We’ve written extensively on brand strategy and positioning for craft breweries and wanted to shift gears a bit and focus on something that’s near and dear to us — beer package design. Specifically, we wanted to pass on some of the finer points we’ve picked up after years of branding breweries and working through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) label approval process.
Before diving into this, let’s start with a few assumptions. By this point, your brewery’s been through a branding and positioning process. You’ve got a great, protectable name and are now staring down the beer label design and approval process with a sense of dread — a feeling that’s only partly warranted.
The TTB is the federal gatekeeper for approving beer packaging, among other things. It’s kind of like the X-Files, but with more of a focus on beer and less sardonic wit. And markedly less Scully. Actually, it’s nothing like the X-Files. I’m sorry. Anyway, for the sake of this article, TTB specifies what you can and can’t put on your beer label. This covers everything from the art itself, down to what type size you can use, what verbiage can be included, placement of certain elements and so forth.
Here’re some insights we’ve gleaned to help you navigate the process.
1. Make sure to factor the TTB’s backlog into your project timeline
Before designing anything, you need to understand that this approval process can completely kill your timeline, both as a designer looking to make some beautiful cans, and as a brewer looking to can some great beer. TTB is allowed up to 90 days to review your labels, and while it doesn’t always take that long, it’s a safe benchmark for planning your label production and canning/bottling timeline. Click here to see its current backlog schedule.
Our first time designing beer labels was eye opening because we were dead on schedule and then, whack — our client had to sit for nearly 60 days awaiting approval. But fret not, use this waiting period to develop other promotional pieces, like your tap truck, responsive website and merch.
2. Read, re-read and re-re-read TTB’s PDFs
This probably goes without saying, but you need to download and read all the TTB’s guidelines. This is a good way to figure out the larger components of your label requirements, like how to list your beer’s style, ABV, brewery location, government warnings and so forth.
3. Orient yourself with current, on-the-market labels
This helped us out a lot when we first started branding breweries. Before designing your labels, buy several varieties of whatever it is you’re designing (12-ounce bottles, bombers, 12-ounce cans or pint cans) to review. This will give you a good sense of how all the different design elements can be laid out. Then, you should drink these because toting around a bunch of full cans and/or bottles is silly and expends way more energy than necessary. That’s a pro tip, from CODO, to you.
4. Don’t limit your label design
This is aimed at designers who are looking through the dozens of pages of TTB guidelines with the aforementioned sense of dread. Make sure to view these rules more as parameters (or a checklist) than a roadblock. Consider overall positioning and branding, and design the hell out of those things. Remember, you’ll be duking it out with countless other brands on the shelf, so make it count.
5. Save your actual TTB submission files correctly
We almost included this nugget with one of the earlier points, but it’s so important that it warrants its own section. As of the time of this article’s publishing, TTB requires that submitted files be less than 450 kb in size, JPEG file-type only and RGB color mode only. Seriously. And if you don’t do this, it means more time waiting for approval.
6. Be prepared for small, hair-pulling edits (and the additional approval time)
At the risk of sounding pessimistic, make sure to factor in extra time for unforeseen revisions. No matter how carefully we, our brewery partners and their lawyers review label submissions, the TTB can often still find something to push back on.
Here are some additional TTB resources:
TTB’s site has a pretty thorough FAQ section.
Here’s a direct PDF link to their mock reference label.
This great column was provided by the smart folks at CODO Design, a four-man branding and web design firm located on the Old Northside of Indianapolis. Thanks, fellas.