The Art of Branding Craft Beer

, The Art of Branding Craft BeerWe view the craft beer biz as an entertainment industry – a wonderful mashup of brewing, performance and visual arts. And yes, it all starts with the beer, but it sure doesn’t end there. A brewery’s branding is increasingly important in today’s crowded marketplace and its label art and imaging now matter more than ever.

And that’s where Oceania Eagan comes in…

Oceania, or “Oce” as friends and coworkers call her, is the Founder and Creative Director of Blindtiger Design – a Seattle-based creative, strategy and marketing agency, specializing in the craft food, beverage and indulgence industries. Oce is no stranger to the biz.  She’s got more than 12 years working with craft beer and it shows. As the principle behind Blindtiger Design, she and her team have workedwith breweries of all sizes on projects ranging from start-up consultations to full-scale brand reimaging.

Oce lives branding, but she also lives beer – and we threw back quite a few together and peppered her with questions when we dropped by her place recently… 

, The Art of Branding Craft BeerACB: Tell us about what you’re building here at Blindtiger Design – Why you…Why now …And why your company’s name?

Who knew this journey when a Craigslist posting titled, “Do you like beer? Do you like to draw?” was passed on to me by my husband more than 12 years ago, it would change my life – and the beer market – forever. The mysterious dream-come-true ad ended up leading to an interview at Taphandles, who was looking to transition from a manufacturing-focused company to a full service design and manufacturing firm. The position grew from me as the sole designer to running a full team of industrial, marketing collateral, and brand designers. Our team transformed the tap handle from a perfunctory pouring tool to the No. 1 marketing tool for craft beer brands. Tap handles became one of the only forms of advertising consumers actively sought out rather than avoided, a truly compelling example of the selling power of good design.  

As our team and influence on the market grew, the sheer size of the craft beer market exploded in parallel. And as the number of breweries boomed, competition for shelf space swelled, making a strong, recognizable brand key to appealing to first time customers and retaining regulars over time. It was an organic step to expand our design group into brewery branding. Our legacy knowledge and full industry immersion equipped us with the understanding of what’s effective in the market, what customers respond to, and what breweries need as a partner and resource in their commitment to success – without needing to spend time learning or researching the industry like a generalist agency would.

As our branding group continued to grow, it became clear we were offering more than design services: We were advising brewery start-ups, delivering brand strategy and offering marketing knowledge. We had grown beyond designing for the needs of a manufacturing company. It made sense for our strategic branding and marketing group to spin off and become its own thing.

Blindtiger Design was officially launched in September 2013, founded with a core team of creative, passionate members of the beer community from the Taphandles team. We recognized there’s a genuine need for a company that specializes on craft beer, understanding its nuances, beer culture and intricacies of the beer market itself. We’re in the trenches with brewers, a part of its culture and community. This closeness and more than a decade of experience in the industry enables us to communicate for beer in a way no one else can.

Naming the agency took of our full creative prowess (and a lot of paper!) to come to a conclusion. The term “blind tiger” originates from the prohibition era, as another name for a speakeasy. The owner of the establishment would charge visitors to come see a “blind tiger” kept in the back room – and in addition to viewing the oddity, every paying customer also received a “free” drink (to be clear, nobody actually ever saw the “tiger”). Speakeasy roots felt reminiscent of the look, feel and closeness we want the agency to reflect.  We want the agency and our office to be a gathering spot for the community we believe so strongly in, and Blindtiger Design fit the bill.

ACB: Just how important do you think craft beer branding is today?

When the craft beer industry was in its infancy, the shelves were sparing, craft brands were rare and often novelty, and drinkers were loyal but few and far between. The old school industry founders, like Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and Stone, faced a different crowd with different expectations from craft beer brands. Beer drinkers were thirsty for variety, and the brand was a secondary element to the beer.

In the past decade, the number of craft breweries has nearly doubled to more than 3,000 (Brewer’s Association), and not only are the brewery owners more savvy, but so are the consumers. Craft beer drinkers have high expectations for what they are purchasing beyond simply drinking NOT corporate beer. Consumers want a connection with the brewery, an understanding of its story, and full experience of the beer’s personality.

