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How to Break Category Rules for Fun & Profit


Hey there. Hope you’ve been well. 

Quick—think about hard seltzer packaging. What do you see?

I bet it’s something along the lines of a 12oz slim can. It’s predominantly white with black type (possibly run vertically) and a fruit illustration. The secondary pack is also mostly white, and features all the cans across the front. It’s a variety pack (because it’s hard seltzer, after all). 

Hard seltzer has a look. A clearly defined canon. And the vertical exploded so quickly that there was no time for consumer education along the way. Once White Claw tipped and became the weird cultural phenomenon that it is, everyone else had to react. And for competitors, this meant looking similarly enough visually that you register as belonging in the category, but just different enough to stand on your own.

Let’s look at the hot new trend of flavor blasted(!!!) hard seltzer punches and lemonades. 

This packaging is all bright and full color, with nary a predominately white can in sight. But how can this be? How will people know these are hard seltzers if they don’t look like hard seltzer?

Aside from speaking to a specific product attribute (e.g. Welcome to Flavor Town®, baby!), how can they pull this off?

This works because these are not hard seltzers. Not in the way that the category has come to be defined. 

By having a different functional benefit (e.g. full flavor without all the carbs), and different emotional benefits (e.g. I can indulge without ruining my diet), these are essentially a new category. 

It might be too early to make that bold a claim, but you can see the beginnings of that shift through the packaging and positioning of these products already.

They are not hard seltzers. They are hard seltzer punch. Or hard seltzer lemonade. Or hard seltzer tea. And this means they are not bound by category rules and visual vocabulary of hard seltzer, proper.

This same idea is at play in beer packaging where certain styles, and regions, just have a look. IPAs are green. Lagers look like nostalgic regional brands. Big barrel aged stouts look brown and, well, big and intimidating. Even domestic macro brands have a certain look—which is why, to the trained eye, it’s easy to spot fake craft brands out in the wild. They just can’t shake that mega brand provenance and sheen. 

This framework makes it easy to stand out, visually. Even more so if you don’t have to worry about duking it out with the number 1 brand in a category and therefore can’t take a wild chance on boundary pushing package design. 

Some fun examples? Hazy IPAs have a look that completely separates them from traditional IPAs—namely, maximalist pressure sensitive labels (with minimal branding) slapped on a brite 16oz can. 

Though they share the IPA style in name, Hazy’s have a markedly different visual ruleset than traditional (clear?) IPAs. This styling helps them to be categorically differentiated from traditional IPAs.

So Hazy IPAs are a great example. And sour beers before them. It would’ve been cool to see where the Brut IPA aesthetic could have landed (I’m guessing more nostalgic regional aesthetics). But alas, us fickle beer fans moved onto the next shiny thing, effectively killing it in the cradle before a common language could be defined. 

The point I’m trying to make here, is that by breaking down visual vocabulary and category “rules,” you will have a framework for working within, and around, depending on your communication and positioning goals. 

You can make something different, just for the fun of it. For the wit and surprise and delight that it brings. 

Or, you can get strategic and create a new category to bypass all of those rules in the first place.

TLDR: go shotgun a Truly Hard Lemonade Punch this weekend. Just don’t call it a seltzer.

Actionable Takeaways

It's far easier to differentiate based on product category than it is by brand alone. So before wading into a crowded space, see if there is an opportunity to innovate. This can be right on the periphery of an established category, or more boldly by creating a new category altogether.

E.g. Not hard seltzer, but hard seltzer punch.


Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy

This is a phenomenal book that marries Behavioral Economics with contemporary branding and marketing practices. This might actually be the most practical application I've found after reading more than 20 books on the subject. 

It overlaps Daniel Kahneman's work from Thinking, Fast and Slow in an interesting way. E.g. how we can create mental shortcuts to get someone to purchase one product over another.

Apologies in advance for talking about and referencing this book all the time over the next several months. I may even dedicate an entire BBT issue to this subject. Stay tuned. 

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Topics range from how to sell more beer in large chain retail, common mistakes to avoid during the process, and is there still room for craft beer in grocery stores [in the face of seltzer mania]?

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Beer & Bullshit Podcast with Mandie Murphy of Left Field

CODO client Mandie Murphy of Left Field Brewery (Toronto, ON) was recently interviewed on the Beer & Bullshit Podcast to discuss how they've weathered the pandemic.

She also walks through Left Field's recent brand refresh (CODO got a nice shoutout around the 27 minute mark).

Craft Beer, Rebranded now shipping Canada(!!!)

We've heard you, Canada. At least all 100 of you that have asked to buy a physical copy of our Craft Beer, Rebranded book bundle. 

CBR is now shipping to every person / province / territory across Canada. 

Sneak Peeks (works in progress)


Ready to learn more?


Craft Beer, Rebranded

Craft Beer, Rebranded and its companion Workbook are a step-by-step guide to map out a winning strategy ahead of your rebrand. Building on CODO’s decade of brewery branding experience, this book will help you weigh your brand equity, develop your brand strategy and breathe new life into your brewery’s brand.

Want to work together?

Email Isaac to get started. 

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CODO Design is an Indianapolis, Indiana-based food and beverage branding firm. We develop strategically-sound branding and packaging that cuts through the noise and drives long term revenue growth.

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Indianapolis, IN 46203

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