The world of beer has never done subtlety well, and between the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple PR crises, the industry is sprinting to regain lost market share and fix the egregious strategic and tactical errors committed in marketing and operational management in recent years.
Smaller operations were hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Last year, small and independent brewers’ sales were down 9%, according to the Brewers Association. The 13.6% share of the beer market that craft brewers held in 2019 dropped to 12.3%, erasing several years of gains in 12 months. Jobs were lost too: Craft brewing cut an estimated 138,371 jobs in 2020, a 14% decrease year-over-year. The overall domestic beer market dropped 3%.
That’s bad enough. But what may be even more corrosive for future sales is the seemingly never-ending string of scandals that have essentially made the world of brewing look like a white-boys-only club.
A very brief run-down of the worst headlines: Notch Brewing production manager Brienne Allan shared her own experiences of harassment within craft beer. She put out a call on social media for other people’s stories of sexism and racism in brewing, resulting in hundreds of responses, many of which detailed allegations of assault and toxic environments rife with sexist and racist behavior. The ensuing uproar eventually led to the resignation of several brewery heads, including Modern Times Beer’s Jacob McKean.
Smaller stories that clearly illustrated the broader challenges seemed to hit the news all-too-frequently as well, such as one of Nightmare Brewing’s label artists, Defame, posting an anti-Black Lives Matter piece on social media, which seemed to equate BLM leaders to Nazis. Nightmare fired Defame and issued a statement saying that while the brewery encourages “artistic freedom of expression,” “as a company that believes in community and unity,” it “can no longer” work with Defame.
But even as sales plummet, the number of breweries in operation continues to grow. There were 8,764 breweries in operation in the U.S. in 2020, up from 8,391 in 2019, according to the Brewers Association.
“The past year has forced many of us in the industry to review what we see happening around us and decide if it really reflects who we are,” says Rob Day, the senior director of marketing at Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers and Springdale Beer Co. in Framingham, Massachusetts. “The craft beer industry in the U.S. is not as established as other industries, and the standard protocol of going through a brand audit on an annual basis just isn’t realistic for a lot of brands. But between cultural reckoning, struggling sales and the number of brands appearing on the shelf, brands are being forced to take a hard look at what they’re doing and figure out how they can set themselves apart.”
Marketing and design experts, observers and brewers offered their thoughts on what brewers should do—and what they definitely should not do—if they want to get more cans in people’s hands.
1. Be Inclusive
This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating considering craft beer’s recent well-documented reputation for occasional tone-deafness: Think of your brewery as, well, a business.
In addition to a history of patently offensive campaigns, such as Bud Light’s 2015 “Up for Whatever” ad, dubbed pro-rape by critics horrified by its pledge to remove “‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night,” and more subtle bro-approved glossy ads in which if women were included they were objects to be ogled or laughed at, the cans themselves speak volumes about who the intended buyer is.
“There continues to be a problem in the craft beer industry where very juvenile names and images are being used to lightheartedly brand beers,” says Tara Nurin, the author of the forthcoming book “A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches and CEOs.” “There are a lot of innuendos, and yes, there’s a market for it. But how big is that market? If you want your brewery to be a project where you and your bros basically yuk it up in a garage all day, then go for it. But if you want to sell your beer to women and people who don’t look like you, then you’re going to need to think about what will appeal to them.”
Recent data shows that 31.5% of beer drinkers are women, with just 11.5% being people of color. That’s a lot of market share out there being untapped. If craft brewers want to get their cans in the hands of a greater number of buyers, they need to think carefully about the images, colors and language they use.
“There are so many brewers out there competing for a shrinking base of customers,” says Nurin. “If they want to reach women and people of color, they need to think carefully about what will resonate with them. A great first step would be to hire people who don’t look like them so they can read the room better.”
Chelsey Rosetter, the co-founder of Los Angeles brewery Benny Boy Brewing with her husband, Benjamin Farber, is launching the business and designing all of its labels with inclusion as one of the foundational principles.
“It’s about doing the right thing but also the smart thing,” says Rosetter, noting that women make up to 85% of purchasing decisions in the U.S. “Even if they’re not buying beer for themselves, they’re buying it for family members. Given the choice between an exclusionary and inclusive label if everything else is equal, what do you think they’ll pick? Our top-five investors are 80% women, 60% people of color and 20% LGBTQ. We made every design decision based on what would be universally appealing.”
Rosetter says that the brewery’s aesthetic reflects the couple’s love of Old World brewing (the font), with a nod to California culture (the images, which include a bear, California’s state animal, in a hammock) and a determination to welcome connoisseurs and novices to the table with clear language that describes the contents (e.g., tart, fruity, bubbly).
“We wanted the labels to be playful, simple and clear,” says Rosetter. “We also did our research to see what was happening in the market. If you want to stand out, and there are a ton of brands using kitty images, skip it. You have to be original, or you’ll blend in.”
2. Be Aware of Your Image
Careful market research and a deep knowledge of how you appear to consumers are essential.
