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Is there trouble ahead for the cult of craft?

Nobody, from the smallest, most lovingly curated one-man operation to the world’s most powerful CEO, would deny that craft is the big story in drinks branding and marketing at the moment, but is it heading for a fall and what, if anything, could take its place? writes Tom Hearn, business director at Nude Brand Creation.

Obsessed, bearded men concoct beers out of unlikely ingredients in basements; local gin brands spring up like mushrooms. Big corporations could buy up the most successful craft companies, or create brands that draw on the sensibility of craft. The question is, can a trend that’s intended to be anti-big brand be co-opted without risk, and if so, how can brands do it right?

But of course being a craft brand isn’t about size: it’s an attitude, a passion for quality and a drive for authenticity. The truth is both big brands and small brands employ people with these qualities, but with big brands these inspiring stories are often hidden behind the scale of the organisation. Bringing the story of the people behind the big brands to the fore is how to communicate their craft qualities.

Easy come, easy go?

One important question brands need to ask is whether craft is actually a trend? Could this just be the normalisation of the business structure which has been around since forever, which sees a product start small, then grow, then get bought out or become a corporation? And if craft is actually a trend, should a brand lock itself into something so potentially transient?

One of the important issues to consider is local versus global. Craft brands sell themselves on being very local indeed. That’s why names are often location-based: Camden Brewery, Meantime Brewery, the City of London Gin Distillery, Brighton Gin. Design can then proceed organically from this focus on place: a silhouette of London, a Brighton train ticket, the City of London’s coat of arms. There can be a seal of authenticity, sometimes a literal one (Brighton Gin’s stopper is dipped in distinctive turquoise wax).

All of this is great. But it can sometimes backfire if that brand is bought by a big player, who then understandably tries to keep the craft look and feel that made the product such an enticing purchase in the first place. The real danger here is that the consumer may feel misled. This problem is very much a sign of the times: we all value local, and want the authentic taste of a place. But to thrive, a company needs international sales – not a problem that medieval brewers or distillers had to contend with.

Authenticity is the Answer

And there is the real tension – not between big business and small, but between local and global. We all want the feel of local, with the reach of global, and an astute and talented design team can provide this. First, by knowing the codes that reassure the consumer that the product they are buying is authentic. And second, by telling it like it is, via the packaging, with a focus not on localism, but on quality.

Because the answer is in the bottle. Behind every great product, however big or small the producer, is a person or a team of people who really care. They want the best ingredients and to follow best process. They are thrilled to see their products on shelves and to feel, via sales figures or social media, the love of loyal customers. They are craftspeople even when they work for Big Business. And a good designer’s job is to bring out their commitment and their palate by every means possible.

Value never tarnishes

If you stand up for quality, do things differently and maintain your values, then you can be a craft producer no matter what your size – and it’s up to the people who design and create your brand to make that clear to the consumer. Being able to do something in your basement is great – as long as it’s a top product, made with passion and commitment. But it’s the passion and commitment, not the basement, that count.

Scotch whisky is a case in point. You simply can’t make it on your own at home – yet in the last 200 years, Johnny Walker has had fewer master distillers than we’ve had British monarchs. And Diageo even describes Johnny Walker as “the largest craft company in the world.” The same applies to The Glenlivet: Master Distiller Alan Winchester has been there over 40 years, honing his expertise and stoking his lifelong passion. He is a craftsman – and when we came on board, we knew that that was the story that needed to be told.

Honesty is the best policy

There is no legal definition of craft, although The American Craft Distilling Association (formed in 2012) defines craft distillers as those whose annual production of distilled spirits from all sources does not exceed 100,000 ‘proof gallons’ removed from bond (the amount on which excise taxes are paid). This works out to about 50,000 cases at most, which means bigger distilleries wouldn’t qualify. But as more and more boutique distilleries open, in England and across the Atlantic, the pressure to learn from craft beers’ failures and successes grows. As it becomes hard to tell the little guys from the big guys, and craft becomes the most overused word in the English language, the spirits market is learning that it’s possible to go too far down the quirky, edgy route – particularly when everybody else is doing the same thing.

If you’re a big brand, then associating yourself with a trend that is all about the little guy versus the big guy is dangerous – it could be seen as dishonesty. But take the values that have become associated with craft – that sense of discovery and craftsmanship, that focus on people – and fold them into the brand and packaging story you’re telling, and nobody can accuse you of standing up for anything but quality.

Quality Always Wins

And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Most drinkers have only become so attached to the craft label because they crave quality. Give them a feeling of ownership of a quality brand, and loyalty follows. So Vodka company Our Berlin focussed on the neighbourhood, setting up a bar and employing local people who then felt that the brand was theirs to own, a method that has worked equally well elsewhere.

There was no need to talk about craft – people could see the values they associate with that word, right in front of them, literally on their doorstep. But it has to be genuine. Craft is passion, courage and personal involvement, which exists in small start-ups and in big brands. It isn’t about size. It’s about communicating the quality of the product to the consumer and telling the story of the inspiring craftspeople behind a brand, whether that’s working with a big global brand or small scale individual and entrepreneur.




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