How can brewers ensure their designs don’t get canned?

By Stuart Stone

- Last updated on GMT

Extreme sensitivity: Use of seemingly innocuous phrases can take on different meanings when considered in different design concepts, according to the secretary to the Independent Complaints Panel
Extreme sensitivity: Use of seemingly innocuous phrases can take on different meanings when considered in different design concepts, according to the secretary to the Independent Complaints Panel
After a complaint about Easy IPA was upheld by the Portman Group's Independent Complaints Panel, The Morning Advertiser asked how brewers can avoid seeing designs getting canned.

The initial complaint regarding Easy IPA was made by a member of the public who believed that Easy IPA, produced by Flying Dog Brewery, appealed to under 18s.

While the Independent Complaints Panel concluded that the product didn’t directly appeal to underage drinkers, an investigation was held as to whether the product packaging encouraged immoderate consumption under Code 3.2(f) which states: “a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as binge drinking, drunkenness or drink-driving.”

It was noted that the front of the can contained commonly used the terms ‘Easy IPA’ and ‘Session IPA’. While these are commonly used descriptors in the craft beer category, the Independent Complaints Panel also noted that the original meaning of the phrase was a prolonged drinking session.

Although these terms were not to be problematic if used in the right context, when used alongside an image of an inebriated looking creature balancing on one leg presenting an indication of drunkenness they were deemed to be so.

A copy of the full decision can be read here​.

John Timothy, secretary to the Independent Complaints Panel, commented: “We are disappointed that Flying Dog Brewery do not appear to respect the decision or the process.

“Producers need to be extremely sensitive about the overall impact of their labelling. Use of a phrase that could have been innocuous on its own has taken on a different meaning when considered alongside a drunken looking character.”

How to steer clear of design issues

In addition to the ruling on Easy IPA, Welsh brewery Tiny Rebel were forced to make a change to the design of its Cwtch Welsh Red Ale in December 2017 after a complaint about the beer’s packaging was upheld by the Independent Complaints Panel.

The complaint alleged that the beer’s packaging and design, which features a cartoon bear and a graffiti typeface, appealed to under-18s and encouraged immoderate consumption​.

A spokesperson for the Portman group set out how brewers can avoid breaching rules on can design: "Our Code of Practice sets out the 11 rules that are the minimum standards required for the industry to market alcohol responsibly. Marketing rules aren’t there to stifle innovation or creativity but to protect vulnerable consumers and drive up standards.

"In the craft brewer sector lack of clarity around alcoholic nature and particular appeal to under-18s tend to make up the majority of complaints.

"The Panel recognises and supports the creativity and innovation in the craft beer sector. Producers that are starting out don’t use traditional marketing methods or have large, if any, advertising budgets, so they need their packaging to stand out from their competitors. They have also been innovative in terms of their packaging type and the ubiquitous use of 330 ml cans, which the Portman Group welcomes. However, given the strong association that this size of can has with soft drinks, it’s important that products of this size have clear and prominent alcoholic descriptors such as its legal name (ie, ale) and ABV. If a label or packaging is busy, or contains more negative rather than positive alcohol descriptors it may have to work harder to make it clear that it is alcoholic.

"Producers need to be careful when using images that have the potential to appeal to children. Images or references to children’s culture, childish images and childish names are best avoided. Producers will also need to be cautious when using nostalgia-based themes and retro images as these could create an unintentional appeal to under-18s. The Advisory Service would recommend considering whether a nostalgia-based element could still have a strong appeal to children/teenagers today - ie, has the character been subject to a reboot in recent times? This is not to say that all illustrations are problematic; it is always the overall impression conveyed that will be considered by the Independent Complaints Panel and illustrations that are of an adult nature are likely to be fine. 

"New brewers have also previously fallen foul of code rules with product names linked to violence or anti-social behaviour. This has included names like ‘Dark Conspiracy’ and ‘Psy.cho.’ 

"It is in the best interests of producers, the Portman Group and the wider industry, to prevent marketing that might breach the code from hitting shelves in the first place. That’s why we offer a fast, free and confidential advice service for producers as well as code training. If in doubt over your ideas for marketing and labelling we are always here to offer advice and support ahead of your product launching."

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