How to maintain beautiful, consistent packaging under an intense release schedule
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I was on a call with a brewery recently to discuss how we might corral their astonishing production schedule—more than 100 new beers slated for 2023 alone.
They've burned through 2 in-house designers over the last 5 years and are wondering if they shouldn't bring more consistency to their portfolio, both to build brand equity, and so as to not run their poor designers into the ground. (Won't someone please think of the designers.)
More breweries are packaging their beer today than ever before, and whether you’re putting out ~25 new cans per year or more than 100, this core problem is worth exploring:
– Can (or should) you bring consistency to that many labels?
– What’s the value of consistency in this case?
– How can you make this change along the way so that it doesn't grind your business to a halt? (Breweries who operate this way often release their beers in monthly or bi-monthly drops, so there's not much time to slow down.)
So let’s discuss this today.
What are some tactics breweries who package several dozen new beers each year might consider to make their lives easier?
And then, we’ll discuss a few philosophical points that can inform how you think about your package design as a whole.
Let’s start with some tactical considerations.
(Above): Good George Brewing — How can you stay consistent (and interesting) while releasing a constant stream of new beers each year?
What are you balancing? And what are your options?
What are you balancing?
If you’re packaging 100+ beers per year, you need to strike a balance between speed and quality and consistency.
NOTE: I’ll keep saying “100+ beers” here to drive this point home, but again, this entire conversation is just as applicable if you’re releasing 25 new cans per year.
Speed: You need these cans fast. And you need new labels perpetually. When running this way, there’s often little-to-no time to pause and consider how these cans work together in a broader sense.
Quality: There’s some truth to the Iron Triangle concept: e.g. something can be Good, Fast, Cheap: And you can only choose two. When you’re moving at this fast a clip, there’s not enough time, and often not enough budget, to put out all quality labels.
Consistency: Consistency might not matter in all situations (e.g. are you distributing or selling primarily via carryout). We’ll address this point later. For now, let’s agree that consistency is valuable because it helps you develop IP and better brand awareness over the long term.
What are your options?
There are a few immediate options in this scenario:
1. Create a rigid template and systemize everything
2. Treat every single release as a one-off label (YOLO)
3. Create a flexible template (blending options 1 and 2)
4. Begin creating lines and Sub Brands within your larger release schedule
1. Create a universal template
If you’re pumping out 100+ labels per year, it would be tempting to create a house template. One that allows you to change up some colors or patterning between each can, drop in the new style and beer specs and go to print.
But could you imagine 100 nearly identical beer cans? While easy to manage, and affordable, this isn’t very compelling from a marketing standpoint. (Here’s another pic of the same can we’ve posted for the last 200 days. This one’s red! 4-packs are a reasonable 24.99…)
And this isn’t very compelling for your customers either, for whom, the art (plus the fact that this is a limited edition product) is often why they're buying your beer in the first place.
(Above): Examples of universal (global) templates, including Forest Road Brewing, Mission Brewing, Plain Spoke Cocktails and Prost Brewing. This approach works well for your core line of products, but can become boring if extended across dozens (and dozens) of new releases each year.
2. Treat every label as a one-off
Conversely, you could just go wild and treat every beer and label as a one-off.
I almost didn't include this today because it's not a strategy, at least, not a sustainable one. And if you've been reading along so far, you know that this approach is what leads to people pulling their hair out and wanting to create some sort of system in the first place.
Despite these things, this is still done all across the industry. So let's talk about it briefly.
This is more or less the default route for any brewery that has never formally considered its branding. E.g. If you've never given your brand or broader portfolio architecture much thought, this is likely where you've arrived.
I’ll be blunt here (we’re both adults) and offer that in almost all cases (that we've seen), your packaging will look terrible if you go this route. We see it every single day.
And perhaps worse, it will be inconsistent.
It's one thing if your packaging looks bad. But looking bad and inconsistent is a place you really don't want to be in. (Hot take: It would be better for your packaging to look bad, but consistent, than to look bad and inconsistent because in the former case, at least you're teaching your customers what to look for out in the wild.)
Under this model (100+ beers per year), you’re in a numbers game, one where label quality (and consistency) will generally take a back seat to speed and cost effectiveness. Speed rules the day.
How fast can we get this label designed, ordered and applied?
Times 6 or 8 cans. Every month. In perpetuity.
This isn't a strategy. It's Sisyphean.
3. Create a flexible template
Our work with Left Field is a good example of how your brewery can release dozens of new beers per year while keeping them consistent and attractive.
Our solution in this case centered around a base template with a panel for beer-specific illustrations that changes between each release.
This gives Left Field the best of both worlds here—each beer starts off with a template (swap the colors, drop in new name and specs, etc.) but then there's room to customize so all the releases don't run together. They do this via their talented in-house creative team or by working with a local freelance illustrator to create the art as needed.
We've created similar systems for several other breweries and this approach works great.
Ideally, you'd use the same illustrator and/or style, across all releases. But if you don't, then you're still starting with a base template that provides consistency across all labels.
In other words, this approach prevents you from going too far off the rails even if your illustration style wanders over time.
