At the Tröegs Brewing Co. in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a creative force bubbles enthusiastically. It’s not the brewery’s famous Nugget Nectar Imperial Amber midfermentation, or the seasonal about to be bottled.
In fact, it’s not even beer.
For the past few months, pencils have dashed across paper, creating hand-drawn art that will soon adorn Tröegs’ bottles (and cans) in its 11-state distribution network. After nearly 20 years of smaller design changes, the founding brothers, John and Chris Trogner, decided it was time to give their familiar yellow logo a full aesthetic makeover.
A few years ago, as eager consumers stretched their taste buds and wallets in search of new experiences, decent beer coupled with some social media goodwill was about all a young brewery needed to move product. But competition in the beer sector grows fiercer. Shelf space is becoming as premium as parking spots in New York City, forcing breweries to turn to other tactics, like label design, brewery story and consumer motivations to successfully market—and sell—their beer.
As the number of breweries in the United States pushes to 4,000 and distribution networks grow, good beer will no longer be enough to edge out competition. When the liquid inside the bottle is comparable, a brewery’s branding becomes the key to winning over a new drinker or retaining a loyal fan. How drinkers feel about their favorite brewery is almost as important as how good the beer tastes. As much as the community likes to trumpet quality and taste as the paramount virtues of beer, marketing matters, and will matter even more in the coming years.
The image a company (in this case a brewery) puts forth gives consumers an idea to latch onto, a promise of consistency they can trust or an overall vision they can believe in. Branding really does work and helps build expectations about and loyalty to a certain product, even if a very similar product sits right next to it on the shelf. Brands speak to the consumers’ public identity, and they want to be seen buying and using products that reflect them as individuals. While large, nationally distributed breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada have embraced marketing for decades, younger regional breweries are now also starting to see the importance of having a clear and unique banner for drinkers to rally behind.
The Tröegs redesign didn’t stop with the logo. The brewery’s entire visual lineup—from labels to six-pack holders—got a cosmetic overhaul. Working with a local artist, the brewery’s marketing team came up with a theme that unified Tröegs’ portfolio and created a message the brewers wanted to pass along to potential drinkers. The result is Tröegs 2.0, a simpler, more cohesive in-store presence that retains the brewery’s established look and feel while simultaneously guiding drinkers to specific taste experiences.
“We used the labels to give you a cue about what you’re about to taste: Each of our beers generally has one specific thing we’re trying to focus on. For instance DreamWeaver now has a field of wheat. The new label will take that concept but put more focus on the wheat itself,” says Chris Trogner, explaining the mentality behind the redesign that feeds into their brewing philosophy. “We’re trying to simplify [the designs] to highlight the key flavor or aroma in the beer.”
The beer zeitgeist has shifted, and Tröegs isn’t alone. The trend in modernizing brands to appeal to more consumers spreads through the beer world like hop bines up a trellis. Observant consumers will notice changes to labels and packaging art from other mid-sized breweries like Deschutes Brewery, Great Lakes Brewing Co., Boulevard Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing Co. and Otter Creek Brewing. Some changes, like the updated label elements and fonts of Ballast Point, carry a more appealing modern aesthetic, while other, more sweeping overhauls aim to showcase a brewery’s mission and persona. Ultimately, the goal is to stand out more in an ever-tightening market.
Tröegs, like other companies tweaking their branding and messaging in response to competition, understands the need to present a consistently recognizable product on the shelves. There’s some psychological science behind a redesign, too: A single, unified theme across all beers builds a narrative consumers can remember and return to, and allows them to translate a positive experience with one beer to another in the same brewery’s portfolio.
But in all of this label and packaging shuffle, it’s important to remember: Tröegs isn’t actually changing its beer. The change is a purely marketing-oriented move. By refreshing the brand, the brewery can not only grab the attention of its loyal customers and remind them that they’re still brewing great beer, but also appeal to new drinkers seeing the art for the first time. It is selling the story behind the beer almost as much as the beer itself.
It’s a game the big beer corporations know well. They’ve wrestled with the Cartesian mind-bottle problem for decades. How can a company change perceptions of the beer when it can’t change the beer itself?
With marketing, of course.
In 2013, MillerCoors, concerned about a consistent decline in sales of its flagship Miller Lite, decided something needed to change. The marketing team at the corporate offices in Chicago analyzed the situation, reviewing demographic information of beer drinkers. Its results noted that millennials—the largest group of consumers in the country, with 27 percent preferring beer over other alcoholic drinks—craved genuine and authentic brands over anything else.
“The millennial generation is the most marketed-to generation ever,” explains Jonathan Stern, director of media relations for MillerCoors. “They can smell out a fake.” The Miller Lite team knew it needed to create a narrative that showed the brand had heritage and history, and chose to temporarily return to the original can design from 1975. “Millennials are into authenticity and things that have a back story, and we have all that. We thought, why not go back to the original look and be proud of it?”
The design not only capitalized on the millennial consumers’ desire for a product they felt good buying and connecting to their identity, but also visually differentiated itself from its competitors. “Before Miller Lite went to the white look, all the light beers were blue. The Coors Light mountains turned blue; Bud Light was blue; Miller Lite was blue.”
