Stories

Refreshing Left Field Brewery’s Brand

A Tale of Two Torontos

I traveled to Toronto for the first time in late 2017 to speak at the Ontario Craft Brewer’s Conference. And I remember this trip fondly. The crowd was engaged and asked lots of great questions (very little booing). We shook some hands, handed out a stack of our Craft Beer Branding Guide, and explored the town for a couple of beer-filled days. The weather broke unusually pleasant for the time of year, and we even got to stroll through Chinatown for an evening, taking in the open-air market stalls and vibrantly painted homes-turned-storefronts of the Kensington Market area.

Culturally, Toronto isn’t much different than any number of major American cities. There’re NBA, MLB and NHL teams. Most major American retail chains have a presence (or at least an analogue) on every street corner. Locals harbor all the customary complaints about the soaring cost of housing in popular areas of town—Toronto has all the footprint and identity of a cleaner, friendlier New York City, or perhaps, a healthier Chicago. Suffice it to say, for a dyed-in-the-wool red blooded Midwestern American, the vibe is instinctively familiar.

Still, there’s plenty to set the city apart. Several years ago, BBC Radio named Toronto the most diverse city in the world. That might sound like hyperbole cooked up by a tourism board, but a short walk around downtown would have you believe it. You might hear five different languages spoken in as many blocks. You can find food, art, or music of pretty much any stripe you can imagine. Toronto is a true international city, and people from basically every walk of life are present and represented. Another thing setting the city apart? Craft beer. Or at least, for an American, it is notable how craft beer is distributed and retailed in Ontario. We’ve travelled to US markets that have state run liquor stores, for example, but nothing quite compares to the stringency of the LCBO application process, and far more consternating, the spartan apathy of the “Beer Store.” More on this later.

Enter Left Field Brewery. Founded by husband and wife team Mark and Mandy Murphy, Left Field has been serving up a fearless mix of eclectic and distinguished beers for residents of the East End area in Toronto. Remember that MLB team I mentioned earlier? Left Field leans into the local baseball culture, but calling them a “baseball-themed” brewery could be selling them short. Sure, they’ve got a repurposed scoreboard in the tasting room displaying their hours. They’ve got baseball posters and the names of their beers pay homage to obscure concepts ripped straight from the dugout. In lesser hands, the baseball theming could easily become clunky and restrictive: But Left Field handles it with a certain amount of reverence. In general, this is the key to their success.

As a (still relatively new) up-and-comer that had built solid in-roads with local craft beer fans, it’s safe to say that they had a good thing going. At first glance, their logo, company name, beer names and general “vibe” hung together well. But leadership also recognized the opportunity in front of them—craft beer is exploding in Toronto, much as it has in the US. Numerous competing products with slick branding are popping up like hoppy little whack-a-moles. Retail placement is increasingly contentious, and every off-premise tap handle is a battle. Pair this with more practical printing/production issues dogging their original logo artwork, and it became clear: this period of growth is crucial, and things need to change. A brand refresh was in order.

We needed to take stock of Left Field Brewery as it stood, preserve everything that was working well, and tighten up (or jettison) everything that wasn’t. In order to do this, we would need to journey back to Toronto to kick off the project.

We got into town a night early and spent the evening drinking and eating our way through the East End. Our first visit was a spot called Godspeed Brewery. Top-notch Japanese fusion cuisine paired with a world renowned brewer who focuses specifically on lagers. What an impressive place this was—I’m hankering to go back. From a positioning standpoint, the quality of the beer, the food, the interior; Everything was hitting on all cylinders. Truly impressive. If you’ll excuse the mini-Yelp review, this place is a must-visit.

Our next stop, Bar Hop in the Entertainment District, gave us a broader overview of the beer industry in Toronto. Featuring a stylish second floor and dimly-lit brick interior, this place was a serious showcase for the craft beer that Ontario (and beyond) had to offer. Not to mention the excellent food—the kind of thing the beautiful people call “New American” back home. An extensive selection of big, barrel aged/fruited so-and-so’s pair perfectly with gourmet burgers and thick-cut french fries.

