Culture is crucial in determining which messages and images resonate with customers. By understanding how cultures give meaning to signs, symbols and visual cues, you can decode how people will interpret your package design and encode into it the values your brand wants to communicate—in a way that will speak to consumers’ view of the world.
As branding and marketing specialists, we are always seeking better ways to engage the minds of increasingly distracted, savvier and marketing-literate consumers. Neuromarketing can offer help on “what” particular messages engage the brain, but it’s less helpful on the “why.” Neuromarketing might be a useful part of pre-testing to ensure a message is likely to be recalled, but it does not guide companies to determine the right brand message or image in the first place. To give us real insight and understanding into what will resonate with customers, rather than rely on the industry’s all-too-common gut feel or instinct, we can use semiotics: the study of signs and symbols.
The Great Divider
The beer market is a prime example of how culture and its changes affect the way we respond to products, producing winners and losers as a result. One of the most notable winners is craft beer, a category that didn’t even exist until a few years ago.
Before the birth of the craft category, there was lager, and there was ale. Lager was mass produced, laddy and urban. Lager had few pretensions. It was a truism that consumers “drank the advertising.” Premiumness was a factor of alcohol by volume rather than other intrinsic characteristics. In contrast, ale was crafted, middle aged, middle class and rural in its imagery. Ale had lots of quality attributes, and was slightly obsessed with talking about them. The two tribes were, if not exactly hostile, certainly separate.
Craft beer has upset that neat divide, and is a sign of a wider social change. Figures are hard to come by, mostly because no one can agree on what actually constitutes as craft beer. But most self-proclaimed craft brewers seek to separate themselves from both the socks and sandals of “real ale” and the industrial scale of a largely commoditized mainstream lager sector. And as literally hundreds of new breweries open every year and big brewers rush to buy into the trend, we should ask what exactly people are buying into when purchasing their hop-driven, pasteurized and bottom-fermented beer.
The Dream of Another Life
In the U.K., we are witnessing the fruits of the first generation born to university-educated parents. Raised in liberal, cosmopolitan homes, these middle-class bohemians have a huge pent-up demand for new products and services that convey cultural sophistication.
Among the first beneficiaries were the “beers of the world” of the nineties and noughties. But ultimately, industrial lager from Peru turns out to taste pretty similar to industrial lager from anywhere else. And more importantly, rarity value alone didn’t talk to another key social disruptor: the dream of another life—which has powered the success of so many small producers, most notably in this case, craft beer.
Over recent years, we have witnessed a massive shift not so much in the way we work, but in the ideal of work. Our generation of middle-class bohemians has been raised on the ideals of a new community of incredibly well rewarded, massively inventive creative and technological employees: individuals who get to wear trendy sneakers to work! Who make insanely cool stuff! Who work when they want and live where they want! Who make millions! But the sad reality is that most of us work as drones in big corporations. In our hearts, we know that a few beanbags in a meeting room don’t turn an office block on the outskirts of London’s M25 expressway into Silicon Valley.
And yet these roles in the big corporates come with a nice wage packet and a hefty mortgage. Very few of us can walk away. And so the bohemian dreams of another life, free from routine and cross-denominational team meetings to standardize infrastructures at this moment in time.
Craft producers offer the way to have a little of that other life— just as premium cigarettes and whiskies let an earlier generation share the lives of corporate titans.
Often, this other life is intensely rural: BBC’s “Countryfile” is one of the country’s top rating programs. Another BBC show, “Escape to the Country,” says it all in the title. Christmas book sales are full of fantasies about cheese making, chicken rearing and crofting the land. And localism, small-scale craft production in food, offers us some of this life. These codes are becoming more and more significant in food packaging: think waxed paper, unfinished cardstock, naive illustration and heritage type, and talking to an ideal vision of where food should come from.
In beer, it is fascinating to see how this rural arcadia is important in U.S. craft beers but not the British ones. The best-selling U.S. craft beers—many far bigger than mainstream British lagers—speak to a vanished past (Sam Adams) or a pastoral dream of beautiful small town America (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium). In Britain, the rural dream is CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale organization) territory, a middle-aged vision of corduroy and stout shoes. Cask ale is about rural provenance; brands are about specifics of location or a particular kind of English eccentricity.
Instead, British craft beers are far more urban in their imagery. The “other life” these brands help customers dream of is not an escape to the country but one of sticking it to the man: a harder-edged, more rebellious style. British craft beers spread the message that they are for people who live lives on their own terms, who still play their old Clash albums, still go to gigs and are still streetwise after all these years.
The leader of this way of life is BrewDog, but plenty of others have a similar urban feel and are proud of their city roots—including Camden Town Brewery and Meantime, two of the biggest. Not to be left out are the proud Londoners Hammerton and Great Eastern, Bristol’s Moor Beer, and Liverpool’s Mad Hatters. The semiotics of their labels bleed rebellion. Graphics are raw and edgy, illustration style mimics graphic novels and comic books, names are deliberately challenging: Bitter & Twisted (Harviestoun), Diabolo (Brewferm), Heisenberg’s (Electric Bear Brewing Co). British craft beer is not about running away to the country but fighting and winning in the big city. And so these beers have a potentially huge appeal—who among us doesn’t feel we are still rocking, streetwise, and even if we haven’t jacked it all in and told the boss where to shove it, we can still buy into the dream of those who have.
‘Why’ We Buy
By understanding how culture dictates the way we interpret design, the huge potential of craft beer to middle-class workers everywhere becomes clear. With one fantasy of another life already taken by the competitor category of ale, escape to the country has been replaced by sticking it to the man. Help customers have a bit of their dream by using your branding and packaging to share a message that resonates with them.