Labels Matter (They Can Do More)

Eno Sarris, August 25, 2015

Labels matter, screams an advertisement out of the bottom corner of some website or another. The advertisement is for a marketing firm, of course, and the hook is that you can get a free document about good on-product marketing if you give them your information. 

I didn't. That isn't to say that I don't find it meaningful, it's just that there's some element of "I'll know it when I see it" in this space. 

Just recently, friends made two very stark statements about two different beer labels, very non-chalantly. 

"Buy this, don't look at the label, just buy it."

"Man that looks classy, I'd buy it without looking it up just because it looks so good."

The actual beers in question aren't represented below, but both breweries are, and the labels below represent them faithfully. The guess here is that you immediately know which one is which. 

I enjoyed both the Trillium pale and the Baeltane saison, but I might never have bought the second if someone hadn't implored me to. And the differences between the two are meaningful for your average small brewery, trying to market on the cheap. 

Let's use this free article on product labeling and marketing as a guide, just because the headers in this article are decent enough to use as a roadmap. 


These two labels are fine enough, but not all labels actually fulfill this part of their raison d'etre that well. If you asked me what the label needs to do from a function standpoint, it should list a few key things: 1) Style, 2) ABV, 3) Ingredients (non-specific is fine), 4) Born-on date, 5) Brewery location. I'd actually say very few breweries manage to have all five of these things, and yet, if you were going to ask me what the function of a label should be other than labeling the beer and brewery, it would be these five things. 


This is the "I know it when I smell it" portion of the label. Perhaps I didn't play enough dungeons and dragons to find the label on the right attractive, but that would be strange, because I played a lot of dungeons and dragons and read practically every fantasy novel I could get my hands on for a while there. I'm not particularly into old-school street lamps, either.

No, what's represented above is the growth we've made as a culture when it comes to graphic design. The one on the left is bold, beautiful, and attractive, because it picks one iconic element and focuses on it. Everything about the rest of the label -- the faded paper look, the old-school font,  the green and gold and grey color scheme, even the reserved brewery icon in this case -- is there to support that element. If there's a word, it's 'classy,' and all elements are to be classy. 

If we were to remake the one on the right, we could perhaps even do it with the elements that are there. Pick Rumplestiltskin's image as the center focus, zoom in on that image, and lose the borders. Borders remind us of the old internet. New design doesn't stop at the edges of the frame -- there's backstory behind everything you see, and all you are looking at is a snapshot. It might even be more effective to catch just his nose, hat, and fist, and let the rest fade into the background as part of the backstory. You could even keep the font. It's fairly mystical, if mystical is the word of the beer in this case. 

I don't have a degree in graphic design, but I do have a major in Art History and a history of drinking craft beers. If I were tasked with designing a beer, I'd first write the story of my beer. Then I'd pick one word from that story and try to find a matching element. Then I would zoom in on the the most important part of the element, and let the rest of the design flow from there. 


In the case of beer, there are very few sale items you'll want to put on the label. No buy one get two deals -- fairly sure most of those are illegal in this space. The article in question talks about how to use the product (fairly straight forward) and directions on how to make the product. In this case, I might use some space to talk about storage and light, particularly for the pale ale on the left. You could even talk about dry hopping and freshness. There's space! 


From the article, the following information helps facilitate a purchase decision: "Packaging may also contain ingredients and nutritional information about the product." Personally, I'd put that in function, but sure, I think a good listing of ABV and the hops (with some layword description of the hops) would really help people. Imagine if your mosaic IPA easily listed that it was a hoppy pale ale with a decent amount of alcohol, and that the mosaic hops imparted what most call a tropical fruit smell and taste on the beer. Even a lower-information craft buyer could navigate that sort of plain-language description of the ingredients on their own. Neither of these beers really does anything like that, but very few do. 


Although both of these beers impart a sense of style and backstory on the beer through their labels, you could say that both beers actually fail to go as far as they could in the matter of differentiation. I no longer have the Baeltane label in front of me, so perhaps it does this, but more breweries could use the back of the label to tell a story.

Take a look at a Stone beer label the next time you're shopping. Look at that text on the back. It doesn't facilitate buying directly, it doesn't usually tell you the most essential product information.

It does give you a story, and it gives you the words that will help shape your opinion of the product, and your review if you should review the beer. These stories tell you about the brewer of the beer, and when the idea struck them, and how the beer came to be, and how it has changed over the years, and what the beer means to the people at the brewery, and what tastes are in the beer. This is huge. 

Every beer buyer won't read it. They are even less likely to read it before they buy the beer. But craft beer drinking is a marathon, not a chug fest. There will be moments -- a lull in the converation, a pause before recycling, a minute taken before writing the review -- and in those moments, Stone has taken the space to differentiate themselves from other brewers, to tell you their story. This is what makes loyal customers, and this is what makes a strong brand. 

Maybe you don't love some of the images that Stone uses in their labels. Sometimes, they can be a bit macabre, and give you the whiff of your local tattoo artist. But the average Stone label is bold, it's border-free, it gives you a great plain-language idea of how the beer will taste, and it gives you a story that makes the beer feel important. 

It's a little unfair to compare any small brewery's label to one of the largest craft beer breweries in America. Stone has more money to spend on marketing, and has had more time to refine. But this isn't as much about scorekeeping as it is about realizing how important these decisions are, and how even great labels like those from Trillium have room to improve.