RUNT. The Brewing of a Brand (Recap)
We always bring beer to RUNT. You could call it one of our “core values.”
On May 17, at Downstream in NW Portland, we doubled down on suds. Not only did we bring along [a lot] more beers, but the brewers and branders behind them as well: Buoy Beer Company Co-founder David Kroening, Creative Director Dave Waite of Zookeeper, Base Camp Brewing Company Co-founder Joseph Dallas, The Commons Brewery Brand Manager Josh Grgas, and Gigantic Brewing Company Strategic Partner Matt Wagner.
Each was on-hand to tell us how their beer brand came to be–from deciding on a name and logo to what segment of beer drinkers they’d target. In the beer business, nothing earns loyalty like a great tasting beer (Bud Light being the exception to the rule), but thirsty beer aisle perusers won’t grab your six pack in the first place if the logo and branding don’t speak their language.
David Kroenig – Buoy Beer Company
Dave’s been supplying RUNT with beverages for awhile now, so giving him some stage time was long overdue. It doesn’t hurt that their beer’s delicious, either.
At the core of Buoy’s message has always been the city of Astoria, but it took several periods of brainstorming and iteration before the red and blue rendition of their namesake came together.
“Breweries are expensive!”
“Breweries are expensive!” Dave remarked, adding that securing funding was one of the hardest parts of starting Buoy. As they found out, having a well-considered brand goes a long way towards getting people to buy in.
Dave originally came to the branding folks at Grady Britton with the name “River Barrel Brewing” and a strong desire for a green logo. Some back-and-forth, “a few scotches” and time spent absorbing their expertise later, Buoy’s titular buoy was born.
Soon as Dave saw the result of their work, he was sold, in no small part because it kept Astoria’s character and maritime roots at the forefront. “That’s really what we were trying to embody,” he said.
Dave Waite – Stormbreaker Brewing
In 1999, Mr. Waite founded Zookeeper, a strategic branding agency for which he serves as Creative Director. The firm began its life in Portland, where Dave lived for 11 years, before both migrated down to sunny Los Angeles. So when the folks at (what’s now called) StormBreaker Brewing approached him for help developing identity and messaging, it was something of a homecoming.
“StormBreaker” was one of several names to come out of their brainstorming sessions. It’s a lesser used, but completely badass, nickname for Mt. Hood: the potentially-active stratovolcano just outside Portland.
Mt. Hood is a formidable figure in the city’s skyline, a vibe embodied by the “mythical” pickaxe wielder than adorns StormBreaker’s bottles and taps. The mountain itself is utilized as a complementary element; in a similar way to Buoy, it’s a tribute to the brewery’s geographic origins.
As a result of Dave’s branding work, StormBreaker reports that apparel has become a major source of revenue for them. That’s a nice bonus, and a whole lot of free advertising.
Joseph Dallas – Basecamp Brewing Company
“I feel like a bit of an outsider in a group like this,” Joey said almost immediately. He’s not a brander by trade; Basecamp Brewing Company has always been principally concerned with friends, family, and serving good beers.
“For us it was always beer first,” he said. In the beginning, Basecamp was more focused on how to support the brewery’s staff and build infrastructure to distribute their beer. Branding and marketing fell by the wayside.
When the time came to bottle their creations, signature elements began to emerge thanks in no small part to the efforts of IGNITE, a branding agency that’s solely focused on the craft beverage industry. Together, they identified colorful, aluminum bottles as a way to stand out on store shelves. Even then, there were hurdles in implementing their plan.
The team at Basecamp came to realize “where design ends and the real world begins,” Joey remarked. The company that manufactures their bottles also does work for AXE Bodyspray and Bud Light. “They’re used to orders in the millions.” A far cry from Basecamp’s initial run of a few thousand.
Ironing out the logistics allowed Joey and his team to focus on the part they really enjoy: imbuing Basecamp’s space and branding with small touches that speak to the company’s roots. Their taphouse is full of topographic maps of the area, and hardware from last summer’s river trip are featured prominently.
Josh Grgas – The Commons Brewery
First things first about Josh–you can tell immediately how serious he is about beer. Don’t get me wrong–there were no slouch brewers at RUNT–but you could tell from the way Josh spoke about The Commons that craft brewing is at the heart of their branding, taproom experience and professional motivations.
“We started as a brewery in a garage and a backyard,” he said, recalling the single-barrel homebrewing setup with which they produced beer commercially for more than a year. These days, this is a common entry point for craft breweries, but five years ago the path was novel and perilous.
The idea for The Commons came to Josh while he sat drinking a bottle of Duvel. He conceptualized it as a celebration of the Belgian brewing style, a counterpoint to the IPA-saturated craft market (particularly in the Pacific NW). He bought a one-way ticket to Portland and hasn’t looked back.
“We wanted to make an approachable beer, and our branding should reflect that.”
Fast forward a couple years and positive response demanded that The Commons open their first taphouse. Keeping true to the values of Belgian brewing, approachability was their key differentiator here too.
“We wanted to make an approachable beer, and our branding should reflect that,” Josh said. Their first space had no overt signage, no pitchers, and absolutely no IPAs. This turned a few customers off, but the team remained mindful of who they were doing this for.
“We don’t have ambitions to become a huge brewery,” Josh said. Instead, their space allows folks to stand amongst the equipment and speak directly to brewers, facilitating a “connection to craft”.
Eventually, positive response once again demanded that The Commons expand their space. “We were a beer geek’s brewery that they were comfortable introducing to their friends & families,” Josh remembered, “but we needed to grow.” They secured some choice real estate in SE Portland, and even adorned it with prominent signage!
Regardless of size, their core question remains: “If this is the first Commons Brewery beer someone has, are they gonna get another one?”
Matt Wagner – Gigantic Brewing Company
Matt’s path to the beer business is equally unique. As an artist and gallery curator, his eye informs Gigantic Brewing Company’s claim to fame: their unique labels.
“Each label is made one time and used one time,” he said. Gigantic frequently gets requests for second runs of their most popular designs, but that won’t happen. “It’s never coming back.”
Their design department operates a little bit like a small record label. For each bottle design, they contract an artist and pay them a licensing fee. Each piece of artwork is drawn, painted or etched by hand–nothing is composed digitally. This loyalty to each artist’s process has attracted the attention of a wide swathe of contributors, including Bob’s Burgers artist Jay Howell (as one audience member correctly identified).
Gigantic’s avant garde approach wouldn’t work if they didn’t have the beer to back it up. “You don’t have to try and sell something that’s already great,” Matt said. “If you put a great piece of art on it, it just enhances the flavor.”
When the desires of the artist and those of the marketing department conflict, Gigantic tends to lean towards the artists.
“We’ve yet to turn down a label,” Matt said, remembering that the marketing folks hated the idea of a black-and-white label (it went on to be one of their best sellers). “We hit a niche and people have gotten it.”
You can check out more photos from RUNT. The Brewing of a Brand on Facebook, and keep an eye out for future gatherings on our events page. Next time it’ll be white wine only (jk jk).
About RUNT. never underestimate.
A professional development series from The Creative Party and Mathys+Potestio, RUNT is about positioning creatives for success in their careers by providing tools and knowledge to excel. Often, the only thing holding people back is themselves. From this series, you’ll gain insights to give you the confidence to achieve your professional goals in the creative services world.
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