Designing a Beer Brand is something special!
There is something special about designing a beer label. Whenever a new project brief comes in, whether it is for a new brand launch or, more common, a relaunch of an existing label, it is almost always a fun and interesting assignment that gets our creative juices flowing.
A Beer Brand's Identity Starts with its Packaging
The visual identity of a beer brand often starts with its packaging. Having a design that is feature rich and loaded with elements allows a lot of creativity when interpreting how such a design could travel off-pack into for instance a retail space, an on-premise bar or club environment, a branded event or experience space as well as of course advertising, point-of-sale and branding materials.
The Importance of Distinctive Assets
In our role as packaging designers we often talk about 'distinctive assets' or 'design equity elements' what we mean with that is simply the unique and distinguishing visual elements or characteristics that, when mixed together in the right way, create a unique signature brand-look that fits your brand's story and history and gives your brand a unique, easily identifiable and differentiation appearance that sets it apart from a large number of competitors in the same space.
More is often Better!
In a world that is rapidly becoming a single global market space, where international distribution & sales barriers are quickly being eliminated and where more and more international brands are now competing for that same local consumer's attention and share of throat - having an identity that is build on just 1 element often is not enough anymore. Let's say you are making use of that "unique" green color or you think you have a distinctive element in that "unique" red star featured on your pack, other brands which happen to make use of the same color or element might (or those that like to copy others) suddenly start to look similar. Combining multiple elements together to create a visual identity allows for exponentially more ways to create unique, differentiating and creative combinations of visual expressions for your brand that can help you create a truly unique signature look.
Establish a Visual Identity System BEFORE a Market goes Dark
Since advertising restrictions apply in many markets for beer brands these days (we refer to these markets as "dark markets") it is important that you start to build a feature-rich visual identity system in advance - your audience can then get used to the elements that belong to your brand while you still have the opportunity to communicate them.
Making sure your brand gets recognized, not just based on a pack shot and a brand logo is important and memorable design elements that can creatively be mixed together in multitudes of ways, allows branding to take place within the spirit of dark market restrictions. If you manage a beer brand that operates in a market that is slowly going dark, it is perhaps a good idea to review your brand's visual identity system and see if you need to add some elements to future proof your brands look and feel.
A Strong Visual Identity makes Brand Rejuvenation easier
If you have a brand that can tap into quite a few unique, distinguishing features and elements it's much easier to keep your brand fresh. As a good designer will know how to balance what elements to leave untouched and what elements to develop and move on a much stronger push for modernization can be achieved whenever your brand is in need of an update. If you are not able to make use of many elements because you have a rather simple visual identity system, you might risk alienation as creatives start to play with the 1 or 2 signature elements your brand has - go a bit too far and your brand becomes unrecognizable.
A Beer Brand's Visual Identity extends beyond Label Graphics
Of course label design only makes up a part of a beer brand's packaging design. Another important and often not fully leveraged element that makes up the other half is the bottle shape. Unique and ownable shapes, such as Bavaria's triangular bottle that fits the hand in only one way (with its label facing outward) is a perfect example of a brand that has married graphics and shape together in a perfect way, creating a story around its "triangular compass" element. Besides shape and graphics, structural detailing as well as label materials and print or production finishes (the special effects that make a printed label look richer) such as foil stamping, metallic inks, thermo or UV reactive inks also can become a part of a brand's visual identity.
16 Commonly Used Design Building Blocks for Beer Brands
In this article, I'll deconstruct and review some well known commercial brands design systems to show you how some of the big brands are leveraging their unique visual identity systems to achieve recognition, recall and top of mind awareness among drinkers.
I'll look at the essentials of the elements that are often used in constructing great beer brand packaging designs and identity systems and we'll identify which elements there are that a beer brand can play with?
1. Bottle Shape
San Miguel is famous for its Steini bottle. Short and a bit fat. Victoria Bitter from Australia also has a distinct and unique "Stubby" shape that is said to fit the hand well and has less neck space so less air can come in contact with the beer liquid. Kronenbourg is another brand with an interesting neck-less bottle shape design that fits the hand of the user well as well as create a good space for its neck label - which is important for the brand as it doesn't make use of a body label.
2. Bottle Detailing
Carlsberg after it finally relaunched and updated its slightly old look introduced a surprising, iconic and fully embossed bottle that successfully gave the brand a young and edgy look. Certainly not the first brand that makes use of a nice full bottle emboss, but perhaps one of the most impact full and largest commercial relaunches in recent history. The redesign of Grolsch beer reminds of that of Carlsberg and China's lucky beer buddha bottle, although a bit risky, definitely stands out.
