Brand Identity (Part 1)

I was recently in the LCBO and came upon some familiar Grand River Brewing products: Dogstalker April Bock and Ploughman’s Ale. Both are quality products which I’ve had and enjoyed. Unfamiliar to me, however, were the labels. Grand River Brewing has, for some time now, had a very distinctive set of labels. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they were immediately identifiable. To me, they had a certain ‘homespun’ appeal: block letters with a simple, cream background cut at an angle with a different colour palate for each beer.

Now though, the label for some products (the Russian Gun still seems to sit resolutely in the old packaging) has been replaced with a more approachable, but dare I say, generic look. We now have coloured font over a black and white image vaguely related to the theme (a picture of a hound in the case of the Dogstalker), with a new “GLB” logo cresting the package. It’s definitely professional looking, but I honestly had to do a double take to ensure it was the right beer.

At first, several severe thoughts went through my head: Have they been bought out? Are they under new management? Have they changed the recipe? I was pleased to learn it was none of these. Apparently, they just wanted a new look. The look is apparently so new they haven’t bothered to update the labels on the website.

On the walk home, my wife endured a rant about the change and rightly asked “what’s wrong with the new label?” At first I found I was unable to put it into words, but then it came to me: the new label just doesn’t match the “vibe” of the brewery (for me). I liked the slight hokey nature of the old ones; they went well with the purposefully anti-fad nature of the products. Whereas every new start-up brewery has to come up with a ultra-clever name and an urbane, modernist logo, Grand River seemed to celebrate its small town roots and a certain old-fashioned way of doing things.

They do not produce beers with 100 IBUs. Even their heavy hitter, the Russian Gun Imperial Stout comes in at a relatively modest 8.5% and has some unique additives such as molasses and spices. Clearly then, they are not aiming to compete with more modern, extreme brewers like, for instance, Bellwoods Brewery whose labels are highly individualized. It must be recognized that both breweries do share one aspect: a unique bottle design. While both are 500 ml, Grand River opts for a more stout, shorter bottle rather than the elongated Bellwoods type. In this respect, it must be noted that Grand River has retained some of its identity even with the label switch.

This is not to say breweries should never change their look. Wellington has experienced massive success with the new boot design and dramatic colour palates over the slightly austere portrait label of years past. But in this case, the new design did something to reinforce the brand’s identity. The “try a Welly on” campaign and “re-Booted” series reinforced the association with the product. They had created something unique to them.

Similarly, Highlander Brewing recently re-formatted their labels to have a more uniform appearance while keeping aspects of the old label in each design. The result was a much more cohesive platform that stands out as a brand, but carries over the familiarity of the older labels.

Indeed, an established company might even re-invent itself to experience more success. Muskoka Brewery was (and technically still is, from what I gather) known as Muskoka Cottage Brewery. It featured a fairly conservative line-up of beers with fairly unassuming labels. Muskoka has since streamlined its look to the sleek, slightly retro Muskoka chair logo and dropped the ‘Cottage’ from its name. This coincided with a new main-line aggressive IPA. Now, Muskoka is perhaps best known for its hoppy ales and seasonals and has since expanded operations.

I use Grand River simply to illustrate some of the unique issues surrounding branding. I still heartily recommend any of the beers in their range as each is a fairly strong representation of its given style. My fear is not that this will change anything about their product, but rather that it might hinder their ability to stand out from other brewery’s offerings which may be more instantly recognizable.

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