Now that we’ve explored some of the moving parts to releasing 100+ beers per year, let’s shift into how you can begin to rein this all in and create some structure across your portfolio so you’re not always starting from zero.
(Above): Left Field Brewery uses a flexible template that centers around a consistent front panel and a section to house a custom illustration that ties to the beer's story.
Once the Left Field team has developed a beer name, they partner with a talented local illustrator for the can art and swap in the new name, color, specs in-house. Easy peasy.
When & how to start making these changes
Let's step back to look at this problem for a moment. If you're releasing 100+ new beers this year, there won't be enough time to pause and reset everything with a thorough package refresh.
So how, and when, should you start to roll in packaging so that it begins addressing your important pain points while also not disrupting the important flow of new beers out the door?
4. Begin creating lines / families / series, each with their own templates
Creating a universal template can lead to repetitive labels and marketing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create templates.
Rather than creating a universal template that you use for all of your releases, what if you created a series of templates that you use for specific styles or seasonals or series?
A good first step here is to try to group your various styles, with the goal of possibly creating several themed lines.
So you put out 10–20 Hazy IPAs per year—maybe those go into one consistent template.
Your sour beers get a specific treatment. As do your lagers, pastry stouts, etc.
I’m using “template” here to capture the idea that these beer labels look similar more so than they use a rigid, identical template. There’s still room for making each label look cool, but you’re not starting from zero with each new release.
Could you reuse art?
If your brewery is putting out 100+ beers per year, most of those are probably new recipes. You will likely revisit (and build on) some past releases that were well-received, but breweries who operate under this model thrive on experimentation and novelty.
I bring this up because if you’re putting out this many new beers—each with different labels—then you’re not teaching your customers what to look for on shelf on a per-beer basis. New labels come and go, so your customers know to look for the new label vs. a specific one.
What this means is that your fans likely won’t remember, or care, if the label art on this months hazy IPA was used on a West Coast IPA last year.
Your individual beers likely aren’t for sale long enough for most people to remember what a particular label looked like (and if a few do, does it matter?).
If you agree with this premise, is there any merit to starting each year with a plan to reuse a percentage of the past year’s label art on this year’s new releases? Even picking 15 to 30 labels to reuse would take some pressure off your team, and it might even give you time to incrementally improve on those labels before they come back up for print again.
If you do this over a few years, you will build a sizable inventory of labels (or at least label elements—illustrations, specced color, typography builds—that you can use as a foundation for new releases.
When to make these changes? (on building planes in the air)
We’re helping a brewery navigate this problem right now and one of their first concerns was that they don’t have time to slow down and go through a thorough refresh. Their exact words were, “This train never stops.”
So our solution, for phase 1, is to develop three specific series that are going to start rolling out in Q1 2024.
They will continue releasing all their normal output while this changeover is happening. And we’re planning to clean up the stragglers and create a few additional series templates next summer so that eventually, there’s more structure to their entire portfolio.
Revisit our thinking on Staggered Rebrand Launches for more background on how you can roll out an updated identity over time.
(Above): We worked with Indie Alehouse out of Toronto to rein in their stacked release schedule. They partner with a talented artist (check out those illustrations above) to create illustrations for each beer. We created a template and simple rule set to keep their packaging consistent throughout the year.
Does investing in design even matter at this pace and under this model? (What does your brewery look like in 5 years?)
I’m going to paint with a broad brush here.
Most of the breweries we've worked with who release 100+ new beers each year sell most of that beer as carryout. This can be on a daily basis from a cold box in your taproom or in big, hyped drops, depending on how you're positioned.
If they have any beer in distribution, it is usually a select number of accounts who take their latest and greatest, no matter the style.
In this case, you need to consider whether you even need to invest time and capital into developing your labels?
The project I mentioned earlier where we’re helping a brewery create various lines and template series—they’re only doing that because they’re going to start distributing in a few new markets later this year.
Their beer will sell out of their taproom whether we design a slick label for it or not. But they realize that getting out of their taproom and competing in different markets presents an entirely new context.
And now back to you.
So this becomes a question of how you operate. And how you plan to run over the next 5 years.
If you're currently selling all of your beer as carryout and you have no immediate plans to change this model, then it might not make sense to invest heavily in your package design.
But if you’re planning on a making any changes, such as:
– You're planning to begin distributing your beer (and will be competing with other breweries out in the market).
– You’re planning to evolve your portfolio to include more year-round offerings.
– You'd like to create a more pleasant (and less chaotic) work culture. And a big part of this change hinges on how you produce, market and release new beers.
– You're planning to create more lines and Sub Brands.
If any of these options are in play, then rethinking how you build your portfolio and broader label design can be a worthwhile endeavor.
But beyond these changes, the biggest benefit you'll see from taming your label design system is that it will make your life easier.
Imagine brewing 100+ beers per year. And packaging them. Now, you also have to develop a unique label for every single one. Oh, and you have to promote all of this.
If you can organize your portfolio into distinct lines and/or groups, and then create a consistent look for these batches, your life will be easier.
You won’t be starting from zero on each new release, and it will be easier for your fans to make sense of your new releases throughout the year.
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