In 1986, Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy was on the hunt for the right designer to create an identity for his startup brewery. He interviewed dozens of firms, but none of them clicked–until he met Milton Glaser, the impresario behind the “I ♥ NY” logo and slogan, New York magazine’s identity, and that Bob Dylan poster.
“Why sell a bird when you’ve got the whole borough?” Glaser told Hindy about the proposed name, Brooklyn Eagle Beer, in honor of the famous newspaper once edited by Walt Whitman. That frank talk started a nearly three-decades-long business relationship that has made Glaser a rich man. Unable to pay Glaser’s design fee, Brooklyn Brewery offered the designer a stake in the company. Today, that stake is “worth millions,” Hindy says, though the brewery declined to state its valuation. (“Investors are paying very high prices for craft breweries smaller than Brooklyn Brewery–hundreds of millions of dollars,” Hindy told Co.Design, “but the only way to get those kind of valuations is to sell, and my partners and I have no interest in selling Brooklyn.”) And the designer-client partnership continues as Brooklyn Brewery releases a packaging redesign that balances fidelity to the brand with a bolder look.
The struggle for companies to stay relevant is more difficult than ever. To keep up with the pace of new product and brand launches, the unforgiving news cycle, and ever-changing consumer trends, companies hire of-the-moment creative agencies to refresh their visual identities. That Brooklyn Brewery and Milton Glaser have been collaborating for longer than many brands have been around–let alone have worked with a single agency–is a rarity these days. We spoke to Glaser and Hindy at Glaser’s Manhattan studio about the beer and branding business, how their partnership began, how it’s grown and evolved over the years, and the value of collaborating with a friend.
Before Hindy opened Brooklyn Brewery in 1987 with cofounder Tom Potter (who retired and sold his shares in 2003), he was an AP correspondent stationed in the Middle East. In the 1980s, craft beer wasn’t the $22 billion business that it is today. It was still mostly independent brewers for whom brewing was a hobby that turned into a business. The beer labels and logos were, similarly, homespun and often drawn up by a friend. Hindy wasn’t a designer or artist and decided to enlist the services of a professional agency to create an identity for his product.
Hindy set up calls and meetings with more than 30 different firms. “Most of them were trying to sell me on their view of the world and they were flattering me,” Hindy says. “They were telling me, ‘This is a brilliant idea, we want to do it.'” One designer that Hindy hadn’t spoken with at this point was Glaser, who wouldn’t take his calls. After repeatedly contacting the office, Hindy finally wore down Glaser’s secretary and got him on the line. The designer agreed to a meeting.
“Milton was the first designer I talked to who had a very firm idea of where to go with this [brand],” Hindy says. “I knew I wasn’t a genius. I had no experience in the beer business, but it just rang true to me when he said forget the bird, you’ve got Brooklyn here. That was not a very popular view 30 years ago.”
Brooklyn Brewery’s logo was informed by classic German beer labels–a conscious move by Glaser to give the upstart brand authority and credibility by linking it to the history of beer making. The bold script used to render the “B” at the logo’s center was meant to evoke a swirl of foam and give it a friendly persona.
“Things should be clear enough to be understandable and, in the end, slightly deviant enough to be different than everybody else—that’s kind of a funny line to walk,” Glaser says. “The ornamental quality made it look like you were paying attention to what you were doing and the fact that it was controlled complexity made it look as if it’s a quality element that wasn’t just made in the cellar, but it was made by people who knew what they were doing . . . We didn’t want it to look like any of the other craft beer or for it to look amateurish, like, ‘We did it in the basement and designed it in the basement and that’s why it tastes authentic.'”
In the initial consultation, Hindy had a couple ideas of what he wanted the brand to evoke. “I said Milton, I want the Brooklyn Bridge, I want the Dodgers, I want every guy in Brooklyn to want to get this tattooed on his arm,” Hindy says. “And Milton said, ‘Save something for me to do!'”
Glaser unveiled the logo two or three days after their first meeting. “I looked at it and said, ‘That’s it?!'” Hindy recalls. Glaser told him to take the logo home, show it to his wife, live with it for a bit, and then come back to his office.
“Eventually I thought, yeah, it kind of evokes the Dodgers, but it’s not some smarmy nostalgic thing,” Hindy says. “I recognized this as really cool and fresh–a whole new image for Brooklyn.
Thanks in part Glaser’s design work, Hindy and Potter were able to establish legitimacy for their business and raise $500,000 to get their operation up and running.
“[The identity] has turned out to be an incredible winner for us, and overseas too,” Hindy says. “Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, all our competitors sell overseas, and we outsell them and I think it’s got to do with the name and the branding.”
Hindy respected Glaser and his work from the outset. Likewise, Glaser believed in what Hindy and Potter were doing strongly enough that he waived his regular fee and agreed to take a 5% stake in the business instead.
Before modern companies like Apple and Airbnb preached the virtues of a design-led business, Brooklyn Brewery had one of the most respected designers as part owner. Glaser’s relationship with the brand was far beyond a hired gun. He became a trusted advisor and friend to Hindy over the years. To this day, the two have lunch together almost weekly.
