August 25, 2010

Three Label Designs By Terrapin and Sam Adams

Terrapin and Sam Adams have both provided me with some fodder recently. I thought, given how different the breweries and businesses are, it might make a decent contrast for the post.

Terrapin, as you may remember, is the Atlanta college suburb of Athens, and uses tons of bright color, bold flavors, collaborations and different artists for their work. The challenge there, of course, is consistent branding in the midst of variety.
First, I love any beer that references Outkast in its name. Second, you have to give them credit for sticking to their guns. That's the greenest label I may ever have seen. Nice use of limited red and blue to make the green that much more intense. Like a lot of Terrapin's art, I'm not sure it's something I want to look at for a long time, but it's effective.

You may remember their efforts to raise some money of the rebuilding of the Georgia Theatre. Here is their third in the four-beer series, Sound Czech:
Similar to the others, with a theatre theme, bottom and top bars of images, and strong compositional elements to highlight the framed character. The speakers work well as an outside-the-frame piece, and the olive color makes the red and yellow stand out.

Here's a piece by Richard Biffle, who does some of Terrapin's work.
It's an adorable farmer turtle with pumpkins. Nice use of the fall and sepia tones to create an appropriate mood.

Okay, so as small, Southern, varied and loud as Terrapin is, Boston Beer Company (d/b/a Sam Adams) is (by craft beer standards) enormous, corporate, Northeast, and conservative.

The Sam Adams look has not changed much at all in it's 25-year history. So you can imagine my interest when they unveiled a new look for their Imperial Series. For these, it's best to look at them all at once:
As you can see, the labels are carefully constructed and designed to appear as one. They use a historic look (no Outkast references here) appropriate for a beer named after a 18th Century patriot. The most obvious choice is the composition they all have in common, an off-center black field with old-style lettering on the left, and a pencil outline image in a circle, surrounded by a darker shade of the background color on the right.

The back label looks like this:
In art, as in beer, there's a temptation to say that bigger is better. Certainly, I've mentioned this in the past, and a quick look at the top beer list for BeerAdvocate or Ratebeer will conclude that more hops, more flavor, more outlandish ingredients, and more ABV equal better in many drinkers' minds.

But just as in beer, that reasoning is lazy, wrongheaded, and - if we stop and think about it for a minute - the very definition of unsophisticated. Are none of the 50 best beers in the world lagers? Most serious beer people would say "of course not." And similarly, while there is value in diverse style and bright character that jumps off the shelf, there is also value in controlled, subdued design (remember Samurai Artist's work yesterday).

The key is picking virtues appropriate for the medium and subject. A massive, hoppy explosion can be good for a double IPA but would make a crappy kolsch. Likewise, Outkast references would not add life to Sam Adams' beers, they would dilute a hard-built brand and potentially confuse consumers. Meanwhile, if Terrapin were to buckle down, use one artist and keep everything in the same tightly controlled composition and brand standards, it would not solidify the brand, it would remove the vibrancy that is so crucial to the company's character.

So we have two totally different label arrays by two totally different breweries, and we therefore see two totally different - and equally effective - strategies for branching out from existing brands.


  1. I'm not sure I like the font Sam Adams used for the beer names. While it fits the antiquated theme they were going for, I find it hard to read. I think it has to do with the spacing and the white 3-D border.

  2. That is a good point. They're not too bad as digital images blown up like this, but on the bottle they could definitely push the border of hard to read. It could be the spacing, which is narrow. The points in the middle of each letter create an optical illusion of a line down the middle of the word, which confuses the lettering further.

    Of course, one could argue that Sam Adams has the brand power sufficient to trust people to take a minute to read the label, unlike a small brewery that would have to worry about losing a customer to the brand next on the shelf.

  3. Its interesting that they chose to make the beer name more prominent then the company name. Its usually the other way around.

    They definitely have the brand power, but could it be too small? I probably splitting hairs.

  4. Don't forget that it'll have the usual neck label, the cap, and be in a Sam Adams six/case most of the time. My guess is there's little chance we'd not know who brewed it, but I'll look the next time I'm at a bottle shop.

    Remember also that Sam has a bit of mixed reputation in the hardcore craft beer community, at whom these beers are definitely aimed, so it's possible a little bit of distancing from their usual brand is intentional.