Beverage Branding: It's Complicated

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beverage brands by the bottle

Josh Kelly went down the waterspout into a whirlpool of beverage brands to find out how these thirst-quenchers are differentiating themselves in a market overflowing with choices. What he discovered it comes down to is creating connections to place, packaging, and people to ensure consumers keep sipping the Kool-aid.

First appearing in Beverage Daily, we’ve expanded this hot take to spill the tea on all the pour-ables in the category. Drink up, below!

Experiential Beverage Branding: Shaping Stories Behind Every Sip
By Josh Kelly

It’s a complicated time to be thirsty.

Witness the expanse of options in grocery store aisles, mini mart coolers, and bar shelves: the 6,000+ craft breweries, 9,600+ wineries, 1,500+ distilleries, and limitless options in coffee, tea, sodas, bottled waters, energy drinks, exotic ciders, coconut waters, kombuchas, bubble matchas, and chais.

All these brands can’t reasonably be looking for mass consumer adoption; they’re trying to find a highly involved, niche audience. They’re looking to win over those willing to pay a higher price point for a brand that has a story behind every sip.

Beyond the Bottle

If there is a poster child product in the proliferation of niche beverage brands, it’s craft beer.

There’s a lot of debate over what qualifies as “craft.” But one thing the debate makes clear is that the definition is not a direct value judgment about the quality of the liquid. There’s more added-value than ever in the story behind the bottle.

Scott Ungermann, Brewmaster at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, asks the bottom-line question you might ask of any drinkable product: “Did you enjoy the beer while you were drinking it? Would you want another when you’re done?”

The trick is, a lot of variables influence your experience of a drink. Making beverage brands is more than skillfully upgrading water, designing a cheery can, writing a jaunty jingle, and loading up the trucks. Today, a growing consumer segment bases their enjoyment of what they drink on whether they have a true feel for where it’s made, how it’s made, what’s in it, the story behind it, and even how it’s personally served.

The Wonkification of Beverages

In an effort to win the hearts and minds of an increasingly curious consumer, we see a renewed emphasis on inviting people into the source, whether it’s a region, neighborhood, or direct into Willy Wonka’s proverbial chocolate factory itself.

“There’s a heart and soul when you walk around this building,” says Ungermann. “If you look at how we make beer – everything done by hand, time-honored traditions, the people — I really believe what we do is the original way of crafting small-batch beer in America, and more specifically, in San Francisco, since the 1800s.”

That sense of source and place manifests in a variety of ways beyond the beer, from the intimate photography of their copper brew kettles and traditional process on the website, to video origin stories that evoke the Gold Rush, meticulous line drawings of Sausalito label artist Jim Stitt, and Anchor’s collaboration with local sports teams like the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors. All these details serve to draw you closer to Anchor’s sphere — its city, its brewery — even when you can’t get a reservation.

Placemaking tactics aren’t confined to craft beer, either. “We’re trying to express our sense of time and place in whiskey,” says Steve Hawley, Director of Marketing for Westland Distillery and Principal at 51 Eggs Branding in Seattle, Washington. “In a way, we are introducing a new category of whiskey into a 600-year-old industry.”

With an identity and labels that evoke Pacific Northwest industry, a video anthem that celebrates their context with visual immersion and poetic narration, and a pioneering “Our West is Whiskey” message, Westland’s brand takes pains to ground consumers in a place that hasn’t traditionally been associated with whiskey, creating meaningful difference in an industry where even the varieties of oak used in barrels have historically been limited.

If you can’t visit a distillery or winery, a digital destination may be the best place to get a depth of content, functionality, and imagery that mimics the experience. Design for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ online destination was consciously inspired by a new offline visitor’s center. For Ashes & Diamonds, the same millennial community drawn to their winery on famed HWY 29 gathers around the modern, streamlined experience where the brand lives online.

After years spent engineering experience in industries like wine/beer and hospitality/placemaking, Kenn Fine knows the value of tying a product to its place: “Some of the most interesting studies around wine in particular show how much perception influences reality,” says Fine, Executive Creative Director at FINE. “Most people won’t develop the expertise to distinguish nuances of taste, so you have to connect them to experience. These are emotional connections to the true genius loci that contextualize the image you get when you drink.”

