Upright Four Play and Unintentional Brand Messaging

There is little doubt that when Pyramid decided to scrap their iconic labels and adopt their new look--an artistically indistinct, anodyne melange of colors reminiscent of what you'd expect to find on the wall of a doctor's office--the designers thought it was brilliant. They obviously didn't intend people to mock the brewery as a sports-drink wannabe. And thus did the control of the brand pass from Pyramid to the people. It's an iron law: ultimately, the customer gets to decide how she feels about your brand.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I saw Ezra's post about the release of the new Four Play,

which features a surprisingly un-Upright-like label. Erza commented:

Jeff, there is no "brand." The 4 year round beers labels are designed consistent but there never has been a guide on seasonal and one-offs and that was purposeful from the beginning that those beers would have no rules. In fact it has been a personal goal of mine that if you hold those labels up next together they all contrast. So this is EXACTLY what I was wanting.

So, here's the thing: there's always a brand. The brand is the image that represents the brewery; it's the visual representation of the brewery's personality. The question becomes, does what you put on the label communicate what you want to say about the brewery?

If Upright Brewing was a person, it would be the ultimate urbanite: educated, sophisticated, and elegant. The name is a useful symbol--it refers to a musical instrument, which is a functional non sequitur for beer. It suggests jazz, but more than that, it suggests improvisation and lyricism. Of all the music forms, jazz may be the most laden with context; the improvisation requires communication between musicians and a shared understanding of the history, vocabulary, and discography of the form. Great jazz musicians riff on each other in a sly, knowing way. All of which makes "Upright" a perfect name for a brewery that demands a lot from its audience. Alex folds layers of meaning into his beers--like jazz compositions, you find references to the history and lineage of beer styles. They aren't recreations--Upright's not a cover band--they're improvisations.

The label art suggests this. Ezra's comment that variability is the one constant is appropriate: a different label for every new riff. Variability is a huge part of the brand. But there's variability and then there's variability. Discord may suit a composition, or it may damage it. Four Play is discordant: the question is, in a good way or a bad way?

Art and Context
Ezra is a gifted artist and much of his art--especially beer labels--is arresting. I have personally witnessed occasions when people bought beers based solely on his label art. As an intellectual exercise, Four Play makes sense. The double entendre here involves the base beer--Upright's Four--and the phrase foreplay. The connection continues to the beer, which is lush and sensual. The label is intended to evoke this.

I think, for folks like Ezra, Alex, and Gerritt, the meaning of the image is different than it would be for someone like me. They're all in their twenties or very early thirties (corrections solicited), and sexuality is one of the most generational of impulses. For anyone over forty, the photo of a lightly-clad woman in a sexual pose almost necessarily indicates objectification. In popular culture up until about the mid-90s, that would have always been the case. Of course, things have changed and women have taken control of their own images. Within feminism, there's a huge debate about what constitutes objectification (obviously, I'll avoid that rabbit hole). No matter which side of the debate you take, it's clear that context matters.

The problem, of course, is that art and commerce are both communications. To be communicative, they need a sender and a receiver, and the receiver always has veto power over the way they interpret the image. Artists claim this is a type of theft, but it's inevitable. For businesses, the point is more freighted; if the receivers--customers--apply a different meaning than the brewery intended, there can be trouble.

For a lot of folks, a cigar's never a cigar, and beer label with a scantily-clad woman in a suggestive pose means objectification, first and only. (Which is how the discussion played out at The New School.) For those folks, this is going to offend. There's no right or wrong here. In communications, objective reality isn't the point.

I don't really have an opinion about whether the label is appropriate or not.

I know the people behind the message, and I know that there's no effort to objectify women. (In fact, Upright probably has a higher percentage of women drinkers than any brand in Oregon.) What I don't know is how the label will be received--part of the Upright brand, or a misstep. The 2010 vintage of Four Play had a risque label that to my mind didn't come close to the line of misunderstanding (it also features Ezra's art--a bonus). The 2011 vintage? We'll see.