Road trips like these have become more frequent for our firm as a response to increasing interest in our design work around the country. And we really, really enjoy them. There’s something shamefully indulgent about packing up and flying or driving somewhere cool for several days of food and drink all in the guise of research and work. Here we were, on another one of these trips, stuffed into a rented Impala (stock, black, and throaty), headed to South Dakota to share design work with a relatively new client, Fernson Brewing Co.
Branding Fernson Brewing
BEER AND LOATHING ACROSS THE LONESOME PRAIRIE
There’s always a slight twinge of dread when preparing to share creative work with clients. Even if it’s the best work you’ve ever made, and it satisfies every goal you and the client have outlined, and you know they’ll love it—there’s always a chance that they won’t. While that may not sound like a big deal for folks who don’t do this every day, take it from us: It stings. We pour ourselves into every project we take on, no matter the budget, to make the best work we can. When someone isn’t happy, it hurts. Every designer (and brewer, and chef, and writer, and photographer, and anyone in a creative field) deals with this, even if they don’t freely admit it.
Fast forward to Cody and I in the middle of a 10 hour drive from Indianapolis to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We left early in the morning, and after several hours of podcasts, filthy rap, business talk, and the sort of mindless drivel that spews forth when doing 90 miles an hour on US I-80 W through Iowa, a bit of that pre-presentation dread started to set in. After mulling it over, this dread quickly turned into gallows humor.
There’s always a chance that someone won’t like your work. But that’s part of this business. You bury that stinging sensation deep inside (in a dark, dark place), figure out what’s wrong, make it right, and keep rolling. It’s actually not that big a deal. And while these trips are becoming more common, it’s not every day that we’re driving across the country to share work with a client, and then spend a few days with them. About the time we crossed from Illinois into Iowa, a horrible thought crossed our minds. What if they don’t like the work? What if we present our ideas, the air leaves the room, and they’re not happy? Then what? We spend the next 36 hours not talking about how we let them down? We’re being welcomed into their home. What have we gotten ourselves into?
Let’s rewind a bit.
We first met Derek Fernholz and Blake Thompson a few months prior to this road trip. They were friends in the beginning stages of opening a production brewery in Sioux Falls. They had a solid business plan, funding in place, and even had a location pinned down. What they didn’t have was a name, brand identity, or package design. Adding further drama to this story: They had already gone through an unsuccessful branding process with another firm, prior to reaching out to CODO. And they had nothing to show for it—no name, no positioning or branding, no package design, nothing. Except the hollow feeling of throwing a briefcase filled with money off of the tallest, coldest, most desolate mountain peak.
Derek and Blake had been home brewing and enjoying craft beer since they were totally of legal drinking age. By chance, they were each individually scheming up a Sioux Falls brewery. They ended up meeting, hitting it off, and hatching a concept in one of the most underserved craft beer markets in the United States. After driving from Illinois to Iowa to South Dakota, it’s no wonder that two friends would want to start a brewery out here. Quite literally: what else are you going to do? It’s interesting that no matter how far we travel from Indy, we continually run into the same thing—young people all over the country who decide to stick around their home town, plant a flag, and work their ass off to make their community more vibrant and attractive.
If you’ll allow us to backpedal a bit, it’s not as though there’s nothing to do in Sioux Falls. During our trip, we’d visit a couple spots around town; our favorite, a convincing burger pub with an impressive draft beer list. After that, we visited a townie bar where we sipped dozens of Coors shorties and watched faded electronic keno screens blip in rows against the wall by worn-in pool tables. There’s definitely stuff to do in Sioux Falls. Even so: at the time, you could count the craft breweries in South Dakota on two hands. And from the colorful group of locals we met, we knew the demand was there.
At the time of this road trip, we’d already helped Derek and Blake develop a name. This was tricky: The name needed broad appeal to meet wide distribution goals, all while somehow evoking South Dakota’s elusive outdoor mystique. After churning through dozens of options, we landed on Fernson Brewing Co., a moniker they had previously considered. This portmanteau came from collapsing Derek and Blake’s last names—Fernholz and Thompson. We usually steer clients away from “made up” names but in this case it made sense. We had the opportunity to create a fun story: Who is this Fernson character? An old bard? A wiley, nomadic ne’er-do-well?? An hirsute folk-legend lothario? There were many different directions we could go, but however things were to shake out, Derek and Blake knew that Fernson felt right. Before we had made so much as an initial sketchbook doodle, they were promoting their brewery and beckoning thirsty customers with the #FindFernson hashtag.
