Crafting the craft: illustrators use creative flair for beer

Since the craft beer industry started booming over the past few years in New Zealand, we’ve seen some beautiful labels adorning supermarket shelves and bar taps. These labels are often less about trumpeting the brand and more about celebrating the distinctive personality of the beer, often expressed through creative illustrations and inventive names. We had a chat with The Wireless’s Toby Morris about his experience illustrating for beer brands, and look into why illustration has become a popular promotional tool. 

Auckland-based illustrator and comic artist Toby Morris (creator of Pencilsword half of the duo Toby and Toby for The Wireless) has been illustrating for Choice Bros Brewery for about a year now, as well as doing bits and pieces for Good George Brewery, which he says falls “somewhere on the craft to mainstream spectrum”.

He says using illustration for something like craft beer just makes sense. 

“The whole idea of the craft thing is about returning to the hand made and small scale, to show a bit more of a human side of a product like beer,” he says. 

He says he got involved when Kerry Gray, who runs Choice Bros, saw some gig posters Morris had illustrated and approached him about doing something for the brand with the same mentality in mind.

“And that’s really appealing for me as an illustrator. I mainly get people who see my more personal work or things that are a bit more out there and then they’ll approach you about doing straighter work or more commercial work. But when you have someone approach you and get you to do something that’s a bit more personal and creative is very appealing to an illustrator.”

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Source – http://www.leadinglabel.co.nz/products-gallery/craft-brewing/

He says he thinks it was Wellington-based brewery Garage Project that led the trend and he has friends who have illustrated for the brewery. “I think in New Zealand they definitely started that trend. It’s a pretty natural place for people to end up …,” he says.

Last year, we ran a story on Garage Project’s artistic branding and its innovative approach (in the craft beer market) of using cans, not generally associated with highbrow beer.

The brewery uses different artists to design labels for individual beers and has a huge variety of beautifully designed labels.

Here’s what Garage Project’s Ian Gillespie told us earlier:

“The whole thinking behind the branding was that we wanted the beers themselves to stand out,” Gillespie says. “We wanted each beer to have its own personality … We work hard for them to have names that evoke a bit of interest so people will want to read more about what’s in them and the thinking behind them and each artwork should speak to what that beer is, what it’s about and who might like it, and who won’t.”

“We find people align themselves to different beers and their artwork as opposed to our brand per se. Our logo is often smaller, down the bottom.”

He said the approach worked for the brand. “Obviously there is a bit of extra work involved in each artwork, as it’s not a question of just changing the colour from green to pink and putting porter on it and just releasing it,” he says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way, we like the way it’s worked and we are not locked into a branding style that is going to go out of date.”

Morris says there is also a sense of humour to craft beer branding. “The whole thing that people want out of it is that it’s not taking itself super seriously and it’s not mass-produced. The names are also unusual and try to get a bit of personality across there too.”

All of the Choice Bros beers are named after a song title or a lyric from a song, Morris says, which gives him something to work from when drawing. “It’s pretty much a combo of thinking about the style of beer – is it dark and wintery, or light and summery – and then listening to the song inspiration and then just seeing what comes out. They’ve been really good at leaving it really open to however I want to interpret each one, which is the most fun way to work for me.”

And does drinking the beer while working also inspire great ideas? We enquired.

“I sometimes crack a beer while working but usually I will enjoy it more after I’ve finished work for the day.”

Artist agency International Rescue executive producer Rob Finn says he has noticed an increase in demand for illustrators in craft beer branding but also in advertising in general.

“I have definitely noticed, whether it’s wine labels or beer bottles or whatever, a lot more people are using illustration for branding themselves completely.”

He says it’s the same with coffee brands, using illustrations for products (cups and packaging), rather than opting for simplicity.

Brands are also using photography differently, he says. “[Brands like] free, natural, atmospheric shots of food rather than anything overly retouched,” he says.

“Whether it’s cars or whatever, I think that’s because we have been through the age of polished high sheen advertising and now it’s all about the product being achievable to buy and being a bit more real and I think illustration can instantly get that across. Especially hand-drawn or painterly style which can get across a crafty sort of a feeling rather than a three-dimensional or CGI illustration.”

The big brands have been getting on board too. “You’ll see all of a sudden Coca-Cola will move into this big illustration piece rather than people on the beach throwing a ball around …”

Cost is also a factor, he says. “Especially as budgets started to get a bit tighter. Rather than paying for a shoot, your location with your model, with illustration you can come up with a brief of whatever world you want and it can be illustrated,” he says.

“You don’t need to pay for locations or talent so it’s much more creative in that respect.”

It’s difficult to say whether some of the bigger beer brands should be following suit. Something tells us it might not quite transition in the same way if the brand is already well-established. We can hardly imagine Tui shedding its orange skin and we don’t think its target market of stubby-donning, rugby loving Kiwi blokes would appreciate it either.

But one brand that’s given it a go is Mac’s. While one wouldn’t previously have thought of the brewery as ‘craft’, it’s certainly trying to brand itself as such after donning new packaging in March last year (courtesy of Dow design), and increasing its selection of beer and cider.

We spoke to Dave Pearce, Lion’s category marketing director for wine, cider and craft about the revamp early last year. 

“We’ve added some stories on the bottles and packs that talk about our history and some of the unique things about Mac’s, like our unusual ribbed bottle and rip cap, and we’ve also added ‘Since 1981’ to our main logo,” Pearce said. “We wanted to give each beer a bit more of its own personality, so we’ve added a distinctive icon for each one, which all tell a bit of the story behind that beer. For example Three Wolves is named after the three hops we use in this beer – the Latin word for hops translates as ‘wolf of the woods’, and there are two American hops and one New Zealand one, and so the wolves are ‘dressed’ to reflect that.”

The new packaging also featured other elements such as medal tags and a flavour scale to help consumers choose according to their preferences.

The scale runs from one through seven, rating the beers from ‘quenching’ (beers that are crisp, clean, refreshing and lighter in flavour) to ‘savouring’ (beers that have more complex or intense flavours).

And with the craft beer industry booming in the country, it’s no surprise Mac’s decided to jump on those coat tails and push the more crafty aspects of its product.

According to a Stuff article from August last year, ANZ’s 2015 industry insight showed the craft beer industry had grown forty percent within a year and that one third of New Zealand’s 100 craft brewers were gearing up for expansion into offshore markets.

The report also showed the number of brewers had doubled in the past five years, intensifying domestic competition. Strong demand had increased growth for producers by 20 percent.

The article says in 2010 there were five craft breweries in Wellington, adding about $3 million to Wellington’s economy. By 2013 there were 12 breweries in business, adding $12.3 million in economic benefit, nearly doubling to $22.3 million in 2014.

The article also says there are 111 craft breweries in New Zealand, off-premise retail sales were up 42 percent last year from 2014, they take up 13 percent of beer sales by value in New Zealand, are sold in 40 offshore markets and there are about 25 brewers exporting. About $2.7 million worth of craft beer was sold in Asia last year.

So, things are looking pretty good for craft beer. And while we can’t put all the credit on the illustrative and colourful branding style, because craft beer is pretty tasty stuff, you’ve got to admit, they sure stand out.

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