Additionally, the craft beer community is unique – there is no community for orange juice, laundry detergent or crackers. It’s a product that is made with soul, drank with passion, and inspires camaraderie between beer lovers. It’s a culture. Craft beer drinkers are adventurous, drink craft for the full experience and appreciate the creativity the industry brings. There’s a freedom and playfulness in beer you don’t see in any other industry.

Even though there are thousands of companies working toward the same goal – making great beer – every single brewery has a unique story that should be told in its own way, and consumers crave the story. A strong, recognizable, and genuine brand is key to helping a craft beer not only make it into a customer’s hand for the first time, but keeps beer drinkers coming back for more.

ACB: How do you come up with brewery’s design to begin with…Do you normally start with a blank slate – or do new breweries come to you knowing where they want to go?

Every brewery is unique, and so is our process with them. Branding a brewery isn’t like ordering off a menu, so neither is our approach. The single uniting undercurrent of every client relationship we have is believing we are truly partners with each of them, and we want to be a resource for all stages of running a craft brewery, from starting up to full-scale brand refreshes.

Some breweries come to us with a vision for what they aspire their brand to be, some breweries know what they don’t want to be, and some simply love the art of making great beer and need a simple brand that reflects that. Our team is flexible, dynamic and meets breweries where they are, helping guide them to where they need and want to be.

ACB: Over time artists can unintentionally show stylistic tendencies. Musicians write songs reminiscent of earlier hits. Actors and actresses inadvertently parody past performances. The brewery designs that Blindtiger Design has done in the past, couldn’t be more diverse…How does a company like yours keep things fresh and unique?

One of the key values of Blindtiger Design as an agency is we pride ourselves on not having a signature “style.” In our 12+ years in the industry, we’ve seen design trends come and go, like the rise of the “hipster” badge logo, crazy artistic art for each beer versus clean and modern pops of color, and of course – oval logos. A lot of similar design can happen when influenced by trends or positive customer feedback. We take on each project individually, and start from the ground up to truly represent a brewery’s story. And since no two are the same, each brand in our portfolio is specialized and individual.  

One of the biggest challenges we face with our clients is the misconception that a logo makes a brand. A logo is important, but it’s ultimately a single element of a brand. A brand is a feeling, an experience, and a collaboration of elements that make a brewery more than just a beer manufacturer. It’s everything from the fonts used on the sampler menu, the foil lettering on the growler and the graphic elements used on banners, all the way to the way brewers talk about their beer. Far too often we see people think that putting hops on a banner makes it a beer logo. We work with breweries to push further and communicate – and differentiate – in every aspect of their business.

ACB: The growth of craft beer has led to an explosion of new businesses, such as yours, that support it in different ways Are there a lot of companies out there nowadays doing what BLINDTIGER Design does? Can we expect to see more companies like yours in the future?

Today, Blindtiger Design is the only craft beverage, food and indulgence-focused strategy, branding and marketing agency with full service offerings spanning from start-up branding, packaging, and merchandise all the way to business plan consultation, off-site brand management and web design.

We love looking at the work of talented artists and designers who produce awesome packaging, and we love seeing new work on the shelves. As active members of the beer community, we support other designers who love and support the industry as much as we do.

ACB: Seattle is a great craft beer town. Can we get you to give up some of your favorite breweries and beers in the city?

What a question! We’re privileged to work with some of the best breweries in the northwest, and picking a favorite is like picking your favorite child. Of the beer spots we don’t work with, my two favorites are the Beverage Place, also know as the “BP,” and Chuck’s Hop Shop. The “BP” is a great support for local breweries, has an excellent selection of beers with bartenders that have an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to talking beer and a space that is comfortable and welcoming. Chuck’s Hop Shop is a true reflection of the communal aspect of beer culture. My family can be found on any night of the week there trying the latest beers on tap and hanging out with folks from the neighborhood and their dogs. My kids request going there because of their awesome ice cream selection! I am always on the lookout for a new great spot, and of course great beer, but a sense of community will always draw me back in.


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