Good Beer Hunting

Pieces of Flair — How the Evolution of Beer Packaging Expresses Intent


Today’s consumers are smart. We watch, we listen, we talk. We know things. When we don’t, palm-sized computers fill in the blanks. There’s no fooling us.

And yet, even with a seemingly never-ending amount of information and opinion to sort through, American consumers still want more. We have become the ultimate skeptics in matters of life that have the ability to plague us most: the financial ones.

There’s a matter of pride in showing in-depth interest in products and manufacturers. The comedy show Portlandia famously skewered this in a 2011 sketch based around the question, “Is this chicken local?

It’s a delicate balance for consumers, where lack of faith is treated with its true panacea of information and honesty. To best succeed in this current age of marketing, we enlist stories, data, and buzzwords to combat cynicism.

Whether at a bar or bottle shop, roughly three-quarters of beer buyers don’t know what they’ll purchase until they’re literally faced with options. This is why owners, marketers, and brewers themselves can be proactive in making their product stand out on the shelf through small acts of independence.


At the core of what many customers now seek in their products and purchases is validation to the authentic. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein joke about their chicken in Portlandia, but restaurants all over see “local” and “organic” as a better way to promote their menu options. In the real world, this has appeared in the explosion of farmers markets in the past 25 years, the number of registered markets growing by more than four times over in that timespan. On the beer side, one might consider the rise of the neighborhood taproom and what it means within the beer business.

In a 2017 study by market research company Nielsen and media organization Brewbound, research highlighted a collection of words that hold cultural and consumer cache, from specific hop varieties to broad themes of personal value. Atop the list of most-familiar terms in beer marketing were “independent” and “independently owned,” a nod at the consistent messaging employed by the Brewers Association to more acutely define a “craft” brewer. Third on the list of familiar terms was “traditional,” another BA buzzword.

However, just because a word was familiar didn’t necessarily mean it would affect interest or purchase behavior, according to a recap by Brewbound’s Justin Kendall:

“Even though consumers say they understand the terms 'independent' and 'independently owned,' there remains the question of whether they actually know about ownership changes and if those would actually affect their purchasing decisions, Brager said. For example, did consumers who said they would stop purchasing Wicked Weed’s beer following Anheuser-Busch InBev’s acquisition of the Asheville, North Carolina, brewery actually follow through with that promise? Even so, if a brewery operates outside of its parent company, it may matter to consumers.”

As it turns out, the four most likely words to increase purchase influence, according to the survey, were "independent" or "independently owned," "traditional," "limited edition" and "West Coast (IPA).” Pieced together, these words should be seen as a collection of emotional cues not tied to the Brewers Association and its message (though that certainly helps), but a consumer drive to find greater authenticity and meaning in what they buy.

This is not new. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Business Research, faculty from UK and Australian universities found three dimensions to perceived authenticity came from aspects of heritage, sincerity, and commitment to quality.

“A significant proportion of the variation in a consumer's intention to purchase a brand is accounted for by the components of brand authenticity,” researchers wrote. Additionally, more recent work published this year in Food Research International, attributes of “artisan” and “high quality” were statistically significant in words and imagery when determining perceived value of bags of potato chips, both expected connections to feelings of what is “authentic.”

Across sectors of consumerism, there is a uniquely modern attempt to find “authenticity” in behavior and brand choice. In beer, it’s easy to point at “buy local” movements and rising sales at brewery taprooms as a function of this. Nearly 10% of BA-defined “craft” beer is now sold at breweries. Authenticity in all its forms is applicable as a means to market and sell beer.


When it comes to beer, words like “hoppy” and “sour” are among the most-used terms on social media, according to that 2017 study by Nielsen and Brewbound, while most positive discussions came from “balanced,” “citrus,” “collaboration,” “limited edition,” “piney,” “tropical,” and “traditional.” Fittingly, this information builds on previous research highlighting the power of persuasion in food and drink.

Until now, there has been relatively little research in regard to beer, though that’s slowly changing. When it comes to finding studies of worth, it simply means that, for the time being, looking at other products can provide an ideal parallel to some of the things we’re more definitively learning about now. For example, previous research has shown how packaging can influence expectations and emotional responses through labeling, price, and imagery.

This combination was put to great use in 2016 by Almanac for its short-lived “San Francisco IPA” cans, which came in packaging that not only prominently displayed the trendy hops used to make the beer, but also proclaimed how it was bound to be a drinker’s “new favorite IPA.” It was a brilliant move when considering that sensory cues from a beer are powerful, but as an experiential good that must cross a threshold of interest and expectation before ever being tasted, packaging cues can be more influential than sensory attributes alone.

In the case of wine, a 2017 study by Australian researchers showed that when providing elaborate information on wine samples, participants showed “significantly higher expected liking ratings” compared to more basic descriptions, explaining that “information can not only influence consumers’ wine choice, but also changes the overall consumption experience.” An earlier study in 2014 showed a connection between hop levels, sensory expectations, and willingness to pay for a beer, so when considering results of the Nielsen/Brewbound survey, it would behoove breweries to pay attention to the fact that “hoppy” and “citrus/citrusy” were familiar terms. Based on other work, they could also be phrases that separate one product—and its expected levels of pleasure—from another.


Given the wide range of brand refreshes and full-on re-dos in recent years, it’s clear that breweries understand the importance of physical marketing and how that plays to consumers. These changes are ideal in the way they provide a new excuse for consumers to pause when spotting a brand, but they can also align with many proven aspects of marketing. The rollout of Tröegs’ new look hit on all of the above.

“We used the labels to give you a cue about what you’re about to taste: Each of our beers generally has one specific thing we’re trying to focus on. For instance, DreamWeaver now has a field of wheat. The new label will take that concept but put more focus on the wheat itself,” Tröegs’ co-founder Chris Trogner told All About Beer. “We’re trying to simplify [the designs] to highlight the key flavor or aroma in the beer.”

These kinds of actions seem simple in hindsight, but practical changes are able to easily communicate messages to consumers, presumably connecting the brewery and buyer on levels of interest and expectation. Even changes that reflect modern trends, such as Tröegs’ shift from “independent craft brewery” to “independent brewery” have reverberations that can directly connect with the values of today’s drinkers.

Where these buzzwords and catchphrases meet is what needs consideration. Not just what the words are, or what they mean, but how they are combined to make someone feel. The marketplace for beer is getting ever more crowded and confusing, which is why it’s increasingly necessary to cut through the noise by connecting to consumer intention as much as a consumer’s purpose for picking up a six-pack in the first place. Or, to put it another way:

“The more informative your advertising," godfather of advertising David Ogilvy once said, "the more persuasive it will be.”

—Bryan Roth