This month, Larry Nelson considers the importance of a reliable brand name for your beer. Anyone fancy a Mr Winky?

Whimsy – it’s in short supply in these serious days, its absence manifest in so many ways. In this instance, I don’t refer to the spirit-sapping macro preoccupations with political malfeasance, economic sluggishness or the latest act of senseless terrorism. No, it’s day-to-day greyness that concerns here.

For example, when did cars, in terms of colour, become so earnestly, universally dull? Pick a sample of 100 passing by on your next journey: The vast majority will be black, grey or silver with white making a comeback. On European roads, there will be splashes of gorgeous Alfa Romeo red, but it’s associated with the heritage of the badge and isn’t considered a wide-spread desirability. 

Welcome, then, to the recently-completed US Open Beer Championship. Now in just its sixth year, this annual competition managed to attract 3,000 entrants this time around; an astonishing number for such a recently-established event. 

Amongst a plethora of prize-winning beers, there’s also an accolade given to ten entrants that the organisers deem to have the ‘most creative names’. According to US Open director Dow Scoggins, the selections are guided by a sense of fun or, indeed, whimsy and by the linguistic cleverness of the brand names. Here’s the 2014 roll call, in no particular order:

  • Razzberry Princess Yum Yum
  • Holy Hand Grenade
  • The Dogfather
  • Nerd Alert Summer Ale
  • Mr Winky Brown Ale
  • Vienna Waits for You
  • The Princess Wears Girl Pants IPA
  • The Kimmie, the Yink and the Holy Gose
  • Zed the Zorcerer
  • Kiss My Irish Stout

It’s a mildly amusing list with probably something for everyone that will raise a wry smile, perhaps even a laugh. But, would you be prepared to part with your hard-earned cash to order one of these beers when next at the bar?

These linguistic charmers bring up an important point in the explosion of all things craft beer, one which has been overlooked by a number of its practitioners. While a lot of thought has been put into which beer styles will be brewed, funding organised for the equipment that will be required, and a core group of like-minded individuals assembled who are committed to growing the business – the weak link is often when it comes to branding.

It’s a consideration that is now more important than ever. By the close of 2013, there were 2,700-plus craft brewers in the US alone. This calendar year, anywhere upwards of 400 new entrants will join their ranks. And, assuming that these newcomers each brew at least four year-round beers plus a similar number of seasonals, a back-of-envelope calculation says that there will be another 3,000-plus beer brands launched this year.

This plethora of beer excitements may not matter much initially if you’ve opened a brewpub and have a guaranteed route to market, or if you’re trading in a 30- to 50-mile radius without overlapping competition from other craft breweries. (The latter is increasingly a less likely scenario.) Initially, you’ve got the artisanal field to yourself, and names don’t matter as much.

It’s when craft brewers look to grow the business, to break out of their geographic niche or to obtain an off-trade listing, that the initial brand name becomes all important. An ill-chosen name – be it overly complicated or ‘cute’ like our short list above – can become a handicap to growth.

Most beer brands come to life in the on-trade, in pubs, bars and restaurants around the world. It helps for the brand to be a good ‘bar call’ – ordering a round of Bud Lights or a pint of Pride in a busy, Friday-night bar is a much simpler task than, say, Princess Wears Girls Pants.

The explosion in beers is also exacerbating an underlying trend that’s detrimental to brand building. With so many beers to choose from, publicans and bar owners are rotating through brands at a less-than-optimal rate for establishing the beer in the imaginations of drinkers who like said beer.

Research undertaken by British regional brewer Greene King has found that 50% of licensees think a guest beer should stay on the bar for no longer than a week; conversely, pub-goers wanted a longer period, of anywhere from two weeks to a month. Familiarity, it seems, breeds contentment.

What does work? There are ways to better the odds. Concentrating on two or three beer brands – operhaps even just one brand - to establish the reputation of the brewery is a good starting point. There are too many brands on the bar; similarly, the same effect is achieved by too many beers from the brewery.

This lends itself to umbrella branding. Boston Beer may be all about Samuel Adams Boston Lager but it’s also an encouragement to try the many seasonals and many more one-off speciality brews that badge Boston’s reassuring name.

If this approach is taken – the name of the brewery paramount – then this in turn requires careful consideration. A hundred or more years ago, it was sufficient to put one’s name above the brewery gate. Think of Guinness, Heineken, Coors, Peroni – the list goes on. Today there’s a different commonality, at least amongst leading American craft brewers. Boston Beer. New Belgium. Sierra Nevada. Brooklyn Brewery. Deschutes Brewery. Geographic place names one at all. 

Given the modest dreams of all who once sat around their kitchen tables starting out as brewers back in the 1980s, it’s doubtful that they realised the brand implications of having a geographic reference point when one day selling beers on the far side of the continent. But, the unintended consequence is that having a geographic place name succeeds in conveying a ‘local’ quality to the beer in hand wherever it may be sold.

A final thought. When 3,000-plus beer brands are introduced in a year there’s an extremely good chance that a number will be in violation of already-registered trademarks. (There’s a likely violation in the list of ten above, obvious to fans of a recently-retired British comic troupe.) This is happening more and more frequently, as with Anheuser-Busch InBev last month challenging a North Carolina craft brewer over the use of the term Natty Greene

Naming a beer brand is an oft-overlooked important matter, one that will determine in part its ability to grow and become something more than what it was modestly intended to be at the outset. 

Give it careful consideration.