We were received with equal warmth at Left Field’s East End taproom, nestled snug in an alley in a charming and lived-in neighborhood. In this area, many years former, a massive factory turned out bricks by the thousands: the neighborhood retains a blue-collar industrial charm. We sampled a number of beers, including a knuckles-down DIPA called Laser Show and a lip-smacking fruited sour called Squeeze Play. We met the staff at hand and talked shop. After a quick tour of the brewery and reviewing our itinerary for the remainder of the trip, we were off to check out a couple more spots relevant to the local beer conversation before calling it an evening.

Retail for craft beer in Toronto is a tale of two cities. The majority of direct-to-customer sales that take place anywhere (outside of direct sales at a brewery) may only pass through a select number of channels. This is largely overseen by the LCBO, or the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The LCBO hosts a number of retail stores that are state-run and subject to government regulation. Spots on shelves are awarded based on a panel review, which happens periodically each season—this means that each SKU sold at LCBO must be submitted and approved before it can be sold. To an American, the idea of a state-run liquor store might seem strange: but keep in mind, bottle shops in states like Utah and parts of the southern U.S. still use a similar (if less sophisticated) model to this day.

We visited an LCBO in Toronto the next day and I was genuinely impressed by what we saw. Well-organized and well-lit, with a wide variety of beer, wine, spirits, and other things besides, I would put the experience and sheer selection on par with any privately run specialty liquor store back home. Not to mention the fact that the Ontario government is incentivized to feature the products being made in their own province. The local beer selection was easy to find, and by all accounts kept up to date in terms of styles and freshness. Not bad at all. We entered the enormous walk-in cooler and remarked on various breweries’ positioning, noting what worked in the setting and what didn’t. We marveled at massive (read: a liter and a half by volume) green glass bottles of Grölsch lager that (we are told) Canadians only buy around Christmas. What a beautiful nation.

Remember that thing I said a second ago about Toronto beer being a tale of two cities? Our next stop was the outlet known simply as the “Beer Store.” If this sounds like a blunt name for a store that sells, uh, beer—then hang on, because it gets weirder. See, some time around the end of prohibition in Canada (yep, they had a prohibition of their own), there was another private body (mostly comprised of the macro beer powerhouses that would eventually become Molson Coors) that was tasked by the Canadian government to sell beer legally. The Beer Store is meant to be a non-biased vendor in theory, but in practice seems to push the usual suspects: watery North American lagers produced cheaply in mass quantities. The Beer Store survives to this day, and our visit there serves as hands-down the strangest beer-buying experience I’ve ever seen.

You enter a moderately soiled, nondescript building that resembles a neglected post office. The “retail space” is a big rectangle, except you notice right away that there are no coolers. In fact, there aren’t any physical products on display at all. In the back, a lone clerk stands behind a long countertop. A mechanism of metal rollers (the kind you might see in a factory or meat packing plant) sprawls to your left. Immediately adjacent is a touch-screen display not unlike an ATM. For the uninitiated: the idea here is that you tell the clerk what you’re after, and they retrieve it from some unseen storage area—often by the case. You then make your payment and leave. The touchscreen kiosks serve as a menu, featuring all of the available brands laid out in a grid. Local craft brands are not prioritized, taking the backseat to cheap macro standbys like Icehouse and Boxer. Even if craft brands were featured, a layer of dust caked on the touchscreen indicates that these interfaces see little to no action.

Oh, and you can recycle your empties there if you want to, I guess.

For smaller breweries like Left Field, distribution to the Beer Store is essentially a no-go. Most folks at the small to moderate scale start up by leveraging on-site sales and self distribution. Mark and Mandy regaled us with tales of the early days of Left Field—renting out a UHAUL trailer, delivering kegs of beer to accounts around town, and retrieving empty kegs along the drive back. If a brewery works hard enough, they will make it to a point where their packaged product is consistently placed in retail at LCBO locations. It’s difficult to say whether Beer Store customers would bother to give craft beer a chance, considering the rock-bottom price point of cheapo beer, and especially considering that the outlets themselves are doing nothing to promote the product. Craft offerings are buried, seemingly by design.

