In the earliest days of the pandemic retail beer sales did remarkably well, with established brands leading the pack. Much of this had to do with the “comfort food” mentality. Customers reached for something familiar in a time of worry, but it also helped by having clear labels, spelling out what was in the can (or bottle) from a distance and without having to hunt for information.
Clear labeling is important to attracting customers and as more breweries have pushed into distribution, coming up with strong messaging has been important. Artistic labels are great and fun to look at but for the general consumer clarity is key.
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“It’s not just familiar brands, but established styles like classic pale ales, lagers, and even amber ales seem to move faster,” says Christopher Quinn, the owner of Beer Temple in Chicago. “Those beers that had, say, a watercolor painting on the label that looked nice but didn’t offer up any real information did not move in the same way that it might have before all this.”
Esoteric labels with inventive modern artwork have become commonplace in the beer space and thanks to Instagram, some fans can spot a can from their favorite brewery when they see it on offer or know what to expect when they line up for a special release.
While fine for taproom situations, when it comes to traditional retail much of what makes the hazy IPAs, kettle sours, and other offerings from small breweries so attractive to some customers becomes a headache to other consumers.
The metallic font on a slightly different metallic background is tough to read by anyone. Having to hunt for a beer style, an ABV, and the sometimes lack of packaging date on the bottom of a can are all warning signs for some customers to stay away.
As the pandemic stretches on and package stores continue to do well, the breweries that are moving into retail would be smart to re-evaluate their packaging to make it easier to identify, convey information, and entice customers from feet away.
The same is true with existing brands. The industry has seen a number of brand refreshes by older breweries, including Samuel Adams and Bell’s over the last few years that sharpened graphics, gave a bit more pop of color to labels, and gave the impression of freshness by brands that might seem dated by some.
The beer inside the packaging might be excellent as ever, but if the outside advertising feels old, it can run the risk of staying on a shelf.
There is a lot to worry about right now and that feeling is not going away anytime soon. By offering a story, a bit of professionalism, and some thought to a beer label, the ability to connect consumers from the shelf will be one less thing to be concerned about.
“The pandemic has shown me that there is a case to be made for better labeling, even if you still want to use watercolors,” says Quinn.