By Richard Hatter
Wine, spirits and beer have all looked the same for a long time: BORING! There is a new consumer, and they give a shit about packaging.
Craft beer has given birth to crazy label designs and creative brand concepts readily available in large 650 ml “bomber” bottles. The mainstream has responded by buying as much as it can, making a serious dent in the factory “macro” beer market and with good reason: craft beer is often cheeky, sexy, funny, smart, fun, exciting and, of course, delicious. It was only natural for its packaging to reflect these traits, bringing out the brewmasters’ craft through “craft” design—work that gives craft breweries added firepower for greater shelf presence, and the ability to express their unique mindset and personality. The craft trend is now crossing over into the wine and spirits sectors, where cartoonish artwork and crude jokes aren’t as well received, but the idea of contemporary, next-level branding definitely is. This upsurge leads craft beverage designers into a forced process of evolution in order to stay relevant in the sector. I think this evolution can also be applied to growing a specialized studio; I’ve found that pushing boundaries in four key areas has had positive effects on our business at Hired Guns Creative.
The subject matter
When you look at the North American craft beer market, you can see an expanse of obvious ideas. (Oh, another hop pun? Fantastic.) With each project we strive to push past the obvious to the next level and create brands that evoke thought and compel the consumer to become educated about the brand, product, or message. Those brands sell like hell and create a fan base in the process.
Packaging design is like a fishing lure: it’s not always the biggest and loudest that gets chosen. It’s the right lure for the right fish that will get the job done. Step back and look at the market: if every craft beer on the shelf is screaming as loud as possible in order to get noticed, maybe the real way to stand out is to do the opposite. We took this approach for the label we designed for Stoutnik Russian Imperial Stout—a black label on a black bottle with a prism foil wordmark that twinkles at you when you walk down the aisle. And we pushed the boundaries with a description of the beer set in blind-embossed morse code. Many Stoutnik drinkers will never discover this detail, but the ones who do become life-long fans.
Boundary-pushing work brings in boundary-pushing clients. And often these clients want us to push even further than we did on the work that brought them to us in the first place. It’s now building off its own momentum, gaining steam as we move deeper down the rabbit hole of specialization.
The level of artwork and design
I try to raise the bar in this area more than any other. Yes, a solid brand concept is essential, but how do you handle a client who walks in with a mediocre concept that they’re married to? You can try to push them to elevate the idea but there are times when that just doesn’t work or isn’t on the table. So what’s left? Kill them with artwork and design.
Regardless of how amazing or mediocre the brand concept may be, I always push the artwork as much as possible. That can mean incorporating styles that are uncommon for a specific market. It can mean bringing a level of refinement or polish that’s not commonly seen on craft beverage labels. Or it can mean going for more detailed artwork than any other label out there.
Part of the reason so many craft breweries have such sub-par packaging designs is because they churn out an astonishing number of unique seasonal releases. In my experience though, when breweries see the responses we’ve received on packaging we may have designed for their competitors, many are then able to justify the cost of having killer packaging on all of their products, not just their year-round core products.
Printing techniques and budgets
Seek printers who stay current and build their business for the future, develop relationships with these printers, talk to them at the beginning of your project and throughout the process. Discuss your desired results, get their feedback on what they can achieve, what they are willing or want to try, and see what they suggest. Get your printer excited about the project they are finishing for you and let them push their limits with you. Everyone benefits from these practices. You also minimize errors when there is clear understanding from day one. (You can’t change the game with printing mistakes.)
A strong design with a rock-solid concept can go a long way in convincing a client to increase their printing budget. When the brewmaster at Longwood Brewery saw the Stoutnik mock-up, he decided to step up the printing budget to make it a reality even though that meant charging a bit extra for that beer. When we suggested that selling Noteworthy Gin in a box, like higher-end whisky, would help the product embody its name and set it apart from all the other gins on the shelf, the client likewise quickly saw that the extra printing cost was worth it.
On our end, I find that well-executed, old-school print techniques resonate with the design community. They share our work on social media and write about it on their blogs. All of this helps boost our online presence and expand our sales radius.
Our studio culture
Another aspect of our business that we’ve pushed over the years is our studio culture. We are pro-foosball, loud music, and old-school design process executed with modern technology, all wrapped up in open, MCM-inspired decor. Who wouldn’t want to spend time in such an environment creating the next cool craft vodka brand? Put emphasis on creating a backdrop that makes your team comfortable, and see how you can take what you are doing to the next level with them. We’re in the drinks business, after all—no need for cubicles or TPS reports!
I firmly believe that environment plays a huge role in producing great work. Companies come to us expecting the unexpected and we have to produce every time. This just isn’t possible in a sterile setting.
When we started targeting the craft beverage sector we set out to test the limits of packaging design in an industry that appreciated such a mindset. Today, constantly pushing hard on every aspect of our design process and studio culture is one of our core values, and it’s entirely possible that it’s the main reason that we continue to add new clients and team members. I would highly encourage designers and studios to push boundaries whenever and wherever possible. The benefits can be unexpected and wide-reaching. •
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.