If nothing else, it was a unique and eye-opening experience.

With a general survey of the retail landscape under our belts, we grabbed lunch and returned to the brewery where we spent the remainder of the afternoon conducting one-on-one interviews with staff, including front-of-house servers, brewers, and corporate ownership. We gleaned a number of interesting tidbits from each of these discussions, but the tenor of each was remarkably similar. In summary, Left Field is on the right track; staff and leadership felt that while they needed to tighten and improve key elements of the branding, throwing it out and starting from scratch would not be prudent. People had already bought into the brand—customers, staff, off-premise accounts all seemed to be aligned. We agreed: a surgical brand refresh made a lot more sense than a wholesale rebrand. So, we embarked to do just that.

Left Field’s previous identity and packaging.

A brand refresh (as opposed to a wholesale rebrand) is half science and half intuition. On the one hand, we catalogue what’s working well, so that we have a clear idea of what we’ll need to preserve. In the case of Left Field, the baseball, script, and general vibe were on target. Truth be told, many of the decisions we made through this refresh were in service of more practical, mundane considerations: How do we get more contrast out of this logo? How do we sidestep the use of a stock script font for something with more character and punch? And finally, how do we tweak the can labels so that they stand out more effectively amongst the impressive craft beer stock of the LCBO?

 

Each change constituted at least one—and sometimes several—back and forths with leadership at Left Field. We asked Mark, Mandy and Justin questions like: Does this change make sense, or is it too much of a departure, given what you know about your customers? And, will these changes help relieve the nagging issues that we set out to fix in the first place? These discussions helped inform, for example, the decision to place the “Left Field” logotype on a straight baseline as opposed to the previously angled-upward text. This change made the logo easier to use in a variety of formats and layouts. We also developed a custom script mark, scrutinizing various capital F’s and L’s until the word mark felt just right. To support the new logo (and give Left Field more visual assets to work with) we developed a system of fun, baseball (and beer!) related iconography to be used on merch and other supporting promo pieces.

With revised branding in place, we shifted gears to packaging. Much as with the logo design process, we set out to update the existing cans with a sense of continuity from old to new. We leaned on Left Field as much as we could through this process: they had done the majority of their creative work in-house up until this point. This meant that they had an above-average understanding of what would play in the market. The resulting front and right side of the can labels are clear, consistent layouts, reminiscent of a ballpark scoreboard. We placed in the leftmost panel of the label a piece of art that tells a deeper story about each beer. The resulting packaging has been enthusiastically received by the craft beer devotees of Toronto’s East End.

An important parameter throughout the logo and package design process was the ability for Left Field to take over in-house and create new assets using the established framework of the refresh. Left Field had the foresight to hire a creative/marketing person early in their growth. Justin, Left Field’s in-house man of many hats, has done a fantastic job stewarding this brand work through his own efforts. He’s made several labels on his own that fall into the template of the new packaging, and he does a killer job photographing and promoting the work to boot. He makes the beer look as good as it tastes; I have a feeling this is no small contributor to Left Field’s success on Instagram, for example.

A few of the cans Left Field has put out on their own after our project was wrapped. Great stuff here.

Each time we travel, we gain a new perspective on what craft beer means in the communities where it is produced and consumed. Getting to know Left Field—and by proxy, Toronto—was one of the more eye-opening and thought provoking experiences we’ve had in our years as a firm. It’s amazing to me that beer can be distributed and sold so differently, and yet, at a fundamental level: people there want the same things they want back home. There’ll always be the folks who, for whatever reason, want a big ol’ case of cheap macro lager, and for that: they have the Beer Store. But for the folks who want to experience any one of the myriad benefits of craft beer as we have come to know it, you can head down to the nearest neighborhood spot for a fresh pint and some local camaraderie.