Critical Drinking

Craft Beer Enters the Upside Down — A Design Analysis

Welcome, fellow beer lover, to the Independent Era of the Brewers Association. It's been about a week since the BA introduced their new Certified Independent Craft Brewer Seal, and some of the hot takes surrounding it are starting to cool down (even our own, which was cleverly described as a filibuster).

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As both a beer writer and a practicing designer, the new seal sits squarely at the center of my professional Venn diagram. I've been in the branding and marketing industry for about a decade now, and I've been freelancing as a designer and creative director for breweries for half that time. I've also been a contributing designer to branding projects developed here at Good Beer Hunting for brewery clients. That's not meant to be an appeal to authority before we even get started here, rather, it's an appeal to the practicality of my argument. For many critics out there, their valid opinions have been expressed in a more theoretical sense. For me, this gets down to moving pixels around and trying to make an incredible amount of seemingly-critical information and branding elements fit into the compressed real estate of consumer packaged goods (IE: beer). 

As the craft segment continues to grow, and breweries find themselves meeting consumers in ever more mainstream arenas, design will play an integral role in their success through differentiation within the segment.

But the design does matter. The design always matters. Design affects usability. Usability affects adoption. Adoption affects efficacy. And efficacy is the intent.

And yet, despite the ever-increasing need for thoughtful, unique, and professional design at the retail level for breweries themselves, the BA continues to execute their consumer-facing aesthetic with a treatment more in-line with the kind of trade group they really are, which is to say, business-to-business and policy-lobbying. We've seen recent design upgrades with properties like Craftbeer.com, which is a wholly-owned and operated marketing editorial site for the BA targeting consumers. But it remains the exception, aesthetically-speaking. 

At least the press release surrounding the seal was thoughtful. It made a strong case for the mark, referencing a study commissioned by Brewbound and conducted by Nielsen, that found words like “independent” or “independently owned” resonated strongly with a large majority of craft beer drinkers—which is not to say it resonated with non-craft drinkers, who are arguably the larger target audience here. It espoused the benefits of increased differentiation between "craft" and "former craft" on store shelves. It even attempted to offer some tenuous reasoning for the much-maligned, upside-down bottle. According to the BA, this initiative is over two years old now, and came about at the request of its members. But in its launch, it seemed to take most of them completely by surprise, and for many, that wasn't welcomed. 

What the press release didn't do, however, was reveal the creative partner for the design of the seal. This makes sense, because it's not very good. It's crude, clunky, and borderline unusable—the single biggest hurdle to the success of the initiative.

I say the seal isn't good not as a knock on Sterling-Rice Group, the aforementioned creative partner. I have no idea what sort of brief was developed based on the BA’s initial input, or if there were any BA mandates going into the project, or how much the advising board of the BA influenced design decisions. (These could’ve all been symptoms of the unsuccessful outcome, and I've seen many projects end with similarly unsatisfying results as a result of client engagement and demands that come at the expense of an agency's skill and creativity). Instead, I call the design into question because it has the potential to completely derail what the BA is trying to accomplish—which happens to be something perhaps worthwhile, and in the eyes of some of their members, necessary.

As the seal made its rounds on Beer Twitter and /r/beer, the common refrain could be summed up as: "Sure, it's ugly, but that doesn’t matter. The intent is right.” But the design does matter. The design always matters. Design affects usability. Usability affects adoption. Adoption affects efficacy. And efficacy is the intent.

For this initiative to be successful, the BA will need widespread adoption of the seal—and a huge push for consumer education, which they've already hinted at—starting with their largest members and cascading down to their smallest. For breweries to start using the seal en masse, it needs to 1) be something that inspires pride and confidence, and 2) easily adapt to current packaging and marketing. 

Currently, the seal fails to achieve either of those modest tasks. The upside-down bottle, as many craft fans have pointed out, resembles a "drain pour." A signifier of poor quality, this carries a pretty obviously negative connotation. And as far as its ability to assimilate into current packaging, it leaves a lot to be desired.

To begin with, it's huge. As per the BA’s Independent Seal Guidelines, the recommended size for use on packaging is 0.887 inches wide by 1.575 inches tall. That's roughly the size of two standard postage stamps stacked on top of one another. Now imagine sticking those two postage stamps on a 12-ounce can, alongside a barcode, some government-mandated text whose minimum size is monitored by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, any state association or guild graphics, a recycling symbol, and, oh yeah, the actual logo for the brewery, the visual for the brand, and whatever brief description you might still have real estate for. Yikes. 

The can quickly turns into a NASCAR sponsorship wrap. (Not to mentioned the cognitive dissonance of seeing a bottle graphic on a can.) In order to be successful, the Independent Seal needs to be able reduce down to a smaller size while maintaining its legibility. And nothing says “legibility” quite like a four-syllable word broken onto three lines, with four smaller words—composed of 32 characters—surrounding it.