“The great secret that can’t be overlooked is the personal relationship you have with whomever you’re working with–a sense of commonality and affection,” Glaser says. “The work that would be most significant in my life came from this sense of mutuality, being in the same boat, trying to achieve the same results. If it’s not based on a personal affinity, it doesn’t go so far. In my life, every accomplishment I have has been based on some kind of personal relationship that went beyond business practice.”
While Glaser says financial gain hasn’t been his motivation, he’s proud of Brooklyn Brewery’s success over the years and shaping its strategy during a time when the borough’s reputation wasn’t the marketing machine that it is today.
“From the beginning, I had great respect for Milton and for his point of view–he saved us many times from detours in our focus on design,” Hindy says. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning, we had difficulty selling the beer. People didn’t understand this hoppy beer, this dark beer. Everyone said, ‘Why aren’t you making beer like Heineken or Budweiser?’ I remember once I came to Milton and said, ‘I think we need to develop another brand. I used to make this beer at home called Chocolate Stout so what if we did ‘Hindy’s Chocolate Stout?’ Milton said, ‘No, no, no–you gotta stick with Brooklyn here.”
Brooklyn Brewery was far from an overnight success. “Our brand did not take off in the beginning,” Hindy says. “It took off on our backs. We pushed it up the hill and it rolled back, we pushed it up again. It was very difficult.” Still, he kept with the identity and branding, which took hold with international consumers before locals.
Importers from Japan, Italy, and Sweden loved the Brooklyn branding and persuaded Hindy to sell to them. His only condition was to pay upfront–not a traditional wholesale model. “What I was thinking was, ‘I can’t sell this shit in Brooklyn! You want to sell this in Japan?!'” Hindy recalls. Now the company has full-time employees overseas.
Over the years, pressures to refresh or change have creeped into the business, but Hindy has maintained faith in Glaser’s expertise. “We’ve had so many people who came on staff and wanted to design brands for us,” Hindy says. “They had ‘ideas.’ When you go to your doctor and your doctor tells you what you need to do, you don’t say, ‘No, no, I think we should do something different.’ We trust our designer the way you trust your doctor and that’s hard for people on staff to accept. Everyone thinks they’re a designer. Everyone has ideas, but I think it’s been so important to have a guiding intelligence in our brand. Milton has spent his whole life doing this and he’s pretty good at it. He’s kept us on the straight and narrow over many years.”
Traditional advertising isn’t part of Brooklyn Brewery’s business model. Rather, it relies on word of mouth. In the early days, the company didn’t have the budget for television commercials or radio spots so they decided to donate beer to nonprofits and art organizations around Brooklyn for openings and fundraisers. “People would have the beer in their hands and they knew the connection with Milton,” Hindy says. “That was not a fast way to sell beer, but a very sure way and a way that I think built a tremendous amount of good will.”
In some ways, maintaining a consistent brand identity has helped its equity since it’s so dependent on instant recognition. Today, the company has the budget for advertising but still relies on a similar strategy, though now the word-of-mouth angle is amplified through social media.
Over the years, Glaser has designed every single label and identity for Brooklyn Brewery’s new beers. Hindy and brewmaster Garrett Oliver make a beer, come up with a name, and head to Glaser to come up with a graphic concept. Every year the brewery debuts at least 10 new beers–some limited edition, some that make it into the perennial offerings–and 2016 marks its 29th year selling beers. That’s amounted to hundreds of labels by Glaser.
Recently, the brewery decided it was time to do a packaging refresh to help boost sales. (Business is still healthy, Hindy says, and in the past five years profits have been growing by at least 15% annually.)
“The problem with an old product is when you have to revive it, when it becomes invisible because you’ve seen it so often,” Glaser says. “What you basically have to do to make people pay attention again and that time arrived.”
The original boxes were extensions of the beer’s label. Now, the boxes riff on the brewery’s logo, which wraps around the boxes’ corners and features the beer type in sans-serif capital letters smack dab in the center. One of the challenges with merchandising is the brewery has no control over how an individual store stocks its shelves–they could place the beer with the long or short side facing out or group individual types separately from the rest, which isn’t impactful visually.
“All brewers are looking for what you call the billboard effect,” Hindy says. “You want your beers in one place taking up as much eye space as you can.”
When two boxes are placed next to each other, the logo “completes” itself. Moreover, the change in packaging reflects the brand’s growth. It’s making more beers every year and the new packaging’s consistency works on every type of beer. It’s simplifying the packaging’s language and making it easier to build upon. Each of the beers has a different colorway–black and green for Brooklyn Lager, red and gold for Sorachi Ace, red and blue for American Ale–and when the boxes are placed next to each other, they looks vibrant from a color perspective but still legible since the graphics on each box are the same.
“He wanted to have a stronger presence in the market itself,” Glaser says. “It’s no longer thinking about a single six-pack in a little specialty shop. It’s now thinking about major displays and the opportunity you might have to see if you could develop something that could reflect the expansion of the brand and its new position. It’s in a very different position in the world of beer than it ever has been,” Glaser says.
“Milton will be 87 this year. I swear, the work he’s done for us in the last seven years is some of the most amazing work, and the refresh really caps it off,” Hindy says. “It’s really quite incredible–he’s pretty good at this.”
“The neurons are still connected,” Glaser adds without missing a beat.
All Images: courtesy Brooklyn Brewery