3. Glass Colour
Corona's flint bottle gave the brand its unique yellow/white / blue signature look. The yellow obviously coming from the liquid colour of the beer itself, celebrating the actual product in the most obvious and literal way. Not easy as light has an effect on the quality of the liquid, so the clear glass requires a UV layer to avoid light impacting too much on the quality, taste and freshness of the beer, but certainly a unique distinguishable visual feature that helps Corona stand out in the beer category. The winner however in the category for "brand with most unique bottle glass colour" has to be Kronenbourg 1664's Blanc variant - with its unique blue glass bottle. Hard to recycle, but impossible to forget!
4. Opening Mechanism (+ Opening Sound)
Flensburger Pilsener is famous for its complicated (and expensive) flip-top opening mechanism that provides a unique opening experience (and allows a bottle to be re-closed). Perhaps not a feature every drinker needs, but certainly something that helps capture the imagination and shows off the history of a brand, creating some theatre everytime you have another beer. Again, not the only brand that makes use of a flip-top opening, Grolsch from the Netherlands also makes use of a similar opening but Flensburger smartly builds a story about the "Plop" sound the bottle makes everytime you open one, referring to it as the "Flensburger Plop". Tuborg from Carlsberg with its ring pull cap does address an actual modern day consumer need in its easy opening format that doesn't require a bottle opener, making drinker quicker and easier. Twist-off caps although popular in the US are not commonly found in other markets, perhaps since it's more likely freshness issues arise with easily opened bottle caps.
5. Iconic Brand Logo
Corona has a unique and distinctive font giving it instant heritage. The smiling 'e's in the Heineken logo were introduced by the late Alfred Heineken himself, meant to make the beer look friendlier. Victoria Bitter from Australia features it's unique VB mark large and centered on the bottle, but the winner in this category has got to be Foster's that has made effective use of it's large Foster's F heroed on the bottle's main label as well as on the neck to allow easy recognition and distinction from afar.
6. Distinctive Brand Marks, Symbols & Icons
Heineken's red star and the Carlsberg hops leaf have become signature elements for these brands. When you see a red star on green you almost always think of Heineken even without seeing a product shot or a brand name. An important visual marketing tool for these brands, especially when operating in dark market environments where branding and advertising of alcohol brands faces restrictions. A brand that has completely adopted its distinctive asset in every part of its design is Bavaria beer. Its triangular compass pointing south (revealing the location of the brewery in the South of Holland) has been integrated throughout every aspect of the brand's design; the bottle shape takes a triangular form, the label shape does as well and the compass is an element connected to the logo. Beck's Key from the city of Bremen's Coat of Arms, the Kingfisher Bird and the Guinness Harp as a symbol for Ireland, are all examples of unique brand icons or symbols that aid recognition.
7. Font lettering
A favourite element almost every brand makes use of is a unique font. Font type, font styling, layering, adding dimension and depth, creating visibility and standout and connecting characters within a brand logo are all common design techniques used on many brands as it links to the font. As a result, many logos have their own unique custom designed fonts or lettering style. Asahi is perhaps a great example where a uniquely created font type helps link to the brand's Asian origins. Although commonly used, perhaps one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of design.
8. Brand Colour
Color is the first visual element the brain recognizes before anything else and as a result, it's not strange that in the world of branding colours are essential. Heineken of all the green beer brands out there is the one that is perhaps most famous for making most effective use of its green brand colour. It has become such a part of every aspect of the visual identity of the brand that it is rare to find a branded Heineken execution or application that does not make use of the signature green colour.
9. Unique Colour Scheme
Instead of being famous for 1 single colour, a unique colour scheme (ie. combination of colours) also allows quick and easy recognition. Beer Lao is a good example of a brand that makes use of a rather unusual colour combination in its orange/green dominated label.
Contrast helps to create visibility and visibility often directly links to sales in our world of packaging design. Having good colour contrast between a bottle colour and a label colour helps to draw the eye and drives visibility and stand out. A few examples of brands that make good use of contrast are Foster's Beer with its blue label on the brown bottle, Superbock from Portugal with its red round label on a brown bottle as well as Bavaria from the Netherlands with its fresh blue colour on a fresh green bottle. Blue is a good colour for a beer in general, as it combines well with either brown and green bottle and also perfectly cues crispness, coolness and freshness, which are all good qualities for any beer your drink.
11. Label Shape
In a world full of roundels (the oval shapes seen on many beer brands) label shapes that try something else, tend to stand out. Victoria Bitter and Super bock make effective use of their perfectly round labels. Bavaria (seen above) has a triangular shape that links to its compass story and Heineken / APB's Asian Tiger beer brand has a unique elongated label shape that helps drive brand recognition. Tiger effectively uses the shape on both bottles and cans, as well as on ads and dark market executions that don't allow pack shots, which perfectly demonstrates how a good label shape can be maximized in brand communication.
