Re-Brand is a Four Letter Word

Would you like jargon with that?

In my other life I’m a Usability Specialist. A UX Designer, Service Design Advisor, User Architect, Customer Researcher… whatever the jargon-de-jour is. Basically, I run research to make things easier to use. This job allowed me to build a brewery without banks or investors. Phew!

In that life, I have been witness (and advisor) to a lot of brand re-designs. I can’t say that I would call many of them a success. Re-designs can be a kiss of death. A move of a business that doesn’t know what else to do, it just senses that something needs to give. And even when done well on a visual level, the message it sends can be tricky. What was wrong with your old labels? I don’t even know you anymore! You’ve changed, bro…

It’s a great time for opinion pieces like Jono Galuszka’s and Shane Cowlishaw’s comments last year, international examples, and even dedicated (if also a little general and impersonal) guides to craft beer branding.

In my first post I already ranted about how fickle of a beast brand is – and yet how important it is for a small craft business. To a lot of us brand and marketing is sleek, snobbish nonsense that we don’t want or need. Even after having worked at the sidelines of this field for years I can’t shake that impression myself. And when someone announces a ‘Re-design’ my eyeballs automatically roll into my head. Polishing the turd? Lipstick on a pig?

So logically, I’m thrilled to announce that I decided to redesign Tiamana’s bottle labels and tap badges. *drops, covers and holds*

What the whaaaaa? Ok, stay with me here, this is what happened. I can tell you one thing from the beginning: re-doing your own brand is a completely different kettle of wort from advising others on their re-design.

Let me give you a behind-the-scenes tour of what happened.

Why rock the bottle?

Here’s a collection of the ‘charming’ tap badges that I have put together myself:


And this is what my labels looked like when they were first released in January 2016:


I’m from Berlin and my brand Tiamana is the Māori word for Germany. The Brandenburg Gate as my logo means a lot to me. I wanted my brand overall to speak to German beer tradition; work from what I know best. When you look at the most common beer labels in Germany you might see the influences:


So what’s wrong with my labels? In my view, there’s too much going on in a small space. There’s something unbalanced about the composition. And most of all, they now feel dusty and conservative to me. ‘Now’ being the key word – I didn’t always feel like that about them. And that’s the point. As the brewery owner/director it’s up to you to hold a clear vision of your beer and your brand. And that vision is almost bound to change, particularly for start-up brewers like me who have learned and grown on the job.

So much influences you in a short time! You get better at making your beer, you develop better taste. You learn more about what you like and don’t like about your own beer and others. You learn what beers sell well and what beers stay in your chiller for longer. Consequently, your beer will change – and YOU will change. Usually for the better; a more experienced and clear view of what makes your brewery. And one day it’ll hit you: you look at your first labels, posters, and other collateral at some point and go, “Duuuude, I just see you in a different light now…” Maybe even, “What the hell was I thinking?

I suppose re-brands in the first few years of a brewery’s existence are not so strange. They could be a sign of struggle or a sign of growth. Or shall I say ‘refinement’? No, sorry…not that language…

There’s a truth here that is a little hard to admit, but important to share. Good design needs art direction. And I don’t think I did a stellar job at that the first time around.

Art direction doesn’t mean having to come up with ideas yourself, but you do have to guide the process with something of an idea of what you want – or at least what you don’t want. Saying NO is an important part of that.

My first bottle labels were designed by my uncle, an outstanding artist and simply a great guy. He helped me for free. I did not push back on some of the ideas he put forward since I did not want to be ungrateful. There came a point I just wanted the design process to be over and go ahead with what we had. They were the best I could do at the time.  

This can happen even when you work with experienced designers that you hire. A designer can be a fantastic influence, and you can more or less pay them to develop a full vision for you – but they typically need something to work with. Some direction and ideas about what you’re trying to achieve. From there it’s a rubbish-in, rubbish-out principle. If you as the art director don’t have anything to offer – or at least opinions to bounce off – your designer will struggle to make something out of nothing. Me, I certainly had ideas and opinions. What I did not have was the experience, or certainty of what I wanted, to follow those opinions through into the final prints.

So there we are. I’m not the same brewer and director as I was a year ago, and I want my brand to move with me.

What did I do, then?

Just a simple short sides and back, please.

One of the many amazing things about living in Wellington is that you can’t swing a malt sack without hitting someone talented. In my case, that was the lovely Vee: freelance designer and homebrewer. Off into the breech we went.

I showed Vee my labels and tap badges and gave her this brief: I just want a simple clean-up of the existing designs. Tidy them up and update them a little. Bring more contrast to them. Carve out more of the good, cut out the not-so-good.

The term ‘brand recognition’ circled in my head like a vulture (aaaand we’re back to jargon, sorry). Not that my brand is that big or well known, but generally it’s not a bad idea to try and hang on to any familiarity that you managed to establish.

So with that simple brief, naturally, this is where we went right in our first stab.

This:                                                                                    And then this:


Yiiiip, just a simple clean-up, nothing too drastic, eh?

Once I had opened my mind to what my brand might look like if I was prepared to leave the old look in the dust, there was no turning back. I was excited by what I saw, and I decided it’s better to take a leap and try manage the outgoing message than to put a cap on the ideas that were popping off Vee’s beautiful mind.

Also, there was a concept that I wanted to test: A few breweries recently flipped the typical ‘large beer name – smaller beer type below’ convention on its head, most notably Parrotdog:


Big beer type, small beer name. This makes so much sense from a buyer’s point of view. There’s only a few beers whose names are so well-known that one would actively say: ‘I’ll go and buy me a Pliny.’ So I asked Vee to have a stab at that concept with the bottle labels that we were tackling next:

Option A:                                                                        Option B:


And that’s when I knew: I have no bleepin’ idea anymore what really works better. I can see pros and cons in both. I strongly believe in the idea of having beer types most prominent on the label, but does it really work for me? The other version feels more balanced… or does it?

