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What Do Disruptors Do When They Become The Establishment?

by Lou de Ste. Croix on 03/20/2020 | 4 Minute Read

Creating a disruptor brand in today’s crowded marketplace is arguably the quickest way to get noticed. It seems everyone is looking at ways to agitate a tired category or digitize an analog experience, and with the disruptive product comes ever-more experimental brand designs targeted at a select group of influencers and early-adopters who are on the hunt for shiny new things. 

No category has seen more infiltration from disruptor brands in the last decade than craft beer. BrewDog has been leading the charge in bringing a new lease of life to the beer sector. Whether it was producing the strongest beer ever made, selling £500 bottles of brew inside stuffed animals, or naming its non-alcoholic drink slightly punchy Punk AF, BrewDog has been the self-styled rebel of alcoholic beverages for almost ten years. 

But a recent rebrand has cast doubt over this status. In a move they described as rebel to maverick, the brewery decided to adapt and evolve their branding with a new design, palette, and tone, introducing a broader brand purpose.

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Aesthetically, their softer, less-challenging presentation feels grown-up, with an overall shift to a toned-down personality. The change comes with a whole host of positives like improved navigation throughout their range of drinks, and the front-and-center naming is both clean and legible. There is a more defined personality for each range through color-coding, as well as an on-trend flat color palette to boot. 

Still, the move feels a bit wrong. 

With success and growth comes challenges. What works to attract a niche audience doesn’t always work - and indeed, rarely works - with a mass audience.

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As the original rebels, BrewDog shook up the category and paved the way for a wave of disruptors that sought to emulate them, but the brand doesn’t feel as rebellious as they once positioned themselves. It’s lost its punk attitude and it feels anodyne. While this may well be intentional, it feels as if they’ve lost the spirit of their identity, the unique bit that made them, them. 

Not only this, but they now look the same as everyone else. The same flat pastel colors, same typographic treatment, and significantly reduced brand symbolism creating less distinction compared to other craft beers.

The third issue is that they have become literal in their communications and packaging. Brand symbolism has been reduced to a tiny presence on the pack, without new symbolism replacing it to help drive their current purpose in non-cognitive ways. As the brand adopts mainstream cues and relies on literal messaging, it will lose some of the magic that made it so compelling in the first place.

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When a craft brand sees significant growth in the market, there are usually one of two expected outcomes. One, they metaphorically sell out and become part of the establishment; two, they choose to be a craft brand forever and stay small. 

Which poses the question, how do disruptor brands grow without selling their soul?

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Look forward and backward at the same time.

Move with the shift in trends and consumer behaviors but also hold onto the brand’s distinct meaning and attributes. Hold tight to what it is that makes them unique.

Have a balance of dominant and emergent codes to be sustainable

Too many craft brands make the mistake of focusing just on emergent codes, which lacks longevity, and they quickly lose relevance in an ever-changing market.

Ensure symbolism drives your story

Implement distinctive visual assets that successfully build meaning through positive associations, and be sure to keep them present throughout all elements of the brand down the line. 

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To become a successful disruptor is often the only goal when a brand is starting. Brands need to ask what is the longer-term goal when the dream is fulfilled. Before the big boys come knocking, these exciting young start-ups need to keep their original purpose front of mind. 

Every brand must adapt and evolve, but consumers can sniff a sell-out a mile away, and years of hard work building a brand around a particular ethos can-and will-be lost overnight. 

There are, of course, brands that are doing it well. We’ve partnered with Creemore, a Canadian lager born in a small town in Ontario, who are taking on their province. The brand’s recent redesign heroes Creemore’s blend of fire and water through symbolism, embracing its heritage and locality, while staying true to its roots. Following the redesign, sales in retail have seen an impressive 11% increase.

New York-based Brooklyn Brewery has also given us a lesson on how to successfully grow without losing their spark. Their latest re-design showcased a new bold and fresh aesthetic, while “remaining un-mistakenly Brooklyn." By maintaining a consistent brand that ties back to its origins, the Williamsburg brewery continues to grow, successfully expanding to over thirty countries.

BrewDog will not be complaining about their sales figures to date, but it would be interesting to see how this more grown-up rebrand impacts public perception about the original bad boys of beer.