Stern believes that the color alone drew a potential buyer’s attention and was partly responsible for the success of the campaign. “When you go to the cooler box looking at light beers, the white really pops out from competitor brands. It was very noticeable to consumers, distributors and to us. It gave us a real competitive advantage. “
The new-old design did so well that Miller Lite not only decided to keep the 1975 design permanently, but also, starting October 2015, reintroduce the classic 1975 “Steinie” bottle (the shorter, rounder ancestor of the contemporary “longneck” 12-ounce Miller bottle). Miller wants to continue to stand out, not only with its message, but also with physically different packaging. “The key to changing a brand is having an insight,” says Stern, explaining the reasoning behind the branding choices. “Smart marketers will use that insight to back up a change. I think when brands change packaging just to change packaging, that’s where they get into trouble.”
If ever you needed proof of the power of marketing on overall beer sales, you need look no further. With some clever color contrasting and a glimpse backward into the company’s history, Miller Lite was able to turn single-digit percent declines into double-digit percent gains without changing the beer one iota. In the second half of 2014, the brand sold 43 million more cans than it had in 2013, all thanks to a slick, well-timed, well-researched design change.
Brand recognition works both ways. While it’s excellent that consumers can pick out new beers from a favorite brewery to try, it also means they can associate less-positive experiences when they’re on a beer run. It can be difficult for a brewery to win back a drinker it lost to either more trend-conscious competition or a slightly outdated image.
Despite the challenge, through clever marketing, it can be done. Sixteen-year-old Starr Hill Brewery near Charlottesville, Virginia, is working hard to use new branding and label art to redefine its beer in the eyes of consumers. Unlike Tröegs or any of the other breweries rebranding mainly to stay relevant or appealing, Starr Hill wanted to rebrand to realign the perception of its beer. Its new approach went beyond just redoing art; the company also promoted a senior employee to brewmaster, reworked the recipe of its flagship IPA, Northern Lights, and implemented a new series of small-batch beers. Much like other breweries rejuvenating their IPA recipes, Starr Hill wanted to refresh Northern Lights to appeal to the changing palate of the American beer drinker.
But the average consumer would have never known about the recipe change unless the brewery also reinvented itself from a marketing perspective. “If the drinker has had a previous experience with you, no matter what your labels look like, they have a preconceived notion of you,” says Jack Goodall, marketing manager for Starr Hill. “But [a new label can] still can catch their eye. Since we changed the recipes, we’ve been putting signage and messaging in stores to let people know what’s in the bottle is different.”
“It’s a daunting task; your ability to message folks at their point of purchase is extremely difficult,” says Goodall, but it’s a process Starr Hill had to undertake if it wanted its brand to rebound and be consistently good in the eyes of consumers with literally hundreds of other options.
Goodall and his team approached the redesign professionally and methodically. About a year before the planned relaunch, the brewery showed initial mock-ups of the designs to focus groups in nine of its markets, including people who did and did not drink Starr Hill beer. When comparing the old packaging with the new, 75 percent of people preferred the consistency and aesthetic of the new designs, claiming they felt more “sophisticated and classic.”
That emotional response translated into a financial boom for the brewery. Since the introduction of the new designs in June of 2015, sales of all beers across the brewery’s portfolio are up 22 percent, while Northern Lights IPA is up 40 percent. Starr Hill’s success supports one of the main tenets of a redesign: Consumers want a brand they like and feel good about. But it also hints at a trend that has driven the surge of beer sales over the past 10 years: Consumers want something new.
If the marketing changes happening in the beer community are indicative of anything, it’s that breweries are finally embracing the need to invest more time and energy into the business side of beer. When competing with other local and national brands, America’s brewing companies will need to use every tool at their disposal and swing consumers to their beer with more than just high-quality ingredients and excellent brewing practices.
We’re entering an era where well-brewed will be a baseline. That’s fantastic news for all beer fans. But it means a shift in beer business dynamics, to match other, more mature industries. When quality is a given, the battle for beer sales may be waged over image and story, rather than the contents of the glass.
The following beers were reviewed by John Holl.
Iron Springs Kent Lake KölschABV: 4.5%
Tasting Notes: Kölsch purists might cry foul, and the brewery seemingly recognized this in advance by calling it “Kölsch-Style Ale” on the label. Slight chill haze and deep golden, with a skin of foam atop. We’re first greeted with a whiff of corn sweetness and an aroma not unlike the bread from Subway. This sample showed early signs of vegetal peeking through. Soft body and easy drinking with rounded carbonation.
Jailbreak Feed The MonkeyABV: 6%
Tasting Notes: With a monkey on the label, the promise of banana that doesn’t deliver is disappointing, especially since it’s one of the traits this style is known for. The water quality dominated at first, like it was drawn from a well. Throughout, there’s a soft wheat character. Banana and clove ultimately arrive towards the end but come off as candy-like. There’s a whiff of catty hop, and the banana and orange juice the can claims were added aren’t discernable.
Starr Hill Northern LightsABV: 6.2%
Tasting Notes: Whereas other brewers might be off chasing the new and exotic, this IPA delivers on the classic resin character and caramelized, biscuity malt flavors that reared a generation of drinkers. The hop bitterness comes on smooth with each swallow, makes its presence known, and graciously leaves quickly. Balance can seem out of fashion these days, but a beer like this reminds one just how important it is.
Oliver Gray is a Maryland-based writer, editor and homebrewer. For more of his beer-based irreverence, follow him on Twitter @OliverJGray.