Parts of this article appeared in my review for K’s Brewing Brewmaster Blonde Dry Ale.
The reason I’m writing this soapbox article stems from the bloody awful label on an otherwise fine blonde ale. I’m going to go into my reaction to the label (which was pretty adverse), and why the brewery may have chosen to go with such a generic-looking design. I had a pretty solid idea in my mind as to why they made that decision, but it was subverted upon doing further research into the label design choices of other K’s Brewing beers.
Let’s start with initial reactions. The first thing I noticed is that it’s easy to see why this ridiculous label made me think it was some kind of garbage lager. A garbargler. The Big Four breweries are scrabbling to get in on the craft beer boom and are plastering their own ever-so-slightly-different beers with similar buzzwords. My inner monologue went something like “Blech! Who the fuck wants to drink this? What is it, a lager? What is this, a Premium Malts clone? Who am I asking all these questions to? Never mind! Again, blech I say!”.
I recently read an article about the most effective (and thus prevalent) keywords used in advertising in Japan in recent years. Alongside “極め” (“exceedingly”) and “大人の” (“for grown-ups”), the most popular word of all is “プレミアム” (“Premium”). “Premium” is the first word on this bottle. I saw it and a neuron fizzed in my head that finished the phrase with “Malts”.
Look at the rest of the bottle. Let’s do some word association. “Super”. “Blonde”. “Dry”. “Brewmaster”. Right? All of those words have featured prominently in the marketing of various Big Four drinks at some point. Two of those comprise the entire fucking name of the most famous and iconic Japanese beer ever. I highly doubt that the decision to put these words on the label can be attributed to random chance or the phase of the moon. But why? Is this beer trying to rub shoulders with the big boys? Is this, indeed, a garbargler (which my iPad seemingly believes is a real word)?
Much as we hate to admit it, advertising does have an effect on us, and it was only after I opened this beer that I realised it said “ale” on the label. So ingrained is our ability for pattern recognition that we see “Premium” and think “Malts” just as we see “Super” and think “Dry” (or indeed see “Super Dry” and think of a silver can).
The ability to recognise a pattern emerged in human evolution as a function for survival. Our instinct for it has become highly sensitive, even to the point of seeing patterns where none exist- for example, seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Theoretically, this level of inaccuracy is intolerable- a computer making the same number of mistakes would head binwards with the speed of a Polaris missile- but in reality, seeing a pattern and being wrong has a greater benefit for survival than not seeing one. In other words, if you see something you think is coming at your head, it’s better to duck and be wrong, than not duck and end up dead.
Marketers and advertisers use this function to build on the years of catchphrases and slogans we are exposed to, and create new mental links in our mind to sell their products. They reuse the same words over and over again because those mental pathways are well-worn. “Premium”. “Super”. “Dry”. Adding a new word is easy once you’ve laid down the framework of the ones people are familiar with. “Brewmaster” is a relatively new addition, but mark my words that it will be just as common as long as the craft beer boom continues.
For this particular label, I think it falls into the false-pattern category. I looked at it and saw a pattern that was in actuality false- I took this ale to be a cheap knockoff lager. Or was it? On the one hand, I’m sure that K’s Brewing did not want me to think that this beer was a Big Four lager. On the other, though, it could be argued that the pattern was not so much false as it was misleading. This brings me to my three theoretical scenarios in which K’s Brewing landed on this label design.
The first scenario is that, yes, K’s Brewing are trying to cynically trick people into thinking this beer is something that it isn’t, much like those “Transmorphers” DVDs you see in bargain bins which hoodwink legions of grandmas buying gifts for grandkids at Christmas. Call me naïve, but I’m willing to think that this isn’t the case, and all craft brewers’ intentions are pure. We’re all in this together, right? Standing up to the big old meanies at Kirin and Asahi.
The second is what I originally thought was the correct one: I thought K’s Brewing suffered from low self-esteem, putting all of these buzzwords on the label because they thought the beer wasn’t good enough to stand on its own. After a quick look at their lineup I noticed they put “Super Premium Handmade Ale” on everything. No problems with self-esteem there, then.
The third scenario is where a third-party marketing company was given a picture of the beer and free reign over its label design, and read the same buzzword article as I did. K’s Brewing have no thematic consistency in their labels and some pretty eclectic designs, so this could be the case. If so, it’s an odd decision to go with such an unappealing look. I don’t know about you, but I was really put off by all the bullshit on the label. Had it not been for Rob secreting this into my possession, I would never had picked it up in a kabillion years. I mean, look at it. Go back up and look at it.
Nothing that I want is on that label. It looks like a bottle of Bizarro craft beer. Me buy valuable crap beer! Shitty design make Joe want buy! Me hope it watery and weak! That best craft beer!
In my review I recommended you buy this beer, but rip the label off and feed it to a nearby animal. Maybe post the label back to K’s Brewery with a note telling them to stop getting label design ideas from Suntory. This kind of design feeds on preexisting ideas and notions people have in their minds, and is kind of unpleasant if you think about it. I mentioned that I didn’t want to think this design is cynical, but I’m beginning to think that it might be. It just checks too many boxes for it to be an innocent coincidence.
So, what about other labels? Well, let’s take a look at Minoh’s. Colour-coded, with the beer name in bold lettering. That’s good design. That’s an example of making an original mental pathway. The Pilsner is green, the Stout is red. They haven’t had to ride on the coattails of established cliches or buzzwords.
In the middle of this scale- with Minoh being the positive end and K’s Brewing Blonde Dry being the negative- is Coedo’s old design. They were colour-coded, sure. But nothing gave any indication of what the beer actually was. Every bottle said the same thing- “Premium All-Malt Beer”. There they are! And those empty buzzwords didn’t work. They were meaningless because every bottle said it. There was no way to immediately know that Kyara was an IPA, for example. Coedo’s labels have been updated, fortunately, so that they now tell you what you’re about to drink.
So brewers, please, let’s leave these godawful buzzwords to the Big Four. Apply the same creativity and care to the stuff you put inside the bottle, to the outside of it as well. Our brains will thank us.
(Edit: These are not necessarily the views of BeerTengoku, rather the author themselves. This article may be edited for factual purposes later on.)