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Of course, the BA doesn’t require the Seal to appear on individual vessels. It can be placed on the comparatively palatial estate of a six-pack carrier. But what happens when those are broken up for the "mix-a-six" sections that are increasingly common, even in grocery stores? What happens on special releases in 22-ounce or 750-milliliter or—gasp—375-milliliter bottles, whose labels afford few, if any, additional square inches over cans? What happens if that Dogfish Head mockup that's been floating around gets loaded into the cooler edgewise instead of lengthwise? If the intent is to get an independent brewery’s product pulled off the shelves instead of a corporately-owned brewery, all this potential awareness is after-the-fact.

The BA offers a slightly smaller "minimum size" for the Seal as well. But they caveat that option with, "Minimum size should be consulted with printer. Legibility may be compromised depending on application." The note is likely specific to printing directly onto an aluminum substrate. Which is to say: cans. It's also most likely the deciding factor in determining the recommended size—to avoid any culpability on the BA's part for potential printing issues. Indeed, the mock-ups of those Maui Brewing cans going around are Photoshop jobs, not printed examples. When we tested that size in our studio, much of the text was illegible.

A fix for the drainpour bottle is fairly easy. Turn it right-side up. Better yet, choose a different symbol, preferably one that isn't at odds with the kind of packaging that seems to be favored by the start-up and up-and-coming independent brewers, which it needs to end up on if it’s meant to support anyone other than the widely available, nationally-distributed larger craft brewers who tend to favor the six-pack bottle approach. Or, possibly the best option, ditch a symbol altogether and just go with text. Any of those solutions still leave you with five words, 43 characters, and one huge legibility issue, however.

Though slightly more complex, the nomenclature and legibility issues could have been avoided, along with the bottle graphic, if a thorough competitive audit had been conducted.

For a project like this, a common first step in the creative process is to conduct an audit of peers, in which you find similar entities—whether in market, role, responsibility, or purview—and observe how they have solved a similar problem. 

Some comparative solutions include: the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance, the Energy Star® Certification Mark, the Fair Trade Certified™ Label, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal, or the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Approved Equipment Authorization Label.

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After conducting a cursory audit of my own, it seems that the overarching goal for all these graphics is to be reduced to the smallest size possible while maintaining legibility. They accomplish this by using the minimum amount of words and characters possible, and by either using no graphics at all, or very simplistic graphics that are very broad in meaning and nature. This is possible because of a massive consumer education marketing campaign that follows, imbuing the simple symbol with meaning over time and gaining mainstream awareness for its intent.

Whether the BA and Sterling-Rice Group conducted an exercise like this, I have no idea. (The BA had not responded to a request for process information by press time.) If they did, I'd be curious as to which peers they evaluated, and what findings they uncovered to influence their approach. Currently, I struggle to see any meaningful takeaways from such an exercise in the final product.

As things stand, the seal represents a bit of a philosophical test for breweries. Already, some brewers have fallen in line and begun implementing the mark on packaging. Conversely, some brewers have come out publicly to say they will not be using the BA's new seal. But many brewers expressing themselves on social media were somewhere in between: they like the intent, but not the execution. And as previously stated, that will ultimately scuttle efficacy.

Anecdotally, there's a huge range of folks trying to wrap their head around the pros and cons of adoption. Most of the cons have revolved not around the intent, but the practical application of such a mark—cost associated with altering packaging (over $10,000 per brand, in some cases), trying to find the real estate to integrate the mark, and the possible backlash and confusion from consumers if the seal is not used, accidentally making non-conforming independent breweries look like the sellouts the seal is meant to highlight in the negative.

Now that we're living in the Independent Era of the BA, these are the sorts of implications we need to consider. The repercussions of this new seal have the potential to be far-reaching, and incredibly impactful, both on individual breweries and the craft segment as a whole. AB Inbev certainly seems to think it’ll have an impact — they took to time to make a video retort to the whole idea with it’s newly acquired stable of craft beer leaders.

For the Brewers Association, they have an opportunity in front of them to either stand pat and push forward with the seal as-is, or listen to the voices of some of their members and designers, and reconsider their aesthetic choices. (Those are voices that, it’s worth noting, did not have any say in this thing before it was revealed, or even know it was coming.) It's unclear which way they'll go, but it seems that they're at least open to the feedback. 

Scott Metzger, BA Board Member and owner of Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio, has been engaging criticisms on social media, trying to explain some of the reasoning behind the move. He’s also been soliciting opinions from the design community on the GBH Fervent Few Slack channel, hoping to gather enough insight to present to the board. For his part, Metzger puts a comparably elegant, scalable, simple "Go Texan" badge on his cans that seemingly takes all this design functionality into consideration quite well.

In the end, I hope the BA listens to the substantial number of voices raising concern about the seal from both brewery owners and their designers, and reconsiders how it's executed. The 5000+ craft breweries across the country deserve something they can be proud of and rally behind, but most importantly, they deserve something that's usable and effective in its intent.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec