Booze-free branding: How to design beer brands for dry drinkers

As Dry January gains popularity in 2019, designers and brands tell us how they position small and alcohol-free beers to an uninitiated audience.

We've reported for a while now on Digital Arts on how the world of drinks branding is changing. The edgy look of craft beer has been taken on by supermarket own brands, and has even crossed over into the world of spirits branding. The multitude of new brands rising up from breweries across the world has pushed forward this visual sea change, but conversely the drinking lifestyle is changing too.

As more millennials go vegetarian (if not vegan), and yoga and gym-going continue to replace the post-work pint, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that beers both low in alcohol and completely devoid of it are rising in popularity. There are even websites like The Dry Drinker devoted to selling them, whilst the annual event of Dry January challenging drinkers to go teetotal for one month gets bigger each year. While there aren't beers with zero alcohol per se, those brews with a low ABV known as 'small' beers or table beers are increasingly becoming popular with those looking for a minimal level of alcohol in their drink.

“The alcohol-free beer sector is growing rapidly as people want more opportunities to choose when they drink alcohol and when they don’t,” says Shaun Bowen, creative partner at B&B. The London based studio recently designed the packaging for a 0.5% pale ale called Infinite Session, and so know a thing or two about the rising ‘dry drinker’ market  -  and how to appeal to it.

“Our positioning for Infinite Session focused on the idea that the beer experience is about more than the alcohol content, so we built a brand that celebrated the social aspect,” Shaun explains about the beer’s brief. “The design had to be confident rather than apologetic, and so capitalised on some of the bold codes that can be found in the mainstream craft beer sector.”

For Infinite, Shaun and B&B wanted to clearly differentiate from other small beers in how they tend to use design codes to, in Shaun’s words, “flag what’s missing from their product, often communicating well-being benefits in a sanctimonious way.”

“It was clear to us that what was lacking in the alcohol-free beer space was many things that several craft beer brands had: positivity, confidence and passion,” elaborates Chris Hannaway, founder of Infinite Session. “These things were key to making drinkers feel proud of what is in their hands and we wanted to bring this sense of pride to the category.”

The branding of small beer then already has various choices to make in appealing to audiences, and is already being influenced, quite understandably, by the larger and older market of alcoholic drinks.

But is the rise of dry beer a global trend, and is there any way both here and abroad that such drinks can be marketed as more than a mere alternative to more popular products? 

To get to that stage, it seems a definition for these beers needs to be defined as clearly as their branding. Commenting on whether he sees a distinction between ‘low’ alcohol beers and ‘no’ alcohol ones, Chris says the terms are seen in some places as interchangeable.

“The research shows that anything below 0.5% ABV is safe to be drinking if you want to drive, or if you’re pregnant,” he tells us. “However, some countries don’t yet acknowledge it, and prefer to call this low alcohol   rather than alcohol-free. 

“Meanwhile some people’s definitions of ‘low alcohol’ can go up to under 4% ABV  which is a massive difference. A lot of this is usually based on education and agendas.”

Chris believes there needs to be more leadership by governments to help distinguish between the terms, seeing them as he does being applied wildly differently in the current market. 

“Different bar menus will label the same product with different terms completely (so) consumers need people to help them make these decisions,” he stresses.

“From our experience, though, once consumers have familiarised themselves with products on the market, they know the differences between alcohol-free and low alcohol quite quickly from the ABV.”

Aesthetics and camouflage

One of the oldest table beer brands is O’Douls, which has been offering a low-ABV beer of 0.5% since the early ’90s. Conscious of the dry tide in drinking, the American company tapped New York-based Mr. Kiji to brand limited edition cans of new O’Doul’s variants in a bid to encourage responsible drinking on the usually very festive Thanksgiving Eve.

Speaking with Digital Arts, Mr. Kiji confirms dry drinking is on the rise in the States. “Times and tastes are changing, and more people are choosing consumption responsibly and in moderation,” he tells us. “I think it’s important to celebrate and support that by reimagining the can design.”

Mr Kiji in the studio

Kiji achieved this by hoping to make his design the focus of discussion for drinkers  - as opposed to the decision to not be drinking a regular beer on Thanksgiving Eve.

“I’d assume that if you were to put an O’Doul’s in a larger beer line up in 1990 it would blend in well with other conventional beers,” he explains. 

“Conceptually, O’Doul’s blending in a lineup amongst other familiar beers became a really interesting functional play on aesthetics and camouflage. When you want to take a step back from drinking, sometimes it’s tough because that in and of itself becomes a point of conversation rather than just blending in with everyone else and enjoying yourself.”

Kiji says the current trend in craft beers to prioritise and highlight artwork in illustration with minimalist branding was an early point of reference in initial discussions for the project. 

“The choice aesthetically is partly out of functionality,” he reveals. “We wanted the design to both blend in to the larger visual offerings provided at a bar but then also stick out in contrast to more traditional mainstream beer label designs.”

Kiji’s artistic vision and opinion of dry drinking in the States tallies with O’Doul’s parent company, drinks giant Anheuser-Busch.

“The goal was to create a design that felt completely different from the O’Doul’s that people know from the past 28 years, and something that would catch people’s eyes while celebrating Thanksgiving Eve at the bar with their friends,” says David McKenzie, director of corporate social responsibility at the company. 

“Younger drinkers in the US are increasingly focused on selecting products that help them live an active lifestyle, and that lifestyle can and does include drinking beer,” David continues. “It’s important that we provide quality options to those drinkers, a group that enjoys the taste of beer and are open to low, as well as non-alcoholic, options without compromising their goals.”

It’s all about the option of choice on a night out, then, a view shared by Shaun of B&B Studio.“(It’s) not about promoting teetotalism, it’s about promoting choice,” he says.

B&B’s packaging for Infinite Session also echoes Mr. Kiji’s hopes for design to be the main focal point. “Our design allows the brand to become bigger in itself than the decision not to drink,” Shaun confirms.

Drink for your health

We earlier mentioned how an increasingly healthy society of millennials is leading to softer ‘hard stuff’ on our shelves, and to see this up close and personal one needs to look to a brand that’s a little closer to home. 

Danish microbrewery Mikkeller has been on our radar with its fantastic art direction courtesy of America’s Keith Shore, and recently it's branched out its line with the introduction of three new small beers, one of which is named after Danish running club Hechmann Mikkeller Racing Club (HMRC). The club, one of Denmark's most elite,  counts Mikkeller staff among its members.

Speaking with Mikkeller CEO Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, we learn that the HMRC beer is positioned as a sports drink as opposed to a social one like Infinite Session. 

“We believe its a better alternative than any sports drink,” Mikkel states.

“The last few years have shown greater focus on drinking less alcohol,” he says about the Danish drinks market. “We do see a big future for well-produced non-ABV beers. 

‘There’s always been a market, but before you couldn’t get any dry beers that actually tasted good like real beer. I do also think that the culture of drinking is changing slowly and that it's getting sociably acceptable not to always drink alcohol at social events.”

Mikkel and Keith both confirm that they don’t treat branding differently between their small and normal beer lines, even those aimed beyond sport like the Drinkin’ in the Sun range.

It seems then that the trend for dry drink branding is for designs that both blend in with their more competitive cousins whilst catching the eye with similarly edgy aesthetics -  but without drawing attention to the ABV rate on the package. The majority of these brands are aimed at social drinking situations as opposed to the health-based ones which only a few names like Mikkeller and Mocktail Club are aiming at. 

In Mikkeller's case though, the branding puts forward a sense of camaraderie with its depictions of a running team, everyone in it together and nobody being the odd one out with their table beer in hand. That sense of sociability again swings positioning these beers away from being parts of a 'healthy lifestyle.'

Mocktail Club

It’ll be interesting to see how the market approaches dry drinks for home consumption like sober sorts of spirits, but for now booze-free beer branding plays in the same ballpark as the big brands we all know and enjoy.

Read next: Gallery of the most inspiring table beer label designs

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