There you are, standing in an over-air-conditioned liquor store aisle, face to face with hundreds of bottles — and a choice. There’s a lot riding on the cardboard boxes, screen-printed logos, and etched imagery before you. They do everything from relay the nature of the product to convey the brand’s personality and tell a story of its roots.

So how do designers create a label and brand identity that won’t get lost on a crowded shelf?

For Dave Waite, founder and creative director of Los Angeles-based strategic design agency Zookeeper, the process starts with the brand’s name.

In 2013, business partners Dan Malech and Rob Lutz contacted Zookeeper about branding their new Portland, Oregon-based craft brewery and beer. The name StormBreaker — a reference to both Oregon’s Mount Hood and an ancient fear of the towering mountain — came to Zookeeper quickly, but it needed an identity to go with it.

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StormBreaker’s logo graces brewery glasses, beer taps, and merchandise. Via Zookeeper.

Through a series of intensive black and white sketching sessions, the agency came up with three distinct concepts: a “safer” option with Mount Hood surrounded by hops; a more ominous-looking totem that was a symbol for storms, and what Waite calls a “mythical, heroic figure that would battle the weather and literally rip storms in half.” In the end, it was the latter that won out.

“Our design process takes an extreme amount of time,” Waite said. “But we feel it’s exceptionally important in designing a look and feel that no other brand has.”

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During the sketching process, strategic design agency Zookeeper’s StormBreaker figure starts to take shape. Via Zookeeper

How a Label Builds a Brand

When it comes to capturing consumers’ attention at the point of purchase, differentiating the brand is a must.

“The label is pretty much the consumer-facing visual to the brand,” said Stuart Crawford, a freelance graphic designer with Inkbot Design who has created brand identities for clients that include international drink brands, sports bars, and restaurants. “You work out the primary demographic or focus for the brand’s strategy, then apply it to the medium in a form that’s communicative, visually appealing, and representative of the message the brand should portray.”

The approach may differ slightly between designs for wine, liquor, and beer, but Waite believes all three are subject to the same laws of good design. “Beer drinkers are typically fun, social people. Wine drinkers are a different breed, as are firewater drinkers,” he said. “But no matter the type of beverage, figuring out what your customers like and what will delight them is crucial to achieving success with your beverage brand.”

Wine: Label Design with Personality

For winemakers, good label design can mean the difference between respectable sales figures and total obscurity. In its design audit report, global research firm Nielsen finds that a whopping 4,200 new wines came to market in 2014, and that package design is “an essential tool” for standing out from this very large crowd.

E&J Gallo Winery, in its 2014 consumer wine trends study, pointed out that two out of three consumers choose a wine based on the label, particularly younger wine shoppers. The following year’s study indicated that millennials are four times more likely to buy wine based on its label than baby boomers, while more baby boomers consult bottle labels for region of origin and flavor descriptors. Nielsen’s Design Audit Report: Wine also found that some bottles held consumers’ attention 2.5 times longer than others.

What gave them an edge? Interestingly, the design that works best depends on the price. Wines priced at less than $20 did well with bright red, orange, and gold labels, and some of these brands found they were able to appeal to buyers by appearing more premium with “dark, classy, and sleek” package designs. In the $20-and-over range, the wines that garnered the most attention employed “bold or contrarian” designs as well as traditional aesthetics like neutral colors and classic typefaces.

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Mirassou’s bright yellow label catches the buyer’s eye at the right price point. Via Mirassou.

There are several ways in which wine’s branding and marketing differs from that of beer and liquor. One is that wine buyers don’t necessarily know what they want. “Consumers are still learning what wine is, so it’s a real challenge to bring the wine to life (through packaging),” said Brian Solis, principal analyst with research and advisory firm Altimeter, a Prophet company, and author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. “You need to play with tasting elements, but also lifestyle elements, and give each bottle a personality,” he said.