Bottles and Cans, Clap Your Hands

Bookended by where it’s made and where it’s consumed, traditional brand tactics like packaging and promotion begin to shift their approach to beverages. Whether it’s creating a distinction on grocery store shelves, or making the connection direct to consumers, it’s finding ways to revive old traditions, or innovate new ones and attach them to a tangible artifact you can see and feel to inform your taste.

“I often look for a little quirk, a sign that there are people and hands behind it,” says Steve Sandstrom of Portland-based Sandstrom Partners. “I think people have just lived their whole lives experiencing shortcuts, and value engineering. Now you have to do something that changes that. You have to be true to who’s making it, and probably more importantly, WHY they’re making it. The challenge is how do we tell that story better?”

Those cues could be something as simple as the string-tied carton for Smith Tea. Sandstrom points out: “You can’t do that on a machine. And if you’re going to spend $15 on a box of tea, maybe you want to think that it was done by hand, which it is.”

Or a more direct connection between packaging and promotion, as with Sandstrom Partners’ work for Bulleit Bourbon. “For us, it was let’s not do advertising. It’s not a brand ever built by advertising, but by bartenders who liked making drinks with it. The outdoor ads purposefully avoid marketing speak. No headlines telling you what to do or not to do. They’re just showing you interesting photographs of the bottle or label that you either already know or would want to find out about. If you’re going to take up people’s space and attention, why not make it less of a sales pitch and more of a gift?”

Colby Nichols and Josh Kenyon of Portland-based creative studio Jolby & Friends describe it this way: “As designers and makers and thinkers and writers in this digital age, where everything is just a few clicks away from being done, it’s our responsibility to challenge ourselves to put a handmade feel, a unique touch. So even if we’re drawing in Photoshop, we’ve made all our own digital brushes from our own pen or paint brushes.”

In recent work for Stash Tea, “each box had to be like what the tea tasted like.” Great pains were taken in the composition and photography of 1,000 ingredients across more than 80 SKUs, in fine-tuning the brand’s trademark compass logo that echoes the global spirit and its name (from the captain’s personal stash on a clipper ship), down to the intricate textural patterns and colors custommade to associate with each product.

Jolby & Friends’ work on Hopworks called for labels and t-shirt designs that were hand drawn or made from wood block, allowed to have “some grime around the edges, but still have a structure to it,” creating an identifiable system and a similar visual aesthetic. In that visual, Jolby’s own “origin story” and grounding in 2D and 3D animators shines through.

Customers by the Cupful

Wineries have always used their destinations as the ideal place to connect with their brand. And lately, in beer the experience is created not just in the breweries where the beer is made, but in taprooms where the beer is consumed under ideal conditions.This approach finds its parallel in the one-cup pourover coffee shops that have gained so much steam in coffee, and even filtered into big changes in home consumption brands and behaviors.

“Things can be copied, but culture can’t,” says Jacob Jaber, CEO of San Francisco-based Philz Coffee. “For us, it’s is a continuous commitment to quality and experience, and at a really personal, individual level. That’s why you order direct with a barista, who guides you based on preferences, and then asks you to take a sip and make sure it’s perfect.”

Philz has grown from a single store in San Francisco’s Mission District to more than 40 stores across California and now into Washington, DC. They’ve stuck to the mantra “one store, one thousand times,” and focused on finding perfect locations, decorating each store with local artwork, and adapting more to the local vibe than to some master brand formula. How each store is thoughtfully designed to be different, and how each barista practices their craft, become the key details of brand delivery.

“There’s absolutely as much a sense of experience in how we deliver our service as how we create our product,” says Jaber. “People value that because we’re used to having everything at our fingertips… we sacrifice warmth and connection for convenience and speed. I think more and more people are craving connection and authenticity. When people do experience that connection, they feel uplifted.”

“It’s a seeking mindset, not a pushing mindset,” explains Fine. “Unless you’re a brand with massive channel inroads, you need to meet customers through a more direct connection to what they seek. It’s not an arm’s length, send-you-to-the-supermarket-with-our-ads, mass brand approach. It’s how do we pull you in, make this personal to inform and shape your taste? It’s where beverage brands begin to seem more like service brands.”

Or as Jaber succinctly puts it, “There are 4 million ways to enjoy Philz, but we believe the best cup of coffee is one that comes to your own taste.”

This view takes beverage branding full circle, to thinking about all the ways to “gift” consumers, and reward them experientially, so the next time they’re thirsty, they’ll be refreshed, rather than confused, by their options.

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