Is there a nobler form of commercial art than the design of a beer can? It's art for the masses on a wraparound frame. Your audience is often captive, plus they often ponder your work with a beer buzz.
And it's got a big following. Collectors amass vast libraries of beer cans, and there's even a blog dedicated to the art of beer packaging. Great Divide Brewing is taking it a step further by featuring rotating art on cans of Denver Pale Ale, and just rolled out the second annual iteration by John Vogl.
Of course, the design needs to be good: Hundreds of colorful cans will surround it in the cooler, beckoning to the buyer. How does a brewery make sure its packaging stands out?
The designers behind Moxie Sozo have pondered that question as they've developed packaging and branding for numerous craft breweries over the last decade. The Boulder-based design and advertising agency has developed designs and brands for Crazy Mountain Brewing in Denver, Bootstrap Brewing in Niwot, and Left Hand Brewing in Longmont.
"Beers are a lot of fun because the visual language allows for a lot of innovative thinking," says Leif Steiner, Moxie Sozo's principal and creative director. "We like to create ownable brands, brands that other companies can't appropriate.
Bootstrap gave Moxie Sozo "a blank slate," and the results are cans with form-fitting, top-to-bottom designs depicting a wall-to-wall bunnies and a single snake on Insane Rush IPA and a horde of beavers on Sticks Pale Ale, with minimally invasive blocks of information.
"How do you differentiate in a category that has an extreme amount of creativity and diversity?" asks Steiner. "At the end of the day, how do we do it differently and how do we do it better?"
For Crazy Mountain, that meant conceiving a cadre of Colorado-inspired "chimera," with a different creature for each variety; Magnus, for example, is the bear-moose-bison hybrid who's the mascot for Hookiebobb IPA and Jeremiah is the elk-pika-mountain goat on cans and bottles of Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale. "We mashed [animals] up in different ways and created characters," says Steiner, noting that they're particularly eye catching blown up on delivery trucks.
Josh Emrich of Emrich Office has designed packaging and branding for a number of craft breweries, including Loveland's Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Copper Kettle Brewing in Denver, and Liquid Mechanics Brewing in Lafayette. It became a focal market after The Dieline blog ranked Grimm Brothers as the second-best packaging design of 2010. "That propelled us with craft breweries," says Emrich. "It was just one after another after that."
One such client was Uinta Brewing in Salt Lake City. Emrich says his redesign aimed to broaden Uinta's marketability beyond Utah. It worked. "They pretty much tripled in size after the rebrand," says Emrich.
Beyond boosting sales, "Good design can do several things," he adds. "As a startup, it's an opportunity to be taken seriously." And using a designer with beer experience has several benefits: "Approvals go a lot faster, you're not going to have problems with the printer or problems with the labels falling off."
"We become a little bit of an interpreter," says Emrich. "It's beneficial to have someone pushing back on your ideas, rather than just living in a bubble."
"For Grimm Brothers, [the goal] was uniting a beer geek with a traditional geek. There's a little bit of a fantasy thing there." He points to Fearless Youth Munich Dunkel as an example. Like all of Grimm Brothers' beers, it's named for a fairy tale. "The original title of that story was 'The Boy Who Learned How to Shiver,'" say Emrich. "That doesn't really work as a beer name."
He helped come up with the name and the design. The design for Robber King Robust Porter modeled after Jacques-Louis David's painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. "We kind of remixed it," says Emrich.
Kevin Kroneberger of Kroneberger Design in Fort Collins is focused on clients in the outdoor and fly-fishing industries, including the Ross Reels offshoot, Colorado Outdoors, LLC, as well as some craft beverage clients in Greeley's WeldWerks Brewing and South City Ciderworks in California's Bay Area. He's looking for more.
"I've been with WeldWerks since the very beginning," says Kroneberger, who attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. "They wanted a local designer. I think that was a really big deal for them." His "retro-futuristic" logo is a streamlined not to steampunk motifs, but also a backlash to the more ornate designs the subculture has inspired. "I thought it was a good opportunity for WeldWerks to stand out in a different way," he says. "I'm always looking for what hasn't been done before. You see a lot of really similar styles."
While he likes Moxie Sozo's maximalist Bootstrap designs, Kroneberger says, "I want to go in the other direction. I want to go bold and geometric and large blocks of color. That's going to stand out at the shelf." He says the classic Miller Lite branding, relaunched in 2014 after being mothballed for more than a decade, is a guidepost in its simplicity. "It's beautiful. There's all this white space."
Kroneberger has developed several designs for WeldWerks’ Crowlers that he says he's heard have "gone gangbusters." He's not surprised design helps goose sales. "The emotional decision of buying a new beer is often centered around design," he says. "They buy it because it looks cool."
WeldWerks' cans are shrink-wrapped. For designers, having a design make it on a printed can is like getting called up to the majors, says Kroneberger. "You get on the pre-printed cans and you've made it."
But it's not just art for art's sake: Good design can have a huge impact on sales. Moxie Sozo's Steiner says research shows that 80 percent of customers who pick something up from a store's shelf ultimately buy that product. Several of Moxie Sozo's brewery customers have had sales grow by leaps and bounds after a packaging redesign. "We've seen tremendous returns," says Steiner. "Packaging can drive sales. We've seen a beer's sales go up 400 to 500 percent."
Craft breweries are steady sources of work for design shops, and Moxie Sozo's team of 35 employees loves to work with them. "There are clients who feed your heart and clients who feed your stomach," says Steiner. "Craft breweries feed your heart."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.