This article was first featured on CODO Design’s new blog. Head over there to see even more images and behind-the-scenes thinking on several craft brewery branding projects. Thanks to Isaac and Cody for letting us share this here.
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. And while that may not sound like a big deal to most folks who don’t do this every day, it stings. We pour ourselves into every project we take on, no matter the budget, to make the best work we can, and 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, S.D. 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. And after mulling it over, this dread quickly turned into gallows humor.
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. And 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.
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. 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 is that they had already gone through an unsuccessful branding process with another firm before reaching out to CODO. And they had nothing to show for it — no name, no positioning or branding, no package design, nothing. Just the hollow feeling of throwing a briefcase filled with money off of the tallest, coldest most desolate mountain peak.
Derek and Blake had been homebrewing 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 going all in on starting a brewery in one of the most underserved 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 hometown, plant a flag and work their ass off to make their community more vibrant and attractive.
It’s not as though there’s nothing to do in Sioux Falls. During our trip, we visited a couple spots around town; our favorite was 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 as the name needed broader appeal to meet wide distribution goals while at the same time needed to evoke 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.
Initial identity concepts
So, we had a name, our brand identity direction pitches, the open road and mounting anxieties about presenting the work. And each other. After seeing your 900th rest stop and your 1,200th 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 is 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.