“We started in a basement in Asheville in 1994, when there were no other breweries there,” says Leah Wong Ashburn, the president and CEO of Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, North Carolina. “Now there are about 40 breweries. And in 2018, we realized that while we’re selling well, in the top 1% of breweries in the country, our image did not reflect who we are.” The company’s label, she says, was very Scottish in nature, but its beers “weren’t Scottish in style. It was just a complete divergence of image and reality.” And its sales were slowly going down.
The original logo featured a bearded man holding a beer and bagpipes, with a Gaelic-style font, while the new label features a graphical, crisp mountain background, a compass and warm autumnal colors.
The reception, at first, was not enthusiastic. “It was a bold change, and we got a lot of pushback on social media,”says Ashburn. “But if you’re confident in the change, you have to ignore the negative buzz. I found that the people who disagree are always going to be the loudest.”
In the end, the data speaks louder than trolls. After a downturn in 2017, following the relaunch, sales climbed 6% and have continued to slowly and steadily grow.
Sometimes, change is necessary to realign what’s inside and what’s outside the can, says Day. He joined Springdale in part with a mission to rehabilitate the brand.
“While Jack’s Abby is 100% about craft lager, what Springdale does is all about innovation,” he says. “We knew what we were projecting didn’t reflect that as clearly as it could. We did an internal and external audit of the brand, talked to consumers and thought about the image we wanted people to see. We worked with a design company and together, reviewing our audits and their analysis, decided that the best way to showcase our core principles—fun, education, community and innovation—was through streamlining the can’s visual space.”
The logo and font were touched up, and the brewery anchored the wording so that the name, style and descriptive language are in the same place for each style, even when the images and colors differ. It also adjusted language to clarify flavors: Brig Mocha Stout replaced Brigadeiro Breakfast Stout. Lavenade Kettle Sour with lavender and lemon juice became Lavenade Tart Ale with lavender and lemon. The labels also clearly showed the ABV of each beer.
“These details are becoming increasingly important as the can market gets more crowded,” says Day. “We looked at ready-to-drink canned cocktails and canned wines, too. We’re seeing a desire for very clear communication of what’s inside and what flavors to expect.”
The timing of the launch was inauspicious: January 2020. “But despite the shutdowns and the increased competition on the shelves, sales were up 72% in our home market off-premise,” says Day.
3. Be Communicative
If brands want to bring in new consumers, they’re going to have to, as Day says, shout who and what they are from the rooftops. “We did a brand refresh three years ago when we realized that leading with our brand, instead of the style of beer, was no longer effective,” says Wil Rogers, the director of marketing for Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, Missouri. “We wanted people who weren’t familiar with us and beer novices to be able to easily figure out what was inside the can.”
It put the style—IPA, pale lager, Baltic porter—front and center on the can. And Schafly’s lead designer, Sarah Frost, reimagined the legacy beer’s label with imagery and colors meant to mirror the style and flavors of the beers.
“We used signature golden hues of orange and yellow to reflect the juicy color and flavors of our Tasmanian IPA, for example,” says Frost. “Then we used art that showcases the native plants and animals native to that region of Australia, including the Snow Gum, Echidna and Pandani. This IPA is not a shrinking-violet beer but bright and tropical, and we wanted the can to show that.”
It also took the opportunity to honor St. Louis’ popular park, Tower Grove, with its Park Lager. “We spent a morning scouting historical monuments and landmarks to feature on the can,” says Frost. “Each label showcases a landmark and its surrounding beauty with plants, trees and greenery.”
The redesign of the brewery’s entire line created a 25% to 60% uptick in sales year-over-year after launching, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, Schafly’s sales have remained strong, says Rogers.
4. Be Practical and Realistic
Knowing and communicating who you are will only go so far if you don’t catch anyone’s eye. Your product may not even land in prime space at the retail level.
“We put a lot of thought into what goes into our coolers,” says August Rosa, the owner of craft beer retailer Pint Sized in Albany and Saratoga Springs, New York. “I have been doing this for long enough to know what moves, so that’s what will get priority placement. People shop with their eyes, and they may not go back for the beer again if the substance isn’t there. But to get them to buy in the first place, the style of the can is essential.”
Rosa says that certain styles, like New England IPAs and fruited sours, are flying off the shelves now, especially ones with buzzwords like hazy and juicy on the cans. Consumers also want flavor notes.
“Frieze does fantastic labels,” says Rosa. “They bring the language down to the core elements and feature bold, minimalistic art that catches the eye and makes it pop.”
Creating art that will “pop” without grossing out or offending people is a tougher task than one might think, as Daniel Birch, the label artist behind hundreds of iconic labels, including several for Alewife and Barrier Brewing, explains. “One of my first labels for Barrier was based on a Phish song, ‘Icculus,’” says Birch. “It’s a farmhouse ale, and the initial vision was to have an armpit on the label with funky stink lines spelling the word Icculus.”
Needless to say, Birch bridled, and he and the brewery compromised. “We have a great relationship, and there’s a lot of give and take,” he says. “But sometimes you just have to spend a lot of time reminding brewers that if they want to reach a big audience, they have to really think about their labels and not just create something that’s hilarious to them and their core group of friends. I’m not going to name names, but at one point, someone sent me a mocked-up label idea for a beer called Happy Ho, featuring a sexy fish with lipstick on. I had to explain that no one wants to buy a beer with a sexualized fish.”