If only I had a way to get some more fresh opinions in… oh, hang on… that’s what I do for a living! How convenient.

Do you have a preference, and why?

There’s a whole plethora of ways to do customer research. The easiest way in this case was to get opinions in via a private Facebook group. I invited 100+ of my contacts, a mix of beer people, retailers, bar managers and people who I know not to be beer-fans, but whose opinion I value (I’ll skip the longer research-method discussion here for the sake of flow, forgive me).

I uploaded the two options to the group, asked people to vote for their favourite and share their thoughts in comments. It was the first time I used Facebook for something like this, and I think it worked a treat:


The vote is the most narrow way to get feedback; to me it’s just a good indicator to where the discussion is going. What really matters to me are the comments and the exact way in people express their views. There were two clear themes:

  • Option A: There were numerous mentions of ‘has more information’ and ‘know what you get’ as well as ‘more you’.
  • Option B: Was described as ‘easier’ ‘quick to know’ and ‘simple’. It was particularly the people who I’d count as less ‘beer-specialist’ who favourited B.

This kind of info is gold! It brought up clearly distinct arguments for each option, which ultimately reads as: one option has more clarity, one more simplicity.

In the end I decided against my original convictions and went with Option A. The winning argument was brought up independently in numerous posts:


Option A had enough space for the beer type being described as ‘Berliner Pilsner’, ‘Lemongrass Wit’ and ‘German IPA’. A number of people argued that those were the exact sales-points of my beer. Leaving them out would make the beer labels less convincing.

In the end, this argument won over the ‘simplicity’ point. But to take on points from Option B I asked Vee to shuffle with some sizes and free up more space around the name and style. There’s usually something to be learned from both sides of the argument.

Perfect, let’s send it off to the printer, eh?

But WAIT. It’s never that easy…. The amazing thing with customer feedback is that you’re virtually guaranteed to get one shot from a corner you never even friggin’ thought about…

FONTS! Mother-friggin’ FONTS!

I’m pretty useless when it comes to fonts, colour pallets, styles etc. In that case, I’m a ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ person. So I was equally surprised and glad that this stream of comments popped up in the group:



I reckon that’s like Godwin’s law – once Comic Sans has entered the design conversation, it’s over, you’re done!

It’s possible that people had read the ‘Comic Sans’ comments in an earlier post and just agreed and repeated it. But since I’m not brilliant with fonts and people seemed very determined about it, I asked Vee to have another go at some font options. Then we would take these back to the group, see what happens. Once you have an engaged group like this you might as well use it. And boy, was this group engaged, as shown by this wonderful comment:


The final font-down

One could say the quest for a font got a bit out of control. Vee did her darndest, pulling out a massive range of options from more graffiti, more hipster, more art-deco, more paintbrush… And this is where certainly my direction wasn’t the strongest. I foraged for inspiration by printing all options and sticking them on bottles to get a more real impression, and ended up with an unhelpful amount of prototypes:


It’s haaa-aaaard!

But where your own vision won’t zoom into enough detail, you seek advice from the customer-magic-8-ball! So back to the group we went, after having painfully narrowed the options down to these:


Font 1                                              Font 2                                               Font 3

We tried to pick fonts that were different from each other… A few months ago I probably would have blurted: they all look the same. But no, they don’t! And gladly our feedback group took this task serious also.

I had a clear favourite myself, Font 1. I thought it was kind of 20s-Berlin chic. But I was on my own with this opinion:


The people had spoken, Font 3 was their clear favourite.

Now, customer research is not some kind of despotism. You are by no means required to just follow suit with what the group thinks, and I was prepared to go another way if I felt strongly about it – but in lieu of strong font-feelings I was gladly convinced by the careful and intelligent comments. Font 3 had all I wanted, and people made good and precise points what they liked about it. So there we were – decision made!

For comparison, these were the steps on the way:


Originals                               First designs                                      Final designs

Going from the originals to the first designs was the easy part – the polishing and calibrating to get to the final designs was where it got hairy. Holy yeast nutrient, batman! I sure did not expect that.

Finally, the full enchilada:


And as the dust has settled…

I’m not the judge of whether this counts as a successful re-design, a waste of money, a move of desperation, or as a polished turd. As in my first post, I just want to share this story with others out there uncertain about their labels and what to do about them.

I’m personally very happy with how this has turned out. But it’ll be in the reactions of my peers, customers, stockists, and last but not least in my sales numbers, that I’ll see whether this has been worthwhile. I promise I shall report back.

And what have I learned? Me, the fancy brand and customer super-specialist?!

It’s very easy to get into a problem-solving mode, slowly narrowing down your vision. You’re trying to get the job done, and your very adept brain will piece things together, convincing you that there are no other reasonable ways of looking at it. To you, your designs will make complete sense! But once the beer is on the shelf someone else might go: oh, why did you pick Comic Sans? – even if the font isn’t even Comic Sans (it had to be said!).

You can be sure of this: after you’ve been pouring over designs for weeks you won’t have a first clue what impression your label and tap badge will give other people. Checking with a group of people – even if it’s people you know – does wonders. And it doesn’t make you any less of a talented art director. You won’t please everybody and sometimes a bold decision that feels right to you is better than a half-assed one you make just to shut people up.

I would have LOVED to be fly-on-the-wall at Emerson’s, Mac’s or Tuatara re-design, just to see what it was like for them. Theirs would have been very different processes, likely with highly paid teams of designers, steering committees and board decisions. Many small entrepreneurs like me would like to have their resources. But a big design committee can also be a hindrance – so maybe we’re not so badly off after all.

Prost and hugs, y’all!

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