12. Brand Architecture
Budweiser is one of the brands with one of the most unique and interesting architectures at the moment. With its brand signature story element occupying the top of its packs and the variant space occupying the bottom half of the pack, executed in a very bold, disruptive manner for Bud Light helps this brand successfully connect two completely different target audiences with its variants. Where bud light looks fresh, young and cool with its completely blue pack, Budweiser's standard red lager retains the heritage and richness the traditionalists will enjoy more. Both, however, feel connected as they share a similar brand roof on top of each pack that connects to brand's origins.
13. Drinking Ritual
Corona deserves a mention in this category with its unique use of its signature lemon piece being wedged into the bottle opening. It successfully enabled the brand to create a unique signature drinking ritual for its brand, which us branding people love as it becomes more difficult to substitute another brand delivering the same experience, creating uniqueness around the drinking moment. Some people might say the lemon wedge is needed to hide the off-taste the drink sometimes has as the flint coloured glass more easily results in product quality issues - it's still a nice feature to own a ritual for your brand!
14. Brand Props or Accessory
Hoegaarden and its massive beer glass allow the wheat beer and its foam to come out in the right way to optimize the enjoyment of the drinking experience. The glass has become a brand signature and although more brands have their own glasses. Hoegaarden's does look unique and standout, with its huge size. An expensive add-on for most companies, but if you get it rid it becomes a very powerful branding tool.
Coors is best enjoyed when it's as cold as the Rockies (Rocky Mountains) or at least that's what the can says. An indicator that turns blueprinted in thermo inks that react at certain temperatures provide a visual aid for consumers to help them check if their beer is sufficiently chilled. Coors is one of the few brands that was able to turn the thermo ink gimmick into an actual brand signature.
16. Liquid Colour
The black colour of Guinness has become a signature element for the brand in such a way that it is not just the liquid anymore that is black. The label and bottle colour help exaggerate the colour and in combination with cream tones for the label give the colour scheme relevance.
So there you go, those were 16 popular design elements that brand designers might use to help create a unique look for a beer brand.
The Question is: WHICH elements do you use and HOW?
When we evaluate what makes a good design we often look first at what equity elements are creatively combined or used together. Since 1 element doesn't make a good design anymore these days, it's often a combination of multiple elements together that have to work in harmony with each other. Second, we look at the execution behind the elements and the reason why it has been executed like this - ideally linking to a brand's history or unique story.
When designing or redesigning a beer brand it is an art to find a right balance between having a dominant signature element, supported by a few other distinguishing features that don't overpower the main element. Finding the right balance in the combination is often the difficulty when crafting a perfectly designed label.
Beer Label Design or Bottle Shape Design requires an Expert Touch
Not every packaging designer is good with alcohol labels, however. The details and richness in many labels and the long history a brand sometimes have (and often beer brands have great stories and rich, long histories) needs to be translated into a design that has strong visual impact and that appeals to various generations of drinkers.
At Square44 we have a unique agency model that allows us to work directly with some of the most specialized and experienced alcohol and beer packaging designers in our industry. Not just highly experienced creative director-level brand designers that almost exclusively work for the biggest commercial beer brands in the world, we also have experts that work with the more established craft brands out there. In addition, we partner with structural bottle shape designers that understand brand design but as well the technical engineering aspect of running a certain shape on a certain production line. We work with some of the most established logo, font and lettering artists that master their craft like no other and understand the importance of having a strong brand logo mark. We also team up with specialists in the development of symbols, brand logo elements, icons, medals and label detail as well as print & production houses that work with various label materials, shapes and inks to get that unique design that looks great on screen achieved in reality.
Need Help with a Beer Brand Launch, Relaunch or Extension?
If you'd like to have a chat and see how we can support you for a brand launch, relaunch or extension or if you wish to see some of the work we've done for other brands, don't hesitate to get in touch here. As mentioned, we love beer design!
By Mathijs Aliet
Mathijs Aliet is the founder and owner of Square44, one of Asia’s most commercially focused brand and packaging design agencies that are active in 16 Asian markets. With a background in marketing and an ability to think creatively, Mathijs reinvented the agency model always trying to do things more effectively! With a passion for design solutions that not only look amazing but also perform commercially, the agency’s motto of “Effectiveness” decorates the walls, reminding all Square44-ians of what makes great brand design. For more info about Square44 please visit www.square44.com To connect with Mathijs on Linkedin please go to www.linkedin.com/in/mathijsaliet