So, we had a name, and our brand identity direction pitches, and the open road, and mounting anxieties about presenting the work. And each other. After seeing your 900th rest stop and your 1200th Arby’s logo on a highway exit sign, your mind gets restless. You start to ramble, to recollect past memories, to argue about politics. You are party to haunting cryptozoological visions (“Jackalopes” aren’t real, Cody—it was a grocery bag stuck on some brush). There’s a vacuum out there, and your mind wants so desperately to fill it. Living in the midwest or living in the plains states: it’s not dissimilar. It’s like being trapped inside a blank canvas. More than your typical dime-a-dozen craft brewery was clawing its way to life here. Derek and Blake, imaginations running full-tilt, were out to create an entire person—a legend—from thin air.
One of the questions we love to ask new clients is this: If your brewery were a person, who would it be and why? Clients can struggle to answer. It’s not unusual to hear, “Oh, well, I don’t really know any celebrities.” So we’ve started to ask instead: If your brewery were a person, what personality traits would that person have? The goal, for the sake of the creative process, is to give ourselves an idea of tone and approach. Almost never would we actually consider putting this person into the final logo itself. That way lies danger: at best the output will be corny and clichéd. At worst, you’ll have on your hands that most dreaded of advertising fallbacks: A mascot.
Mascots are so, so stupid. Actually, a mascot is the most literal, condescending, heavy-handed application of branding we can think of. Paint a guy’s face with makeup and now kids want hamburgers. Give me a break. Loathsome. Even contemporary applications of mascots are offensive to anyone with half a brain. The Most Interesting Man In The World? Please, dude… you drink Dos Equis.
And here we are: self-avowed mascot haters, presenting a logo that literally centered around the face of a made-up, idealized person. I’m reading that back now, and it sounds incredible even to us. But the damnedest thing is, it felt right at the time, and it feels more right now. The only way to do this project justice would be to create something (someone?) entirely new, out of whole cloth. This will make sense to anyone who has been out there, in the middle of nowhere. Surely this will make sense to anyone who has felt that expansive vacuum all around them, tugging, urging us all to pursue better. To want more for ourselves and the communities we call home.
After working with these guys long enough to understand where they’re coming from, it clicked into place. Somewhere, by the shoulder of the highway, past the industrial parks and weigh-in stations, you may come to meet a man. If you were to speak with him, it would not be clear if he were highly educated, homeless, or some combination of the two. Was he a rich man forsaking a gilded life of luxury? Or is he a brilliant genius who slipped through the cracks of society?
Is he magical in nature? Has he forgotten more than most would care to ever know? Has he been around a lot longer than many would guess? Would he play a friendly prank on you, given the opportunity? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And still more. We’re not quite sure what we’ve helped bring to life. Without realizing what we were doing, we split the atom that makes up more established American folk legends like Johnny Appleseed or John Henry. And hey, if that’s too pretentious for you, maybe you could imagine him palling around with those guys. Or at least knowing a guy who knows a guy.
Or maybe, in the minds of South Dakotans, somewhere in their collective consciousness, floating above peaceful, flat, bergs, as good citizens sleep soundly, outlined in twinkling starlight: There was a FERNSON-shaped hole. All Derek, Blake and CODO did was draw an outline around it.
Here’s the thing about being a designer. You can come up with the most dazzling execution of a concept. You can sweat every detail and gnash your teeth polishing mockups for a presentation. You can wrack your brain into the wee hours of the night, bleed for your craft, and then drive halfway across the country to present. None of this is a guarantee that your work will land with the client. I guess we got lucky this time, because Fernson stuck the landing.
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Since completing Fernson’s brand foundation and package design work, Derek and Blake have been putting their 30BBL system through its paces and are already eyeing expanded distribution, cranking out well-reviewed beers at a good clip, and have opened a cozy taproom. It’s been fun watching them grow and breathe life into the brand. If you’re ever making your way through the plains, swing by for a pint—it’s worth the detour to Find Fernson.