Craft beer’s creative labels are taking the industry by storm

You’ve probably seen everything from the grotesque (Amager Bryghus and Against the Grain Brewery’s image of a slobbering, gaping maw devouring a hot dog on the “Great Big Kentucky Sausage Fest” imperial brown ale) to the punny (Stoudts Brewing Co.’s well-dressed ram on its doppelbock “Smooth Hoperator”). Walk into any beer aisle, and you’ll see the classics like Budweiser, Miller and Coors, but dozens of craft beer labels fill the remaining shelves, ranging every design under the sun — a craft label explosion.

If you don’t remember seeing this 10 years ago, you’re right; you didn’t. That’s because in the mid-early 2000s, the craft beer industry didn’t have such a large share of the market. In the space of only five years, 2011 to 2016, the craft beer industry nearly doubled itself. The Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers found that in 2016, the industry made $23.5 billion overall. In that same year, Michigan held the sixth-highest spot in the nation for most craft breweries in state with 222. However, you might have seen a beer boom like this two decades ago, in the late ‘90s. Travis Fritts, the owner of Old Nation Brewing Co. said that it was the beginning of a bubble that would eventually burst.

“They called it the second gold rush; it was in Fortune Magazine. They talked about how great the margins were in craft beer, but it was not really true. It was a poorly researched article, but a ton of people thought, ‘Well, I like craft beer. Let me try it,’” Fritts said. “So, there weren’t a lot of breweries, and then all at once, there was a bunch.

They started driving hard with marketing, and it wasn’t really focused on the beer.”

That kind of marketing was meant to shock with racy names and, especially for the time, daring and outrageous design. A few of those brands did, however, weather the storm, like Stone Brewing Co.’s “Arrogant Bastard” ale with its iconic gargoyle design. Fritts himself came on the beer scene in the aftermath of the ‘90s marketing bubble pop. He said that the retail boom in craft beer today is a far more stable one, based on a marriage of product and design.

“To someone like me, who’s been making beer and selling beer, it seems like a pretty stable and steady progression,” said Fritts, who started in a brewpub in 2003. “There’s a line that can be drawn that I think is a direct relation between the level of competition, which just means the amount of beers that are in the market, and the creativity of the labels and the names of the beers themselves.”

And that’s true. With the influx of craft and microbreweries — almost 6,000 nationwide, according to their association, with 2,700 being planned — beer shown in retail spaces must fight for attention. In fact, Beverage Dynamics named artwork helping sales as one of the top 10 beer trends of 2017. David Regan, a Michigan State University instructor of advertising and public relations retailing, said that having unique design and distinct brand can be the deciding factor for someone standing in the beer aisle.

“Every aspect, from color to graphic, is very important. That of course, in conjunction with the brand,” Regan said. “You can crea brand and stand certain things.”

He warned that even a seemingly tiny detail on a label can make or break a product.

“If you see yellows being used in the summer, then that probably means someone is doing a summer shandy or something and you don’t see that with a corporate beer.”

because you’re always trying to tell a story with lemon. If you see orange, it might mean That storytelling drove “M-43’s” production as well. The irony is that the label is one Blue Moon or orange or pumpkin spice,” Regan said. “I once had a professor who said, of the plainest the company has put out, but ‘The masses are asses.’ You have to use certain triggers to get them to understand what “The brewery is on Grand River in perhaps that’s part of its genius.

it is that you have, and if you don’t, no matter Williamston, and that is also M-43,” Fritts how great your product is, it will fail.” said. “I want it black and white, I want these However, just because a label looks interesting doesn’t mean it will work as a mar- noise and I want the letters to be based on five things on the label, I don’t want any keting tool. It has to be authentic as well. the script in the subway in Berlin, Germany. I Statistics show that consumers dislike seemingly contrived products and will pick up on “He wanted a ‘quick and dirty’ design,” used to live there, and I like that script.”

blatant efforts to sell. Bonfire Marketing Co. laughed Peppler. found that more than 90 percent of consumers ranked “honesty about products and ser- with this approach, but he predicts that other Fritts may have been ahead of the curve vices” as most important to them. brands are going to follow suit, because on a That’s why many craft beer labels are shelf filled with craft beer, it stands out. Not works of art both in the traditional sense to mention, the message is an authentic one and from a marketing standpoint. It’s not — it’s about the beer. uncommon for breweries to commission “In this case, we’re saying without saying local artists or to have in-house designers it. We’re making a sort of psychological statement that this is not about some bullshit,” handcraft labels just as meticulously as their New England IPAs. Fritts himself sought out Fritts said with a laugh. “This is not about a Lansing-based design company, the Media the label. This is about something. We do not Advantage. Matt Peppler, a graphic designer for the company, has created many of the pack of beer based on the label looking cool.”

expect that you will want to pay $15 for a four- designs that Old Nation Brewing Co. features That’s what it comes down to in the end. on their products. This includes their most Trend or no trend, the product inside has to famous beer, “M-43,” selling out across the be a good one. nation and in huge venues like Ford Field “What is your USP? What is your Unique and Little Caesars Arena. Peppler said that Selling Proposition? What makes you different? That’s important. Whatever you can do at the beginning of his career, he couldn’t have predicted the increase in popularity for to address that — whether it’s a twist on your well-designed beer labels. product, a label, it should be a few things,” “Before Old Nation, I didn’t expect beer to Regan said. “It’s one thing to have a good be so popular in graphic design. That wasn’t product, but it’s another thing to have a good what I was working on when I came to the product with a cool name and have some company,” Peppler said. “I think you have coolness attached to it. All these things are more leeway when you design for craft beer critically important.”