Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Now, I guess we know why.
This week, Anchor unveiled the most drastic rebrand in its 125-year history. The immediate reaction was a mix of shock and alarm, followed up shortly after by some vigorous defence. Love it or hate it, it has become one of the most talked about, argued about rebrands in craft beer history.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate brands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. This folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other craft beer pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was over forty years ago, though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh, there’s no doubt about that. Having accepted that, there are two basic stages to the process:
- Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
- Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design in a crowd. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as ‘Anchor Steam Beer’ and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the recent Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
The second reason is that I think Anchor has drawn the wrong conclusion from the correct analysis, that conclusion being: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to look like one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
It’s the same for other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, who all remain contemporary and yet true to their roots at the same time.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the key elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making them stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference to Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.”
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name, which is by no means certain). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice.
The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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