Solis, who has worked as a creative consultant for such wineries as Four Vines and Andrew Lane, also points to the nature of the source material. Most winemakers have a limited harvest of grapes. Working with a set number of cases of wine means they must weigh marketing spend against potential revenue. Nielsen’s research shows that wine brands consistently spend significantly less on media than beer and liquor brands.

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Nielsen Design Audit Report: Wine, Media Spending Trends

That leaves much of the marketing heavy lifting to branding elements like name, label, bottle shape, and tasting notes. Still, according to Solis many wineries — and alcohol brands in general — make the mistake of playing it safe.

“If you think of the wine and beer industries, many labels look the same — same shape, same back label, even similar websites,” Solis said. Many companies put craftsmanship above marketing, but the fact is that quality isn’t enough. “The word ‘brand’ means there’s something behind it that becomes relatable and shareable, and that takes some work,” he explained. “A great product is not going to be enjoyed if people don’t buy it and talk about it.”

One wine brand known for putting in the extra effort is Orin Swift. You won’t find generic pictures of grapes and vines on these labels; rather, the winery favors edgy photography. Solis, a fan of the brand, says its designs do a great job of “challenging convention,” while the lack of tasting notes “brings the wine’s mysterious personality to life.”

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Orin Swift’s provocative Mannequin Chardonnay label hinges on intriguing photography and minimal text.

Other wineries are conveying their personalities with minimalism, which can act as a beacon to consumers overwhelmed by shelves bursting with options. “Brands, in general, have recently gone through a lot of simplification,” Inkbot Design’s Crawford said. “They are trying to zero in on their personal message, removing all superfluous elements — which I appreciate!”

One brand that embodies this trend is Claus Preisinger. The focus is squarely on the Austrian winemaker’s stylized signature (Claus). The design choice reflects the brand’s credo; Preisinger has been quoted as saying, “My winemaking philosophy comes right to the point. Clear, strong and confident naturally, like the wines I am creating.”

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Online wine magazine Above Sea Level shared Claus Preisinger’s minimalist label on Twitter.

Though there are several brands innovating in their label design, Nielsen was able to identify branding opportunities around Nielsen was able to identify branding opportunities around traits that are currently underutilized in the marketplace: Inexpensive bottles have room to grow with sexy, distinctive, innovative, and bold branding, while pricier bottles can explore the “casual” and sexy space.

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Most Differentiated Package Designs on Various Personality Traits. Via Nielsen.

Liquor: The Story Counts

When your products are built on craftsmanship — as beer, wine, and liquor largely are — the story of how your product was born can be a great source of design inspiration. Such was the case with Scotland’s Glenturret Distillery, which recently released a new whiskey (the Glenturret Fly’s 16 Masters) that features an image of 16 stillmen and a collie dating back more than a hundred years. “The Fly’s 16-year-old bottling was inspired by an old photograph from 1905 that distillery staff unearthed recently in a cupboard,” reads the distillery’s website.

The workers pictured were instrumental to the distillery; the dog, meanwhile, belonged to its manager and lived on site. It’s the kind of story that sticks with consumers. With 240 years of artisanal whiskey-making under its belt, Glenturret has earned its place in history, and imagery that captures its heritage is ideally suited to conveying that.

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Fly the dog and 16 stillmen in a photograph dated 1905. Via Glenturret.
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Glenturret Fly’s 16 Masters. Via Glenturret.

Another way to tell a story of tradition through label design is to embrace the vintage look. Encompassing what Crawford calls a “handmade or artesian-style” production and the idea that there’s a “time-perfected quality in the product that’s taken years to get to your hand,” vintage label design is popular among spirit brands like Don Papa.

