Posted: 14/01/2022

How new wave food & drink branding is tearing up tradition

FFD explores how new wave branding is being applied to traditional food & drink – like beer, wine and coffee – to engage with the modern consumer.

Whether through vibrant colour, hand-drawn typefaces or disruptive messaging, food & drink packaging has taken a dynamic new turn in recent years. With heritage branding taking something of a backseat, a new wave of creative direction has been catching the eye in the retail and direct-to-consumer space. 

However, while many innovative products are arriving on the market with exciting packaging and Millennial appeal – particularly in the free-from sector – a fresh approach is also being applied to existing categories.

Illustrator Nick Dwyer is arguably responsible for something of a revolution when it comes to how beer is now marketed. His iconic label designs for London’s Beavertown Brewery feature a nostalgic sci-fi theme, populated with spaceships and ray guns, to deliver a unique and powerfully recognisable artistic vision.

“I studied illustration, so I don’t have the rules and principles of branding and design,” says Dwyer, who ditched the traditional beer label approach in favour of complete pieces of art that wrap around the can. This move catapulted the brewery’s status in the then-burgeoning craft beer scene, with core products like Gamma Ray and Neck Oil now prominent on shelves across the country. 

“It meant that we didn’t need to do any advertising, and hardly any marketing, as we had these bright labels that weren’t actually based on trying to sell beer at all,” he says. 

Dwyer adds that the success of Beavertown’s aesthetic approach is not down to a wholesale change in consumer habits, more of a generational shift.

“Slightly older generations of consumers and producers are used to what they see and it’s hard for them to demagnetize,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, and you can do some great marketing that’s relatively low risk there. But there’s a generation coming through that’s had enough of that.”

As producers look towards new markets, it’s clear that newer breeds of consumer are having to be considered. Wine is a category where labelling is currently experiencing substantial innovation. “Wine has for a long time been stigmatised as being elitist and pretentious,” says Sergio Verrillo, co-founder of Battersea’s Blackbook Winery. “I think modern wine has helped break down those barriers, and part of that journey is younger wine enthusiasts looking for things that appeal to them.” 

But Verillo, whose output includes Slow Disco Sauvignon Blanc and Trouble Every Day Pinot Noir, says that exciting branding still needs to be balanced with other aspects.

“Look, it’s great to have the consumer being brought in by aesthetics, but it needs to be backed up by quality,” he says. “You need that association to be positive. For us, we’re an English producer first, and we really need to have the liquid in the bottle be the champion.”

When looking at the rebellious approach to food & drink branding, it’s easy to draw deeper connections between it and the attitude of the original punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s. Right now, there’s also a wave of brands standing for equality and social injustice, which is further broadening the scope of what succesful branding looks like. 

Fi O’Brien set up Girls Who Grind Coffee in Somerset with her business partner Casey LaLonde in 2017. Their business is built on strengthening the empowerment of women throughout the coffee industry, with their coffees all bearing the name of the female producer prominently – even ahead of the country of origin.

When discussing the rise of brands that have a moral objective, O’Brien warns that ethical messages need to be conveyed carefully and clearly to distinguish them from the crowd. 

“If everyone’s saying the same thing, whether it’s charitable, or sustainable, the consumer can get a bit numb,” she says. “I know firsthand on social media that if you go in too heavy on what you’re trying to say, people scroll right past.”

O’Brien has a unique insight thanks to an extensive background in advertising, branding and art direction. 

“It really needs to be a shelf disruptor,” she says. “When we started Girls Who Grind, there was a lot of brown bags and simple black designs everywhere.

“It was all very masculine, and I wanted to do something that didn’t look like coffee at all. I wanted it to be bright, illustration-led and have a bit of a punk ethos. Hence we don’t shy away from swearing on our packaging.”

The punk subculture of the ‘70s stood against the mainstream status quo with tactics to provoke and be noticed. These responses are now highly sought-after in the retail environment. By taking a fresh approach to how food & drink is being presented, producers are proving that the market is ready for a more unconventional approach to branding – but perhaps with a little less anarchy.

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