There are some brands that no marketer should, would or could ever change: the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin, for example, with its iconic — in the real meaning of the word — illustration of a dead lion surrounded by bees (which Victorians would have understood immediately), and its biblical quote. And there are some that were never so great even when they first appeared, but which time has made a familiar part of our visual world. Such a brand is Anchor, the San Francisco brewery rightly revered for its hugely influential role in the American beer revival.
The faux-antique bottle labels Fritz Maytag introduced as part of his shake-up of the failing business he acquired in the late 1960s certainly made the brand stand out on the shelves compared to the sleek designs of the megabrewers he was competing against. But they were always rather messy, deliberately hand-drawn to emphasise the “craft” nature of the product inside. As Anchor grew and as the craft brewery revolution it helped inspire exploded into thousands of competing beer brands, the bottle “dress” it had adopted began to look increasingly not so much charmingly old-fashioned as drab and out of date.
Now, some half a century after they were introduced, the old-style labels have been replaced by a smart, clean, clear design that actually increases the stand-out on the shelf, with well-tempered graphics and a pleasing uniformity across the range, which was almost totally lacking before. And oh, the howls of pain from the beer cognoscenti, not just in the US but in the UK. You would think someone had murdered their granny.
I can understand Pete Brown being pretty annoyed: it is literally only a couple of months since he published a book on beer branding, Beer By Design, that praised the “classic” look of Anchor’s labels, hailing a company which “hasn’t wavered in its design approach in over forty years.” And just as that book hits the shops, the feckers at Anchor make it immediately out of date by throwing the “classic” design Pete salutes out of the brewery window, and bringing in something entirely different. I’d be pissed off, too.
But that apart, I’m puzzled by what this love for a 1970s pastiche of early 20th century beer labels is grounded in. It’s like praising a 1950s trad jazz band, when you’ve got King Oliver’s Dixieland Syncopators or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five: the originals are strong and vibrant, the replicas washed out and lacking life. The design of the “classic” Steam Beer label is a crowded mess, the name of the beer only the second most prominent part of the label, at best, with some kind of odd parchment effect in the background making it look as if the colours failed to fix properly on the printing plates. The Porter label is better, being simpler and more direct, but still with distracting clusters of barley and hops that detract from the impact. Pete Brown put the “classic” Anchor labels in a section of Beer By Design called “Nostalgia”, but if you want nostalgia done well, some of the other examples in that chapter, such as the Shepherd Neame “classics collection” labels, or the J.W. Lees pumpclips, are vastly better: rooted in the past, but strong and direct. (Beer By Design is an excellent book, by the by: well worth adding to your library.)
I certainly can’t agree with those who have attacked the new design as “unnecessary”, “painful”, “missing the mark”, “boring”, “generic” and “uninspiring”, to list just a few of the criticisms thrown at it on Beer Twitter. And I don’t understand the claims that the new designs won’t have the ability to stand out on the shelf the way the old labels – allegedly – did, or that they look like generic supermarket own brands, two statements that are actually mutually contradictory, the point of generic supermarket own brands’ design being that it’s meant to stand out on the shelf.
Anchor’s new look is a firmly stated, plain dressing, with some excellent, if subtle, typographical touches: I love the way the serif on the A has a slightly wind-swept look that matches the serif on the tail of the R. The “fouled anchor” (technical term there, heraldry buffs) and the name Anchor in that typeface is a sturdy piece of branding that carries well across the whole of the brewery’s range, as does the use of blocky, clean colours for each individual beer.
Is it too much of an attempt to “get down with the kids” from a brand that should, in fact, be happy in its relaxed seniority? No, I don’t believe so. Drinkers who were 18 when the original design first appeared are nudging 70 now. There are generations of beer lovers who don’t know the Anchor story, and don’t know how important it was in helping to develop the beer scene they enjoy now. Anchor needs to be seen as relevant by those drinkers, to continue to recruit new cohorts of customers, as every brand must if it wants to live, and the old design, literally your granddad’s design, wasn’t going to do that. The new design is much better placed to carry Anchor forward.