The rum brand from the Philippines features Dionisio Magbueles, a legendary sugarcane farmer and prominent figure in the Philippine revolution, along with 50 animals hidden on the label, according to Fortune Magazine. A limited edition 10-year-old rum, which is darker and richer in flavor, also features Magbueles, this time with a corresponding darker look. “The inspiration here was, ‘What would he be if he got older and perhaps even lost in the wild?'” Monica Llamas, the brand’s head of communications, told Fortune Magazine. The story portrayed by the vintage-inspired design oozes character and acts as a hook that can create coveted word of mouth.

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Don Papa Rum. Via Forbes Magazine.

Beer: Crafting a One-Of-a-Kind Look

Considering more than 3,900 new beers came to market in the last year, and that 70 percent of the time craft beer buyers don’t decide which brand to go with until they’re standing at the shelf, determining what style of label resonates with buyers is a must.

In its 2016 Craft Beer Audit, Nielsen found that shoppers prefer labels they deem approachable and full of personality. 39 percent of consumers said the logo or brand name makes an impression, compared with 36 percent that pointed to the color scheme on the label.

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Via Nielsen’s Craft Beer Shelf-Busters Report.

In the case of StormBreaker, the geographical region in which the beer is brewed factored into the design as well. StormBreaker is located in Portland, Ore., what Dave Waite calls an “exceptionally competitive town for breweries and bars,” so everything from the logo type to the character design and brand identity had to be strong. “No pressure,” he joked. “No pressure at all.”

By creating hand-drawn lettering and the custom character — the “Cloud Ripper” figure seen in the final design — Zookeeper was able to deliver exactly what brewers Malech and Lutz were looking for: A regionally relevant and completely unique beer brand.

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Designers experiment with potential StormBreaker lettering. Via Zookeeper.
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The finalized StormBreaker logo incorporates both the “Cloud Ripper” figure and custom lettering. Via Zookeeper.

When it undertook a redesign of its labels last year, the Ohio-based Great Lakes Brewing Company bet that colorful illustrated labels evoking the brand’s heritage would win over consumers. The design project was led by Brokaw, the brand’s advertising agency, and involved infusing the new labels with the craft brewery’s Midwestern roots and 27-year history.

Illustrator and lettering artist Darren Booth created custom paintings and illustrations of everything from the Cleveland skyline to legendary historical figures like Eliot Ness. At the same time, Brokaw maintained the black-and-white color scheme that consumers had come to know.

A photo posted by Darren Booth (@darrenbooth) on Feb 17, 2016 at 1:14pm PST

“Great Lakes takes on the personality of an erudite, witty, and engaging expert in all things beer,” said Mark McKenzie, the agency’s associate creative director. That personality can vary dramatically from brand to brand. For example, Brokaw also works with margarita malt beverage Cayman Jack, which McKenzie describes as a brand built on “an adventure-seeking mentality.”

“It’s a question of: does the design approach reflect what the brand is all about?” McKenzie said.

Sharing Design Online

As part of the Great Lakes label refresh process, Brokaw developed a series of videos for social media to guide fans through the evolution of the packaging. The videos ran on social sites like Instagram and Vimeo.

Aside from generating awareness of and interest in the label refresh, the videos capitalized on a trend that brand design agency Force and Form’s design director Jeremy Otis calls “shareable” designs. These are label designs and packaging concepts that consumers can’t wait to show off to their friends on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. By offering creative assets like online videos and product photos, alcohol brands make it easy for fans to share brand-related content. E&J Gallo Winery says more than 50 percent of young wine drinkers “engage about wine on social media,” while close to half post and share wine-related photos.

For Zookeeper, garnering attention online is a must. “As a designer in this day and age, social media should be top of mind with everything you do,” said Waite. For a new brewery that he’s branding in Los Angeles, he’s going beyond packaging to design its exterior and interior with “Instagram and Snapchat moments” in mind.

While it’s possible to spot trends in today’s alcohol label designs, the bottom line is that a one-of-a-kind look is most likely to attract eyeballs. “Oftentimes, in retail product packaging, it’s those who go against the trends who succeed,” Crawford of Inkbot Design said.

We’ll drink to that.