• The Cabinet

Is Craft Dead?

From handmade claims to stories of pioneering founders, for a time ‘craft’ was the buzzword of the industry, as brands large and small aligned themselves with its values and visual identity. However, the term seems notably absent from new launches. So, is craft dead?


From around 2011 to 2018, drinks launches large and small were dominated by a term with no defined – in fact a notoriously malleable – meaning. Originating from a revolution in the beer industry, ‘craft’ was supposed to stand for something at once rebellious, yet quality driven.


Rising-up from small, independent beginnings, craft beer producers were a disruptive force from around 2007, offering consumers rule-breaking styles focused on flavour and quality. Pitched as the antithesis to mass-produced, ‘flavourless’ brews, an ideology grew that craft stood for something better, more authentic, and more experimental.


Big brands adopt craft cues


As a result, terms including ‘local’, ‘handmade’, and ‘crafted’ began to creep into the marketing of even the biggest brands, while brown paper labels, graffiti style writing, tactile, intricate, or heritage-inspired packaging began to dominate launches across both beers and spirits. Multinationals challenged by this new shift, reached into their archives to champion stories of their founders.


Yet today, these craft claims seem to have all but disappeared when it comes to new brands. One flaw in the quest to champion craft has always been an inability to accurately define it. In the US, the Brewers Association put a stake in the ground, quantifying production levels (under 6 million barrels per annum), ownership (less than 25% owned by a larger company) and traditional in its production methods.


A lack of consensus


However, in the UK, the craft beer industry has continually struggled to reach a consensus. Perhaps a neat example of how the concept has imploded, is the case of ‘independent’ Scottish brewer BrewDog. One of the most vocal proponents of the David vs Goliath battle between craft and the big producers, BrewDog continually called for a definition of the category between 2013 and 2015.


Keen to protect its competitive advantage during a time when people were first becoming switched on to craft, it argued the US definition was what had actually enabled US growth, helping consumers understand what craft was, and guiding retailers on how to group and importantly, price it. However, in 2017 it sold a major share to private equity firm, TSG Consumer Partners.


BrewDog’s mistake – setting aside a whiff of hypocrisy – is that by the time it was calling for craft to be defined, consumers had already decided for themselves what it did and didn’t mean. For some it was about exclusiveness and discovery, for others it was signified by a look and a price point. Independence seemed vital, local was preferred.


Consumer savvy


But it seems that consumers have become wary of, and savvy to, the sometimes flimsy claims of craft, rallying against multinational-owned brands that are faking it, and increasingly aware that many of the most successful craft brands they’d been loyal to, had ultimately sold out to global producers. Growing mistrust in the term is largely responsible for its demise. Packing cues have become meaningless – even dated.

Now, the hippest, most avant-garde brands favour a bold, unisex, and graphic look, led by standout art work, commonly featuring colour block, splashes of paint, or prints of clouds (why are there so many clouds?) in pastel hues; perfect for the Instagram generation. Small, scrolled print, and embossed labels on squat glass bottles, just doesn’t show up that well on the ‘gram.


New priorities


Shedding their low-brow image, the can has become the primary format too – for everything from wine to cocktails. Used for even premium priced fare, it is a move away from the less eco-friendly – and less portable glass bottles and growlers of craft. And for categories where glass bottles are predominantly used, new brands have again adopted a new, bolder, pared-back look. Instead of assertions of independence, branding now leads instead on claims of eco credentials, showcases the origin or uniqueness of their ingredients, or even, describes how the brand will make you feel.


New launch Foghouse Gin for example, embodies all of these new values. In a matte pistachio-coloured bottle, its branding features only simple white font. And instead of boasting of its handcrafted credentials, the space on the front of the bottle is given over to a dictionary definition of the word ‘escapism’. However, it’s interesting to note that in a bid to emphasise its exclusivity, ‘small-batch’ is still a favoured term.


In an age where consumers are taking to social media to forge their own businesses and ‘personal brands’, brand is no longer a dirty word. For many, brand growth is the ultimate achievement. Instead, the judgement of consumers on whether a brand is ‘good’ or not has become about taste, exclusivity, a hip visual identity, and whether it aligns with a consumer’s values when it comes to wider social and environmental issues. Whether a brand is small, or ‘rule breaking’ merely by its existence, no longer matters. What a brand stands for does.