Embrace craft without losing your soul

John WorthingtonLet’s be honest, craft beer isn’t going anywhere any time soon, writes John Worthington, senior designer at Coley Porter Bell

So much so that we’re beginning to see a response from the big brewing companies through acquisitions, collaborations, innovations and rebrands. From Heineken’s Maltsmiths project and AB Inbev’s acquisition of Camden Town, to Guinness’ The Brewers Project and the launch of Hop House 13, it’s clear that the rise and popularity of ‘craft’ is permeating the entire market.

However, as the trade body SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) stated recently, drinkers deserve to know whether they are buying genuine craft beer or one made by a multinational. Meanwhile, across the pond, the Brewers Association has announced plans to introduce an independent craft brewer seal, which brewers can add to their packaging to identify themselves as a true craft producer. Big brand owners need to be mindful about wrapping their products in a faux-craft story, hoping the public doesn’t notice.

With all that in mind, how can a larger brewer position themselves effectively in this new landscape? And what are the golden rules for those hoping to craft genuine brand stories that resonate?

Be true to yourself (and your consumers)

Craft is all about authenticity, honesty and soul. Today’s consumer feels passionately about the brands they buy into and if you’re not telling the truth, they’ll find you out. So, if you aren’t brewing in a tiny boutique brewery in the trendy part of town, that’s okay — just don’t pretend that you are.

Instead, look to your brand’s history and celebrate what makes you unique. Pilsner Urquell highlight its dedication to quality by holding events with specialists from other disciplines to celebrate their shared passion for artistry and craftsmanship. In communications, it consistently tells the story of its humble beginnings in the small Czech town of Pilsen, and how its unique product went on to take the brewing world by storm. This is a motivating truth of the brand and is in its DNA.

If you find a kernel of truth in your history, then don’t be afraid to dust it down and display it with pride.

Be approachable

Consumers are increasingly interested in the people and stories behind the brand. They want to know everything, from the brewer of the beer to the farmer who grew the hops. By celebrating the people as well as the product, you have a chance to connect with your audience in a more meaningful way.

This human aspect should inform everything you do. From the stories you tell, to the language you use — whether it’s humour, quirkiness or simplicity — talk to your customer in a way that makes them feel part of a conversation, not a lecture, and they’ll want to keep talking to you.

Be brave

Maryland’s Flying Dog brewery embodies a sense of adventure and weirdness that is perfectly highlighted through their use of Ralph Steadman’s surreal artwork across their identity. Steadman famously illustrated the writings of Hunter S Thompson, and Thompson and Flying Dog founder George Stranahan were actually good friends with a shared lust for life, firearms and drinking. Steadman’s distinctive illustrative style is therefore a natural fit, and while celebrating their strangeness has caused controversy, it has also garnered them an enormous fan base of loyal drinkers.

You don’t have to follow their exact model to be successful, but you do need to be bold. Be experimental (if your brand personality allows it) and embrace change while keeping one eye on the past. There’s a market full of ‘vanilla’ brands out there, so find what fits you best and commit to it 100%.

Be aware of trends

When Brewdog arrived on the scene back in the mid-noughties, with its bold, colourful branding and letterpress-inspired typography, it was a breath of fresh air for the world of beer.

Fast-forward to the present day and it seems everybody is at it, including long-established players with large brand portfolios. However, much like your dad raiding your wardrobe, these crafty young clothes look more than
a little embarrassing on a veteran brand and are likely to be stretched so thin that consumers will see right through them. So, remember to keep your dignity and find your own way — be mindful of what’s in fashion,
but never give in to that urge to jump on the band wagon.

In summary

There may not be a quick-fix formula for responding to craft, but, in a way, that’s what makes the challenge so compelling. Ultimately, established brands need to focus their messaging on the care and passion that goes into every aspect of what they do. After all, this is what has made them so renowned in the first place. If you can get that across then you can always find and express your inner craft story, no matter how big your brand is.