Asked to name one of his favourite local campaigns from last year, Foodstuff's Steve Bayliss picked an unlikely choice by awarding the honour to Wellington craft beer connoisseurs Garage Project.
“Advertising doesn't have to be on screens—be they TV or digital. Sometimes genius packaging design can become a campaign in itself,” he said in his Year in Review. "And in this area, I reckon Garage Project have lifted a very high bar."
As a marketing strategy for a small business, Garage Project’s approach sounds disastrous on paper. Line up a row of their bottles or cans and the visual result is unabashedly discordant. The colours are loud, the fonts don't match, and its unassuming logo recedes into obscurity. Where’s the visual consistency? The brand standards? The easy recognition?
“We decided we wanted the beers to be the hero and we wanted the focus to be on the individual beers themselves,” says Jos Ruffell who along with Peter and Ian Gillespie, co-founded the brewery from its Aro Valley headquarters.
“Garage Project is just a little thing that helps them along the way. In that sense, we're more of a house of brands than a branded house," he says.
Since its inception in 2011, Garage Project has been paving its own unique way to success. Differentiating from others by differentiating itself, it's pioneered the trend for alcoholic art, pushing individual personalities in lieu of an overarching look. Now, it's one of the fastest-growing craft beer producers in the market, even expanding beyond its small-scale beginnings as it announced this week it was opening a new brewery in the Hawkes Bay.
With its fluid and ever-changing sense of identity, each Garage Project beer is a labour of love, forgoing the use of any agencies and working directly with the artists and illustrators themselves. And while that leaves people with the impression of strong and attractive art which has been a core aspect to its success, such fluidity does pose a number of challenges.
“We had at least 46 new beers last year so we’re constantly having to work on the art and develop the package,” says Ruffell. “Sometimes we’ll slip behind or we won’t always have the art come in exactly how we want it so we go back to the drawing board. We really sweat that creative process."
Not surprisingly, Garage Project's lack of aesthetic consistency (coupled with the rising popularity of customised art on commercial alcohol packaging) has also led to the company battling with the challenge of brand confusion.
“We do see people confusing other people's beers for our beers sometimes. There have been instances of people drinking a beer that has strong art and linking it to us, but it’s not ours, which we always find quite amusing,” says Ruffell.
Upon announcing its new Hawke's Bay brewery, Garage Project took the chance to restate some of its core brand values, particularly its commitment to remain "relentlessly experimental and independent". Notably, brand independence in the craft beer industry has been thrust into the spotlight this week when fellow Wellington brewers Tuatara announced their sale to DB Breweries.
When asked about what this might mean for the craft beer industry in New Zealand, Ruffell remains unfazed.
“For us, we just set out to start a brewery. We don't even call ourselves a craft brewery, we just say we're a small brewery that started out in a garage," he says.
“We try and be genuine in every possible moment we can, and I think people respond to that. Other breweries are perfectly welcome to pick their own path, but we're just doing the path that we think is right for us. We don't really try and focus on what other people are up to.”