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Do brewpubs need *great* branding?

Hey there, hope your week's off to a great start.

At one of our last in-person conference presentations (back in early 2020, right before the world ended) an audience member asked this question, and I’ve wanted to tackle the topic ever since. It feels timely now that everyone is opening back up, and meeting people (!) at brewpubs and taprooms to drink beer (!!!) in person (!!!!!!!!) is a thing again. 

I'll address this question from its original perspective: does a brewpub, specifically a taproom-based model with no intention to ever package beer for distribution or carryout, need to have compelling branding? Do you need a beautiful identity system when the beer and taproom experience itself is what will keep people coming back?

*cop out time* It depends. 

Our default answer: Your business efforts should always be well-branded. Always. Having an easily graspable, compelling story that allows your customers (and potential customers) to understand what you stand for (and why they should swing by) will always be crucial. Further, why would you dedicate a good portion of your time, energy and treasure to something as personal as a small business and not want its identity to look badass?

But… do you need great branding to stay viable? Let's discuss a couple scenarios.

Scenario 1: You don’t need it (but you should still have it) 

Can you open a small brewery in an underserved market, not really invest in great branding, and build a sustainable "lifestyle" business (that is, crank out a few hundred barrels per year, and stay at that level for as long as you want)? You probably can. Even though we're still technically dealing with COVID-19, I do think this model will continue to work, as it has for thousands of breweries across the States over the last decade. Just cross your fingers that another 5 breweries (who might invest in branding) don’t open down the street in the future.


Scenario 2: You won’t last without it 

If you are in an area with lots of competition, then great branding becomes table stakes. Imagine opening a small taproom in Denver (or San Diego, or Portland, or Austin, or any major market at this point) without spending any time thinking through your brand strategy and identity. This appraoch would not fly. Strong branding is even more important if your audience skews younger, e.g. design-conscious younger Millennials and ultra media-savvy members of Gen Z.

People want to go to a well-designed taproom. They want a great experience—great beer, great ambiance, great vibe. They want to signal that they are well informed and have great taste. If your brewpub isn’t well-branded, then those thirsty folks are more than likely to go down the street to a place that is. 

Say you’re considering opening a brewpub in an undeserved market and want to create a small, fun place. You don’t want to take over the world—why should you invest in your branding?  

Point 1: Branding as a signal 

Investing in your brand is a signal that you intend to stick around for the long haul. Otherwise, why would you invest in your identity? I never want to oversell the importance of a logo (on its own), but it does serve as a quick evaluation tool for people. "Does this place look cool? Then I bet their beer is pretty good."

At a base level, branding is a signal that a company is well run, puts out a quality product and is to be trusted. 

Point 2: What if you grow?

If you ever want to extend your brand—get into packaging (because of, say, a pandemic…), produce a non-beer product, open a satellite taproom, create a festival, open any other type of concept—then having a solid foundational brand will be crucial. How can you expand and extend something that is non-existent to begin with? Even if you have no intention of extending your brand and building something larger right now, you should set yourself up so that you can if the right opportunity presents itself down the line.

One of my favorite examples of this is our work for Big Lug Canteen. And now, Big Lug Brewing and Hospitality. 

We branded Big Lug Canteen as a one-off concept back in 2014 (read about that foundational project here). Eddie and Scott’s flagship brewpub was so successful that it acted as a springboard for several more restaurant concepts (each one as unique as it is beloved here in Indianapolis). They also restructured their brand architecture, creating the Big Lug Hospitality parent brand plus a rapidly-expanding production brewery.

Investing in their foundational brand, even when they had no grand vision beyond a fun brewpub, gave Big Lug the platform it needed to be on track to brew 10–13,000 barrels of beer annually over the next few years. 

Would 0 to 13k bbls per year have been possible without great branding? Big Lug co-founder, Eddie Sahm himself, doesn't think so—listen to this podcast episode where we discussed this very topic.

So, to wrap this up: Can you operate a functional brewpub without spending the time and resources to develop great branding? Absolutely. But why would you want to? Compelling branding is the most cost-effective way to stake out your position in the market. A strong visual identity and a clear brand direction gives you a plethora of options should you decide to grow or pivot your efforts down the line. Otherwise, you could be painting yourself into a corner for the future. Plus, what will stop three other great breweries from opening in your neck of the woods later on? You need to attract customers and demonstrate why you’re their best choice, now and for the future. Great branding can help you achieve this.


The Advantage

CODO is going through a strategic planning process ahead of a few senior hires and planned growth. Part of that process includes revisiting our core values and The Advantage outlines the best process for defining your values that we've ever found. 

The process, which includes three levels of values—core, pay-to-play and aspirational values—is so powerful that CODO is now including the methodology as part of our own brand strategy process.

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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?

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