Until a few years ago, beer design in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was a rather straightforward business. The absence of innovation during communism led to true category stagnation. By the time communism left the region, traditionalism, protectionism, and chauvinism were the norm. Beer drinkers were men. In dark, smoky pubs. Bitching about life. These were an ultra-conservative bunch, and highly critical of changes in their beloved brews. So pack design essentially consisted of re-working a few highly traditional, instantly recognizable, design cues and backing it up with a few "It sure is great to be a guy!" TV commercials.
The past few years, however, have seen huge liberalization in terms of beer innovation. The need to differentiate along with continued consolidation have led to a rapid spreading of ideas and products throughout CEE. Products such as radlers (juice/beer mixes) and giant 2L PET bottles, which would've been unheard of just a few years ago, are now common. Designers are caught in the middle between a core beer drinking audience that wants everything to look and feel the same, and a broader public which expects brands to innovate and look more modern.
Cocoon Group is intimately familiar with the region's beer brands and the challenges facing beer brand designers. It is estimated that, in the past 5 years, over 200 beer projects have passed across the desktop monitors of CG designers. Evgeny Razzhivin has been a senior designer at Cocoon Group for 5 years now and has had a hand in almost every one of these projects. We recently caught up to him to gain some insight into what makes great CEE beer design and what makes a beer designer tick.
How long have you been designing beers in CEE?
I’ve been at Cocoon Group for 5 years, but before that I was working in Russia. The first beer I worked on was a Siberian brewery about 15 years ago. That brewery is now a part of Baltika, the biggest brewery in Russia. My work on beers has included about 20 brands for the ‘big 4’ European breweries, Star/InBev, Heineken, Carlsberg, and SABMiller.
What are the most interesting or challenging aspects of CEE beer design?
One of the most challenging aspects of designing beer in Central Europe is trying to balance tradition with the needs of brands to innovate. Beer has a particular visual language, which contains many diverse elements. These elements have real meaning in terms of quality, masculinity, history, and taste. It is very difficult to deviate from that language. Yet, at the same time, each of our clients wants to look different and to stand apart from their competitors. Tradition holds much more sway in this region than in other parts of the world, where beer design tends to be much more free.
What is the process like for beer design vs. designing for other products?
Beer is very much ingrained in people’s social lives. As designers, we need to be very tuned into what role the beer plays in the situations in which it is consumed. Is it a badge of masculinity? Is it a status symbol? We need to be sure that the design of the beer lives up to its role as a social marker.
Another fun aspect of beer is the legal limitations placed on us as designers. There are books and books filled with what we cannot do –some actual laws but also internal guidelines for each brewer and brand. We don’t really have these limitations when we design candy bars.
Is there something about CEE beer, which is different than beer from other parts of the world?
Beer culture is very entrenched and very unique in this region. I think it shares many similarities, but also has its own distinct flavor. There are also paradoxes that western brands don’t have to deal with. For instance, beer brands are aimed almost exclusively at young men. Yet, at the same time, the market seems to demand tradition and heritage as the cornerstones of brand credibility. These are hardly young man concerns. I don’t think this is permanent, however. Local beers are already beginning to fall much more in line with their global counterparts.
And within the region? Are there differences?
There are differences, of course, but they’re mainly in the microbrewery front. The main players and mass-market brands pretty much stick to recognized formulas, which by the way, work extremely well in almost every market. I don’t see any reason that they would change it. So I would say that things are becoming much more homogenous. This, like everything else, has good points and bad. One of the good points is the rapid spread of successful innovations from market to market.
Has beer design changed here since you started working on it?
Yes! As I said above, the consolidation of the region’s brewers has meant that innovation can travel at unprecedented speeds from market to market. Couple this with today’s beer drinkers, who are younger and willing to try new things. These two factors have led to a huge amount of innovation over the past few years. PET bottles, fruit flavored beers, organic beers, light beers, unfiltered beers and (as far as I’ve heard) much more to come. These things would have been unthinkable just a few years ago! And yet they all seem to be flooding into and around the region at an incredible pace. If an experiment works in one country, there are no qualms about trying it in every country. At the office we joke that we’re working through a ‘golden age’ of beer innovation.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done since you started working on Beers here?
Recently we did a deep dive study on behalf of StarBev’s Jelen, the leading beer in Serbia, studying the semiotics and symbols of masculinity. This research was done for their new Jelen Strong product. We were able to uncover some very interesting insights that we applied to the product design.
On a lighter note, also for Jelen, we spent many weeks exploring what an ‘angry stag’ would look like –since this was the client’s wish for the update of their iconic mascot. Let’s just say that there are a lot of differing opinions on what constitutes an angry expression on a deer!
For me personally, I’m very interested in typography and beers offer a unique perspective on this topic. So much information is conveyed through typography in beers, both the logo itself and secondary text. It is always a challenge to get the right combination and the right touches in our work, and very satisfying when we get it right.
Which has been the most satisfying project?
So many projects! It’s very difficult to say! I think Staropramen leaps to mind, just in terms of scope and success of the launch. I’m really proud of the direction that brand is moving, pushing envelopes and looking different than other beers on the Czech market.
Keep innovating and pushing boundaries! The tide is turning and your customers are ready to embrace change. The future is about how you stand apart from your competition –not how you all follow the same traditions and use the same basic designs. Someday very soon, an upstart brand is going to come out of nowhere, try something radical on their packs, and all the rules of the category will change. Be ready for it!
Advice to other designers who might want to work in beer.
Understand beer consumption and how consumption is changing. These the needs that your design will need to fulfill. Central and Eastern European Beer culture is no longer about sitting in the pub moaning about how crappy your life is! Tradition is important, of course, but now people are trying new types of beer, in new places, in different occasions. In many ways, the visual language of beer language will stand apart from those that focus solely on how to apply the same old fonts, medals, and pictures of hops to beer labels.
Also, work on your crafting. Never underestimate the power of a well-crafted beer label.
Cocoon Group is an international branding agency with unmatched expertise in CEE beer brands. For an interesting look at some of their work, check out their slideshow and iPad app, Beers of New Europe, A to Z which can be found here... “azbeer.cg-eu.com”
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