Hard Seltzer has a visual canon. Do RTD cocktails?
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Hard seltzer began its meteoric ascendency somewhere in 2018–2019. The ensuing period, led almost entirely by White Claw and Truly, saw several years of double and then triple digit category growth.
This created an environment where any brewery who was interested in releasing a seltzer had to move as fast as they could. Speed to market became paramount.
And what that meant (and in some markets, may still continue to mean) is that there were strict visual rules and category signifiers that you had to adhere to if you wanted to wade into the seltzer category.
The officially-ordained Hard Seltzer Canon®: White, (preferably) slim cans, minimal design, clean labels, black typography, fruit illustrations and secondary packaging (almost always a variety pack).
Seltzer's Category Canon
Any designer who worked on a seltzer branding project in 2019 would’ve pushed their client to differentiate, at least visually. (There was still too much market share available to have to worry about categorical differentiation with the liquid itself just yet.)
And this makes sense at the most rudimentary level—if everyone else's cans are white, why don’t we zag and go full color?
But as we attempted to push these boundaries with our own brewery clients, we ran into something that we’d never experienced before. CODO has handled more than a dozen seltzer branding projects since 2018. And during this work, particularly in those early days (~2019), we found strict opposition to the idea of pushing beyond the category’s (recently) established look and feel.
There were rules. And they were written by White Claw and Truly.
As we attempted to push beyond this look—even when our clients were excited about it—we would hear from distributors and retailers alike that it wouldn’t work in the market. We would hear that if a seltzer can wasn’t white, consumers would think it was just another beer.
This was frustrating personally, because in my mind, just because something hadn’t been tried didn’t mean that it couldn’t work. But hey, retailers and distributors have an important perspective in all of this as well. (And their opinions often carry outsized weight with our clients.)
So no matter how we felt about this resistance, we often ended up reining in those early exciting, vibrant—differentiated—seltzer cans to be more white and minimal and fall in line with their similarly-appointed brethren in the cold box.
It would be a few years before Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin Hard Seltzer successfully broke through the category's visual rules. Good on the CANarchy team for taking a shot.
What impact has hard seltzer had on the beer industry in terms of branding and category convention?
The most lasting change that hard seltzer brought to bear in the beer industry is that consumers not only understand that breweries can make Beyond Beer products, but in many cases, they are likely expecting these sorts of products from their favorite local brewery.
I’ll take this further and say that by 2030, I predict that a brewery that only produces beer (with nary a Beyond Beer product in their mix) may be an outlier.
Now, let’s shift away from seltzer for a moment and apply our thesis to the current darling of the Bev Alc world—ready to drink (RTD) canned cocktails.
Some of our more recent hard seltzer branding work. Vibrant concepts like these were impossible to pitch just 3 years ago.
Do RTD cocktails have a strict visual cannon like hard seltzer (did)?
We’re fielding more RTD cocktail branding projects these days than hard seltzer. And while this category is exploding, we are not feeling the same pressure to follow a specific look like we did within seltzer in that 2018–19 period.
As an example, High Noon dominates the RTD space. They are consistently seeing some of the strongest YOY growth of any brand in Bev Alc. Even more stunning, High Noon Cocktails are on track to become one of the largest spirits brands in the US. Think about the Old Guard being disrupted at the top of that list.
Now while there are certainly High Noon copycat brands out there, there is no broader push (spoken or unspoken) in our RTD work to mimic High Noon’s aesthetic, like there was with our seltzer work.
We don’t have distributors and retailers vetoing our early concept work and telling us to put a yellow circle and blue stripe on the can, anyway.
The Plain Spoke Cocktails brand centers around a fun, tongue in cheek supper club vibe.
So where does branding and package design within the Fourth Category go from here?
Challenge the category (but keep your consumer in mind)
While there are no concrete visual rules for RTDs like there were in the early days of hard seltzer, you still should be mindful of individual category conventions for any new products you develop.
Remember, people are looking for quick reference points to help them wade through a busy shelf and make a decision. (This is the rationale for why early seltzer cans had to be white.)
And category conventions (coupled with beautiful design and further differentiation) help people quickly make those decisions.
As an example: If you’re releasing a functional beverage, you can make it look however you want (there are no oppressive rules here). BUT, you’ll likely want to adhere to some loose aesthetic guidelines that your customers intuitively know to look for in order to jump out at them.
E.g. white space, clean labels, infographics and label violators extolling your total lack of X (carbs, gluten, sugar, etc.) or your total jam-packedness of Y (vitamins, electrolytes, nootropics, mushrooms, etc.).
Or if you’re offering a Ranch Water, that might need to have a vaguely Texan or South Western aesthetic.
If you're offering some sort of cider-hybrid beverage, you might need to have an agricultural or aspirational autumn aesthetic.
Consumers need a starting point of reference. And category conventions (or at least, a snippet of convention) can give them just enough framing to understand what you're offering and why they should buy it.
High Noon (whose own visual language borrows heavily from seltzer) isn't dictating what can and can't be done within the RTD category.
The rest of these examples are just a fraction of the beautiful package design that is happening within the broader RTD category right now. Note the interesting format innovations as well.
Read more about Good George's RTD line here.
Stand out. But do it with intention.
If you’re releasing a product in a new-to-you category, some of your early due diligence needs to include a category audit to break down and define the segment's visual ground rules.
– What are the must haves?
– What do people (consumers and your competition) take for granted?
– What opportunities are there for deeper differentiation?
Our best advice is to simplify and find a clear and compelling point of differentiation. Then, add or subtract from these specific category canons as needed to strike a balance between clearly belonging in the category yet rising above it.
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