To say the local beer industry is flourishing is quite an understatement. A new brewery seems to open every month. And for the most part, each is experiencing success due to a public that thirsts for diversity in its drinking options.
At some point, however, the market will become saturated – and selling enough beer to stay in business will be a challenge. There is plenty of local competition and now craft brewers from across the nation see Arkansas as a lucrative market for their beer. Over the last few months the state has welcomed COOP (Oklahoma City), Kona (Hawaii), and Sixpoint (Brooklyn). Victory (Pennsylvania) is on the way, and maybe – if early indications are true – craft giants like Lagunitas (California) and Oskar Blues (Colorado) are not too far behind.
Shelves are crowded with brands competing for our drinking dollar. How will the local guys maintain their momentum?
A quality product is obviously important. A brewery won’t survive long by making bad beer. But perhaps just as important is a brand image that appeals to beer drinkers. It’s going to take more than simply brewing good beer to be successful as a business. Thought must be given to logos, slogans, labels, tap handles, and overall brand messaging.
A marketing plan is a must if a brewery is going to survive in an increasingly competitive industry. According to the Brewers Association, there were only 601 breweries operating in the United States in 1994. Last year there were 3,464 – a staggering 20-year growth rate of 576 percent.
Yes, it’s a crowded field in beer these days. Northwest Arkansas is no exception to this new reality – and as a result – local brewers are giving more thought to how they present themselves to consumers. In many cases they are soliciting the help of professional marketers to help them craft their messages.
BLKBOXLabs is a Northwest Arkansas creative agency that is partnering with some of the local brewers to maximize their brand appeal. Owner and President Joey Nelson said the key to success is authenticity. Ozark Beer Company, one of BLKBOXLabs’ signature accounts, is an example of a brewery that portrays itself in a very honest way.
“Everyone connects with the brand,” said Nelson. “It’s so authentic, so pure. I think it speaks to what we stand for at BLKBOX, who we try to work with, and how we try to approach our work.”
According to Ozark co-owner and business manager Lacie Bray, she and her partners started thinking about the brewery’s brand image well before the first beer was produced. A close friend of brewmaster Andy Coates developed the brewery’s logo – a simple take on the Arkansas state flag.
“We really like simple,” said Bray. “We didn’t want to be overwhelming. Everything we did up until the cans was amazingly simple and honest.”
Adapting Ozark’s hardworking image to the brewery’s package of choice – aluminum cans – was a challenge that BLKBOXLabs was willing to accept.
“They have really nice, simple, clean stuff for their brand,” said creative director Jeremy Teff. “What they really wanted to do was connect it with a broader audience. With the elk we were trying to play off the Ozark Mountains’ outdoor heritage. Andy and Lacie are into outdoor activities – they were both river guides in Colorado – so it made sense for their brand.”
The end result was a can that has been widely applauded for the design work. Don’t misunderstand – the beer is topnotch, with a rating of 95 out of 100 on beer review website ratebeer.com. But the label hits home with its imagery, hand-drawn typography, and the bold choice of black for the primary color.
“People from the Ozarks understand,” said Teff. “They’re outside people. They’re hardworking. They’re honest. That’s where that handcrafted aspect comes from. Everything we do here we make with our hands, so it was natural to do the design work that way.”
The can design for the Belgian-style Golden Ale – which incorporates campfire imagery and the familiar typography – has been met with just as much enthusiasm.
“It has definitely blown us away,” said Bray. “Especially the recognition on the national level because it’s not something that we’ve sought out. When it comes it’s always a surprise. But it reinforces the fact that people appreciate what we’re doing.”
Ozark is currently working with BLKBOXLabs on can designs for its IPA and cream stout.
“We’ve already gone a couple of rounds on those designs so they’re close to being done,” said Bray.
For Fossil Cove owner and brewmaster Ben Mills, marketing his brand was almost an afterthought when the brewery first opened. He was a one-man show – brewing in the morning and pouring beer in the tasting room during the evening hours. Getting the kinks worked out of brewery operations was his number one priority.
“It was as simple as having someone do the initial logo,” said Mills, referring to his original marketing plan. “We’ve kind of just gotten by with what little we’ve done.”
Local artist Nick Shoulders, who Mills knew through a mutual friend, created most of the original artwork. Each of the six year-round offerings received a distinctive look. The illustrations were wonderfully whimsical and somewhat Flinstonian in character. But they were built for merchandise, not beer labels.
Packaging is just now coming into focus for Fossil Cove. Keeping up with tasting room demand and draft account orders has been a challenge to this point, but with recently acquired fermentation space comes more beer to play with.
Mills initially invested money in a bottling machine. He changed his mind and switched to cans after considering the pros and cons of each. Cans require less inventory space in the brewery and are, in reality, superior to bottles in terms of how they handle the beer. Cans eliminate the risk associated with oxygenation and light exposure, which tend to create stale or skunky flavors in beer.
