What’s behind Budweiser’s new look?

Budweiser has become the latest big brand to unveil a stripped-back new identity and packaging via a major redesign by the New York office of jkr

In 2011, as part of its last major rebrand (also by jkr), the brand’s ‘bowtie’ logo device was used prominently on cans. The new scheme backtracks from that, reinstating the script-lettering wordmark. The bowtie itself remains as the Budweiser logo but the new version strips out the background shading, removes the crown symbol and changes the 3D lettering of the 2011 model to a (much cleaner) redrawn 2D treatment.

2011 Budweiser 'bowtie' logo by jkr
2011 Budweiser ‘bowtie’ logo by jkr
2011 Budweiser 'bowtie' logo
2011 Budweiser ‘bowtie’ logo
2016 Budweiser 'bowtie' logo by jkr New York
2016 Budweiser ‘bowtie’ logo by jkr New York

Dropping blue as one of Budweiser’s core colours caused controversy back in 2011 – it’s now been restored in the script of the wordmark used on cans and bottles. There are two new bespoke typefaces – Bud Bold which was supposedly inspired by lettering on the original Budweiser brewery from 1860, and Bud Crafted, a slab serif which references the Budweiser wordmark of the 1960s. Pleasingly, the orientation of the branding on cans returns to portrait having dallied with landscape treatments for previous versions – something that was always puzzling.

2011 Budweiser can by jkr
2011 Budweiser can by jkr
2016 Budweiser cans by jkr New York
2016 Budweiser cans by jkr New York

The new look is apparently meant to reflect the fact that “Budweiser as a beer is one of the hardest to brew. It takes roughly 30 days,” as jkr’s New York creative director Tosh Hall told Design Week. Drinkers may wonder how you could spend 30 days brewing a batch of beer only to end up with Budweiser but “Our entire brand positioning is all around showing how much we care about the beer, that we’re ‘Brewed the Hard Way,'” according to Brian Perkins, vp of marketing, Budweiser North America in AdWeek. “We looked at the packaging we had and said to ourselves, ‘Can we honestly say the level of detail, care and attention on this packaging reflects the level of care, detail and attention that goes into the beer? No.'”

Which (a) seems a bit harsh on jkr and (b) makes you wonder what they were trying to achieve back in 2011 (press statements of the time frame that redesign within the brand’s attempts to grow internationally).

2016 Budweiser bottle by jkr New York
2011 Budweiser bottle by jkr New York
2016 Budweiser bottle by jkr New York
2016 Budweiser bottle by jkr New York

So what’s interesting about the project?

Turner Duckworth’s Coca-Cola blueprint endures
2D replaces 3D? Check. Removal of all extraneous details? Check. Focus on brand’s core visual assets? Check. It really is hard to overstate the impact that Turner Duckworth’s work with Coke has had on big FMCG branding. Why? Probably because it was based on common sense.

Hand-crafted elements
This is something we are seeing more and more of, especially on packaging. Design Bridge in particular have been adding some beautifully-crafted elements to their recent packaging work, created using classic techniques such as glass engraving and woodblock illustrations. According to Hall, “every piece of type and vector art [on Budweiser was drawn] by hand, such as the medallion, leaves, grains and hops”.

It’s about linking the claims of dedication to detail that go into making the product to the design process. For a design studio it must be a much more stimulating way of working – sourcing some master craftsman (or woman) to collaborate with, filming the whole process for the website, ending up with a beautiful piece of artwork for the studio meeting room. And, cynicism aside, it does seem to be resulting in better quality – the elements in the new Budweiser packaging do appear to be much more refined and considered than their computer-generated predecessors. There’s a sense of quality that was lacking before (thanks in part to the work of lettering designer Ian Brignell, see comment below).

And that’s important for big brands battling ‘craft’ competitors and who want to communicate that they care about their product every bit as much as their bearded challengers.

BTW I particularly liked this comment from Brand New’s post on the 2011 redesign: “the old cans said ‘This is a trusted, longstanding brand and while the beer inside may be crap – it’s classic crap’.”

In a great piece for our February Food and Drink issue, Silas Amos looks at the competition between the big fast food brands and their ‘cooler’ challengers and the way in which ‘authenticity’ has emerged as a key factor. Something similar is happening in the drinks sector which perhaps partly explains Budweiser’s design approach here.

In AdWeek’s story, Perkins hotly denies that the Budweiser redesign is in response to the burgeoning craft beer movement in the States. “This was not a responsive move; this was the move of a leader,” he said. Nonetheless, craft beers are on the rise in the US while, according to this 2013 research, Budweiser’s former packaging was performing less well on the shelf compared to its mass-market rivals.

There is a credibility problem here. Budweiser can stress its lengthy brewing process and commitment to quality (this is a beer that has its own ‘creed’ for goodness sake) all it likes but when many consumers think of the brand they think of industrial scale production, not loving craft. Personally I can’t think of Budweiser without conjuring up mental images of Duff from The Simpsons.

In that same piece of market research, “among nine mass-market beer brands studied, Budweiser ranked first for being affordable, confident, energetic, fun, friendly and genuine”. They are not bad qualities to be known for – why try and be something you’re not?

Budweiser cans through the ages, finishing with the 2011 version
Budweiser cans through the ages, finishing with the 2011 version. The Budweiser ‘creed’ (its famous promise of quality) appears above the wordmark on each one

Bear with me here but I can’t help wondering about the link between Budweiser’s brand and America’s as a whole. Alongside Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, Budweiser is one of those iconic ‘American Dream’ brands promising, literally, a taste of the Stateside good life. Since 2008, it has been owned by the international Anheuser-Busch InBev conglomerate. The 2011 redesign was “one of many steps in our quest to reinforce Budweiser’s role as a true global beer brand,” said Frank Abenante, vice president, Brands, AB InBev at the time. “Together with our unifying global creative idea, the new global packaging look and feel will reinforce Budweiser’s bond with consumers around the world.” Previously, Budweiser’s branding had been stridently red, white and blue. The new global-friendly design ditched the blue, to the dismay of many Americans. Now it’s back. Does that mean it’s OK for the brand to be explicitly American again? What’s changed? Or am I totally overthinking this?!

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