June 15, 2011

The Many Designs of Samuel Adams

Boston Beer Company is the largest craft brewery in the country, and so produces a lot of design. Among hardcore craft beer geeks, I've been surprised at how much disdain gets thrown their way, considering I've always found their beer to be well-crafted and they've been incredibly good corporate citizens (recently, they've started an entire lending program to aid small breweries).

Part of it, I'm sure, is that the more experimental Sam Adams beers do not reach everyone, and the flagship beers like the Boston Lager or the Noble Pils are often anathema to hop heads. From a branding perspective, Sam Adams is (obviously) focused on tradition and history. Compare the punk motifs of 3Floyds or the gargoyles of Stone with the work of Boston Beer's artist Dahl Taylor (currently artist of the imperial series), whose landscapes and portraits are straight out of Winslow Homer. And then there's always the fact that it is in many craft beer drinkers' nature to look for the next small, new thing, and so a large, 25-year-old, successful, consistent brewery can strike some as unsexy.

From a design and branding standpoint, though, Sam Adams is an interesting case for us, because, like few other breweries, they have:

  • Lots of beers and many product lines into which they fit
  • Relatively unlimited resources when it comes to marketing
  • To balance building a national brand among people who are largely new to craft beer with a portfolio of interesting and experimental beers aimed at existing market

There are seven labels here, but they really represent only three or four design styles that Boston Beer uses. As one would expect from the largest craft brewery in America, Sam Adams is an expert at designing very distinct looks for each of its lines, which makes for a kind of mini-brand within the larger beer company.

First, let's look at the basic Sam template, here displayed by a slight tweak in the seasonal label for the Revolutionary Rye:
You recognize the shape, which is two trapezoids stapled to an oval, and the internal frame with a ribbon banner and large lettering of the brewery, which is the dominant branding element. The art in the background is there for those of us looking for it, and is often intricate and interesting, but it's only an accent. The point of most Sam design is the branding, which makes perfect sense, again, for a large craft brewery with national reach and branding to consider.

Okay, so now that we have that. here some labels for their series of oak-aged beers; here are the label works for the New World Tripel and the 13th Hour Stout.

Both pull heavily on historical looks, the New World more of a nautical theme and the stout a industrial revolution-era clock, and both use a similar design layout, with an right-center large circle and design spreading out. The use of one light color on black, with just one more added for the banner keeps the design clean but eye-catching, and the asymmetric layout and scattered elements keep the image dynamic and give the impression of movement. These labels are pretty far afield from the standard Sam labels, so we know we're in for something quite different from a Boston Lager.

The Sam seasonals and one-offs tend to use a much more traditional motif, with their familiar label shape, a round window, and a banner through the middle.
Both the Rustic Saison and the East-West Kolsch labels use a hazy image to conjure feelings of warm weather and summer. In both cases, the huge banner that covers a great deal of the art furthers the effect, though I think we lose a little too much of the image. The layout is familiar enough that we know the beer will be fairly close to the usual Sam Adams characteristics, but the art suggests the beer will be of a richer, less finished character.

I've looked at some Imperial Series labels before, but here are two more:
Again we see the one major color, with a black background and heavy all-caps medieval text on the left third or so of the label. Interestingly, the Double Red adds a second color for the trunk of the tree. The die-cut of the label is the same shape as standard Sam labels, but almost nothing else is. These beers might as well be produced by a different brewery. Unlike the barrel-aged ones we saw above, there's no central, colored version of the "Samuel Adams" wordmark; all we have is the black stamp on the upper part of the image. The Double Red is a little more successful, but in both cases I feel like the art is overpowered by the design and the huge black field on the left.

As you can see, Sam Adams plays with their design a great deal in an attempt to balance multiple aims. Generally, I think they do a great job of walking the fine lines between brand consistency and variety. There are certainly multiple ways to do this (see, for example, Stone, Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada, who all use different strategies), but I'd call Boston Beer Company's the most professional of the bunch.

Ed. note: 
I actually requested to do an interview with their art and design department about the challenges they face, but the request was denied. I'll admit I was bummed (and I am now even more envious of our friends at Lost in the Beer Aisle), but as I've said before, this industry is full of overextended people with not enough time, so I try not to take such things personally.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't seen the Imperial Series or Oak Aged Series labels you showed, but I like them way better than the others.

    The Revolutionary Rye, for example, buries a great piece of art behind that stupid ribbon banner and those seasonals with the blurry unknown scenes again behind that enormous branding is terrible.