Monolithic Portfolios vs. Fanciful Names — which is a better move in 2023?
This is the second of four exclusive topics we’re covering here in our newsletter from our larger 2023 Beer Branding Trends report.
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I had an interesting conversation recently with a brewery in planning that we’re working with.
It centered around the merits of creating fanciful beer names and individualized beer brands vs. a more monolithic, style-forward approach (e.g. XYZ Brewing Pils, XYZ Brewing Hazy IPA).
After the call, I realized that we actually discuss this, more or less, on every single packaging project we work on because you always have to figure out the broader portfolio architecture. But we’ve never broken this out and examined it on its own.
This particular conversation was with a new brewery, but there are interesting considerations for an established brewery that is preparing for a rebrand as well.
So let’s explore this topic from both of those angles.
Prost Brewing builds a monolithic brand in lieu of creating individual beer brands. The works well since they are specialists (all-German style beers) and helps to reinforce that you can expect a singular focus with every new release.
Backward Flag Brewing leans into individual names in order to tell a specific story and support a veteran charity with each release.
Let’s start with some definitions
Given enough time in the market, most breweries will organically end up with a few different lines within their portfolio. E.g. a hazy IPA line under which you release several new beers per year. Or a seltzer line, or annual barrel aged release, year round flagships, etc.
For this conversation, we’re focusing specifically on your flagship portfolio.
There are two main approaches here. (Or, three approaches, if you consider that the first two are not mutually exclusive and are often used together.)
The first approach is a Branded House (or “Monolithic” / “Style Forward”) system that puts all energy and focus into promoting the brewery’s parent brand with no individual effort to name or brand the beers themselves. (e.g. Prost Pils, Prost Dunkel, Prost Kölsh)
The second approach entails developing individual, fanciful names for each beer within your portfolio (e.g. Cold Smoke, 60 Minute IPA, Truth, Pivo Pils, Dale’s Pale Ale). These aren’t Sub Brands (technically), because they still fall under a broader Branded House approach, but they do have the opportunity for more long term brand building on the individual beer level.
Now that we know what we’re working with, let’s discuss some pros and cons of each of these conventions.
Monolithic Portfolio (aka Branded House or "Style Forward" naming convention)
– This system builds your parent brand equity out of the gate because every interaction with a customer reinforces your brewery's name and identity.
– This helps you get more mileage out of your marketing budget because every dollar you spend on promotion helps to build the parent brand itself.
– It is faster, cheaper and easier to release new beers under this approach because, in most cases (though, not always), you’re also using a templated label. So you drop in the new style, ABV, barcode, etc. and you’re good to go. This is particularly useful for breweries who release dozens of new beers each year—developing individual labels on that fast a clip is possible, but will almost always end up being inconsistent as a whole (over time).
– Your portfolio stands a better chance of “billboarding” on shelf (assuming you're using a templated label system).
– This approach limits your ability to release line extensions of popular beers, lest you risk diluting your parent brand itself.
– It may be tougher for your fans to find specific styles at retail because you’re focusing on the parent brand vs. an individual name that they can come to associate with a particular style.
– It can become kind of boring over time (especially if you’re using a rigid label template system). This point can be mitigated by great package design, but a template is still a template at the end of the day.
But a push back against this: Boring means people recognize the look to the point where it becomes ubiquitous. Assuming your broader brand building efforts and the beer itself are continually getting better, consistency is always a plus.
(Top) Here are a few client examples who successfully employ a monolithic, style-forward naming convention.
(Bottom) Monolithic naming is common in RTD / FMB branding as well. Here, you're using a specific flavor variant or cocktail name in place of a style. (e.g. 7th Inning Seltzer Key Lime, 7th Inning Seltzer Grapefruit Tangerine.)
Fanciful (individualized) product names
– The most compelling benefit of developing individual beer names is that they can serve as a platform for future Sub Brands if you have a particular brand that really takes off. (This is much harder to do with XYZ Brewing Pils.)
– This sets you up for Line Extensions at the individual beer level without diluting the parent brand's positioning and reputation.
– This creates an opportunity for broader storytelling if you use names that reinforce your Brand Essence and story.
– You can more easily target specific audiences and occasions with a uniquely named and positioned beer. This allows you to go slightly niche without creating an entirely new brand.
