Three years ago, we found ourselves driving across the American prairie to present branding concepts to a startup brewery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Despite our initial anxiety, the presentation went great and we went on to finalize Fernson Brewing’s foundational branding and flagship packaging.
If the beer industry was packed then, it’s overflowing now (with one new brewery coming online every single day in the U.S). Breweries who launch with carefully laid plans are finding themselves shifting and adjusting before their six month anniversary. And growing production breweries, like Fernson, have to constantly stay on their toes to out maneuver competition from industry giants and small upstarts, alike.
We’ve been watching Fernson grow for a few years and after seeing some interesting messaging and brand strategy evolutions, decided it was a good time to catch up and see what’s changed since opening.
CODO: To kickoff, please introduce Fernson.
FERNSON: We’re about two and a half years old and make roughly 3,000 bbls per year. We distribute across SD, ND, western MN, parts of IA, and most recently launched NE, which has brought the excitement of serving the densely populated Omaha market. In addition to distribution, we have two taprooms in our hometown of Sioux Falls, SD. We came to market with two canned beers; a Farmhouse Ale and an IPA. A year ago, we added Lion’s Paw (lager), and just this month launched Curio (tart ale) in cans.
CODO: When we were working through your foundational branding, we remember discussing the pros and cons of naming individual beers. At the time, you were more interested in establishing the Fernson brand over individual beers, leading to “Fernson IPA,” “Fernson Farmhouse Ale,” etc. What changed your stance on this?
FERNSON: We consider our brand a “Modern Prairie Storybook”—modern primarily in aesthetic; and “prairie storybook” in both aesthetic and content. Our story is centered around the key character, Fernson, who’s a sort of folk hero with the agrarian lore of Johnny Appleseed, imagination of Don Quixote, and sagely demeanor of Gandalf. A constant thread in the Fernson character ethos is the way his stories bring people together, in much the same way good beer brings people together to share or create stories.
“With the release of Lion’s Paw Lager we offered a quip of his wisdom; “Pluck a thorn from the paw of a lion, and you’ll have a companion for years.” The idea of the lager was that its color is darker than people anticipate and light beer drinkers sometimes approach it hesitantly. After they drink it and realize how smooth it is, it soon becomes a companion.”
“A small, special, and thought-forward beer (Berliner Weissestyle) was named “Curio” to express the importance of little things: “A watch, or a tin, or a pin made of gold, a thing to remember the stories you hold.” The beer is light, crisp, and—like our aim for the Fernson universe—strives to be something you create memories over. Every time you pick up a Curio, the idea is to have it be something light that reminds you of something fond.”
“A complex, barrel-aged, high-ABV saison was named “Esmé”, the name of a woman Fernson knew, who dreamed with him, and pushed his expectations of himself.”
“Wagonplane Porter” comes straight from the childhood of Blake Thompson, cofounder and brewer, who attached wings to a red wagon with his brother and a friend, with their hearts set on flying to Disney World. We thought of Fernson’s resourcefulness and imagination and that one time that “he found a few parts in the dusty old cellar—some wings, a hay cart, and a wooden propeller.”
CODO: For a few years, we saw breweries trend toward ‘style-forward’ names, the thinking being they wouldn’t have to go through the arduous process of finding an available name for subsequent packaging releases. We’re now seeing a return to naming individual products out of the gate. How has your naming strategy and architecture changed over the last few years?
FERNSON: On a marketing level, names give consumers one more way they can connect to the brand, and a bit of help conceptualizing the product. Indeed, there are many challenges when naming a beer, namely that most obvious names are taken by other breweries. That being said, we’ve worked really hard to establish the Fernson story, and if there’s one thing that’s true about stories, it’s that they almost always contain memorable names. We felt that, as we continued to lean more and more on this idea of story, it was a disservice to our beers and our brand to continue without proper names that fit within the Fernson story.
CODO: For Shy Giant IPA, in particular, what did the naming process look like? Did you consider the foundational branding and messaging or was it something that emerged more organically? Did you run into any issues along the way?
FERNSON: We addressed consumer confusion early on—is this a new beer or a rebrand of the original beer? We decided that if the color of the can remained consistent, many would make the association easily, if they noticed at all. Once we decided to name the beer, we really wanted to come up with a name that fit the story of Fernson, but also reflected the beer that’s in the can. Many beer drinkers still have reservations about hoppy beers, so we chose to confront these misconceptions by personifying our rather big (7% ABV, 70 IBU) IPA as a ‘Shy Giant’—something big but also restrained and balanced. As the parable goes, “I set my fear of the giant aside, and found he was kind as his shoulders were wide.”
The biggest challenge our marketing team had was deciding on a single direction and getting the company at large to understand and adopt the idea. But we’re all dreamers here, and we have worked hard to create an environment where creativity meets discipline in following through on these sorts of ideas.
CODO: Beyond re-naming (or naming) your flagship beers, how has Fernson’s branding and storytelling evolved since you opened?
FERNSON: You’re seeing the beginning of an effort to direct Fernson towards focused stories. Our marketing team began conceptualizing these stories and writing them into digestible expressions of each individual brand. Prior to this effort, we had a few disparate directions we were exploring, most of them vaguely rural, many of them connected directly to the land. By consolidating the conceptual direction to “a modern prairie storybook,” and the visual direction to match the cans, we’re looking to shorten the amount of time it takes the consumer to understand who we are, while expressing the imagination that we hope the brand holds.
CODO: It’s rare to see a new brewery bring on an in-house designer. We think this is a smart move if you can swing it. How did you go about bringing Mitch into the fold and how far along were you when you decided to do this?
FERNSON: As you know, we had great design and branding partners from the start, beginning with CODO for the foundation of our brand, then moving to a marketing firm closer to home for the day-to-day stuff. It was during that time that our current designer, Mitch Torbert, began working in our taprooms as a part-time gig to supplement his life as a college art professor. In the taproom role, he quickly revamped the look of our tap list and the rest is history—we’ve since hired him full time and absolutely love having an in-house designer on the team. Because we were fortunate enough to have him more or less land in our laps, there wasn’t a ton of decision making involved. He just kept making great stuff, and made up our minds for us by churning out quality work, and we haven’t looked back since.
People tend to discount the value a dedicated designer can bring to a team. It’s easy to misconstrue design as simply how things look. However, Mitch brings a ton of value to conversations on marketing, events, understanding consumers, and many other areas around the brewery. He’s taught our team that design isn’t just about how things appear visually—it’s about optimizing whatever it is you’re working on—and that perspective has been an incredibly valuable addition to the team.
CODO: Nice! Any advice, from a branding perspective, for breweries-in-planning who may be reading this?
FERNSON: It’s worth the cost of having an experienced branding team set the foundation for your company. We’ve found that having a strong brand means first and foremost being consistent. For us, that means following our “modern prairie storybook” guide and if something doesn’t fit those three words, we simply don’t use it.
CODO: Aside from your taprooms, where should people go if they want to follow along with you guys?
CODO: Thanks for your time, guys. It’s been awesome watching you grow—please start distributing in Indiana.
FERNSON: Working on it!
Interested in branding your own brewery? Check out our comprehensive craft beer branding guide over at www.craftbeerbrandingguide.com