 2010, the brand was inspired by moody and dark characters pulled from Victorian and gothic art that reflected the beer’s European influence. “I went from an Old World style in Baltimore to moving to New York City and seeing more modern art and I thought the branding needed a shift,” says Strumke. “And the beer industry had changed so much. We were riffing off of the old style beer marketing and after it go to the point in 2015 or so we found that other people were just following our lead.”
Strumke set out to not only completely redesign the brand, but also to re-assess what his consumer was looking for when reaching for a Stillwater beer. “I saw that the market had been increasing at an enormous rate and the thing that sells the best is new product,” he says. “Everyday there's a new brand on the market and each brand is trying to brand themselves as difiniative, I thought what if I could create a brand where every product has its own brand?”
Each Stillwater brew holds its own completely unique identity. For example, Cellar Door, a blend that was updated in 2017, is a chromatic teal and black polka dot design. While, Big Bunny, a collaboration with Arizona Wilderness, features a pixelated bunny form and the Orwellian text, “Stillwater is nothing Big Bunny is everything”. From trendy—such as Hopvine Bling featuring a riff on Drake’s album art—to clean and bold—including Stillwater’s flagship brew Stateside Saison—Stumke’s ambitious idea has paid off. “The idea of branding things with logos in your face, we're in a stage in marketing where that’s played out,” he says.
Boulevard Brewing Company
For breweries such as Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company, a kind of ground-up overhaul wasn’t going to work for an institution that has been brewing since 1989. The brewery—which came of age during a time where arguably their biggest competition was the Anheuser-Busch's and Coors’ of the world—found themselves recently swimming in a much bigger pool. “We used to have four year-round beers, now we have 16–as well as collaborations, seasonal beers,” says Vice President of Marketing, Natalie Gershon. “It wasn't so complicated when there were only a few hundred [beer makers].”
In keeping with their traditional style, Boulevard’s rebrand was subtle, looking to keep a cohesive and recognizable style that their drinkers are familiar with. “I think all of the labels that we have done have been about the spirit of the beer,” Gershon says. Storytelling through the labels is a theme present throughout the redesign. Case in point, Tank Seven, named after a batch that resulted in unexpected, but welcome results. “It didn't do what we intended, it did way better. The result was a special innovation,” recalls Gershon. “We wanted to convey a bit of the mystery that goes with Tank Seven.” The resulting design includes nods to the Ouija Board—speaking to its mystic origins—and a slot machine “7” reference to lady luck.
Based in Portland, OR, Cascade Brewing is no stranger to a flooded market. Established in 1998, the company has set itself apart by dedicating itself to specialty sour beers in 2005. Cascade Brewing offerings perhaps bear more resemblance to the wines coming out of the Willamette Valley than the IPA haze craze of Portland. It does by by using local produce from the Valley—such as Bing cherries and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes—and was looking to re-design that would speak to both the wine connoisseur and the beer enthusiast.
“There are so many [beer labels] that are so similar today, and our audience is that millennial, but also we appeal to the wine drinkers, says Tim Larrance, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Cascade. The company brought on board local creative agency Murmur Creative to help refresh the packaging. The brand doesn’t venture too far from the beer design vernacular—the refresh includes a crest-style logo that is familiar to most beer drinkers—but the bottles have also incorporated some of the label styling from wine. The “varietal” list appears at the bottom, announcing its affinity to the wine world. It’s a marriage of old and new, with just enough appeal to lure the customer from that old standby to try something that looks a little bit different.