– You’re promoting individual beer brands at the expense of the parent brand (though this concern can be mitigated through package design hierarchy itself).
– You’re adding one more element that competes in the packaging hierarchy (e.g. parent brand vs. fanciful beer name vs. beer style vs. illustration vs. tasting notes, etc.).
– This can be more expensive to create initially (name development and package design) and on an ongoing basis. (Though, I would offer that any money spent on your branding and packaging should be viewed as an investment vs. a cost.)
– You have to develop yet another name. And trademark it. And then police that trademark. All of which costs money. (But again, this is an investment.)
Here's a collection of clients who develop individual, fanciful product names. Note the use of templates for some of these vs. completely custom labels for others.
Specific use cases (Startup Brewery vs. a Rebranding Brewery)
For the startup brewery
I think in most cases, a start up brewery should focus on building its parent brand awareness over everything else.
In most markets, you’ll be fighting a pitched battle for attention. You’ve got national brands and legacy Big Craft brands and local brands and beyond beer options all jostling for an increasingly smaller spot in the cold box.
So you’ll want to make every impression count.
This doesn't mean you can't develop unique beer names, but you should make sure that any packaging you develop hangs together closely visually out of the gate. (Note: this is more of a vote for templated labels than it is for a style-forward naming convention.)
This can evolve over time to allow for more personality and brand voice on each individual beer once you see how the market responds to specific releases.
For a brewery coming out of a rebrand
A brewery that is rolling out a rebrand has more options here. The decision centers around any precedent your portfolio had going into the rebrand, your visual and Brand Equity and your long term plans and business strategy.
A monolithic approach can be a great way to introduce (and hammer home) your updated look in the market.
But then, if you’ve been around for a while, you might have a beer or two that would make good contenders for larger brand families—possibly as Sub or even Endorsed Brands. So leaning into individual names for those could make a lot of sense.
Our rebrand with Mission Brewing is a great example of how you can blend these approaches to reintroduce a brand to the market (e.g. Mission IPA, Mission Blonde Ale) while also setting the stage for a future Sub Brand (e.g. Mission Shipwrecked Double IPA).
Read more about this project here. And listen to a great podcast with Mission's CEO, Dan Partelow, here.
Final thoughts (+ an obligatory caveat)
There are pros and cons for each of these approaches for both new breweries and folks coming out of a rebrand.
If there was a concrete recommendation to be made here, we would offer it.
But your brewery's specific context—your brand strategy, competitive set, portfolio makeup and broader vision—will all dictate which approach you should consider.
But we will offer this: The beer industry is in a fractured state. Channels are being disrupted and encroached upon every day. Consumers are drinking more Beyond Beer options, and they have more choices for what they can drink than ever before.
Breweries who focus on long term brand building are going to win.
And there are a lot of compelling examples of legacy craft beer brands who have done this at the individual beer brand level vs. at the parent brand level.
When in doubt, try the Bar Call Test
Would KettleHouse's Cold Smoke be the cult classic that it is without an amazing name that ties it to skiing (a Montana lifestyle staple)? Would someone just as enthusiastically order a "KettleHouse Scotch Ale?"
Which is the better bar call—“Give me a Cold Smoke” or “Give me a KettleHouse Scotch Ale”?
Or would people drive from all over the country to fill their trunk with New Glarus' Farmhouse Ale if it weren't called Spotted Cow?
Fanciful names like Heady Topper, Pliny the Elder, Dark Lord, 805, Arrogant Bastard and Pappy Van Winkle give people an important point of reference for determining what role a brand can play in their lives.
And for brand builders, this can be all that matters.
Around the Shop
Fernson Brewing's shift towards Sub Brands / Fanciful Names
As part of their 8 year anniversary (!!!), Fernson Brewing worked with CODO on a package refresh that moves away from the monolithic approach and towards a more individualized, brand-specific story-driven system.
They see this as a platform for better brand building and growth.
We're working up a case study on this project right now, but for now, check out their announcement over on IG.
Ready to learn more?
The Beyond Beer Handbook
Part book, part quiz, and part choose-your-own-adventure-style novel, The Beyond Beer Handbook is a purpose-built tool for helping you expand your brewery’s portfolio and build a more resilient business.
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.
Craft Beer Branding Guide
The Craft Beer Branding Guide outlines how to brand, position and launch a new brewery or beverage company. This is a must-read for any brewery in planning.
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