With the packaging decision behind him Mills turned his attention to labels. Designing a label that stood out from the crowd was a priority. “On the very first purchase people are definitely judging the book by its cover,” he said. “It’s all about individuality. People don’t want to see everyone looking the same. They don’t want to see a silver can.”
So Mills looked to BLKBOXLabs for help. He saw the success Ozark was having with the agency, and he knew Coates and Bray wouldn’t have a problem with him using the same design team. For BLKBOXLabs’ Joey Nelson, Fossil Cove was a familiar client. He was a member of the brewery’s inaugural mug club, so he knew the Paleolithic look Mills was going for.
“Ben had his original mark established and knew where he wanted to go with it,” said Nelson. “But he didn’t have anybody to drive it that way.”
BLKBOXLabs immediately started taking apart the elements of the original artwork and putting them back together in a way that would work within the confines of a beer can.
“They have this really distinct dinosaur art style,” said BLKBOXLab’s Jeremy Teff. “It’s interesting because the artist used a lot of colors – like 30 colors. On a beer can you have six and that’s it.”
Making the artwork seem as though it was intended for a beer can – and not posters or t-shirts – was extremely important. Subtle tweaks have been made, including an enhanced prehistoric landscape in the background of the La Brea Brown can. Rocks were used to showcase the malt, hop, aroma, and taste descriptors that explain the experience drinkers will have with the beer.
“I think that can is completely different from the Ozark can,” said Teff. “Fossil Cove is a cool brand as well. Working with them is definitely another feather in our cap.”
Mills wants the energy of Fossil Cove’s tasting room to show up in all of the brewery’s branding efforts. The guys who work there have become known as a fun bunch – dressing up in costumes at beer festivals and serving as the life of the party.
“The atmosphere of the tasting room is who we are,” said Mills. “My challenge is making that happen on the can.”
Look for cans of Fossil Cove to arrive later this year.
Springdale’s Core Brewing & Distilling Company is the biggest brewery in the area with approximately 3,000 barrels of beer sold (wholesale) in 2014. It arrived on the scene with an aggressive marketing strategy that focused on a wiener dog mascot and a tagline that raised more than a few eyebrows.
Sales Manager Jonas Dunnaway said “Take Pride in your Wiener” resulted in strong opinions – some good and some more critical in nature.
A few consumers thought the original label designs for Core’s bottles were too busy and made it difficult to identify individual beer styles at a glance.
“Every person in the world had his or her own opinion [of the original branding efforts],” said Dunnaway. “It’s tough to please everybody. That said, we value every employee and customer’s input. So it was just a matter of when to rebrand – and that time is now.”
Unlike Ozark and Fossil Cove, Core decided to tackle its branding project without the help of a creative agency. Dunnaway and founder Jesse Core spent considerable time in the market looking at designs, swapping photos, and proposing ideas before settling on an approach that they both agreed would work for the brewery.
“Simplifying the logo was first on the list,” said Dunnaway.
The wiener dog remains front and center in the new logo, but the overall look is cleaner with a black and white color scheme and an absence of shadowing and other embellishments.
With a new logo in place, they turned their attention to the rest of the label. Through their research they were influenced by the simple designs of Upslope Brewing Company, Austin Beerworks, and New Belgium Brewing Company. Each uses large, easy-to-read typography and bold colors to distinguish their beers from the competition.
“We wanted our design to be easy to see, to identify the style you’re looking for, with colors that pop off the shelf,” said Dunnaway.
Each style of Core beer now has its own color with large font calling out the beer’s name. Beer shoppers now have an easier time finding the exact style of Core they’re looking for.
The shortened tagline “Take Pride” – which smartly removes innuendo from the equation – sits just underneath the lip of the can. The word “Premium” is prominently positioned above the logo.
Premium is definitely a big part of the brand messaging for Core.
“We believe our message is fairly clear,” said Dunnaway. “We strive to brew a premium product people can enjoy time and time again.”
By admission, the guys at Core aren’t design experts. But they found something simple that works for the brewery.
“We focused the rebranding on an easily identifiable design that allows the product itself to be the center point of our message,” said Dunnaway.
In the end it’s still about the beer
A tremendous amount of thought goes into building a brand. How a brewery positions itself influences everything – target markets, product mix, and company culture. There are a number of strategies to consider along the way, but according to Joey Nelson from BLKBOXLabs, honesty is still the best policy when it comes to marketing beer.
“I think those that stand out the most are those that stick to the originality of who they are,” he said. “When you make logos and brands like that you become timeless.”
Timeless is a status every local brewer would like to achieve. Nobody gets into the business with intentions of going broke. Despite the industry’s skyrocketing growth, there are definitely pitfalls to avoid.
Chief among them are issues related to quality. When the beer is bad it doesn’t matter what it says on the outside of the can. There are too many options in today’s craft beer market for people to default to an inferior product. They might try the beer once, but they won’t try it twice if the quality is questionable. Most of the local brewers realize this, including Fossil Cove’s Ben Mills.
“What’s inside the package is still more important than what’s on the outside,” he said.