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Talking Shitty Labels and Bad Branding with Carla Jean Lauter

[Ed. Note: There are many bad beer labels out there. Some are bad because of people's "weird senses of humor." Some are bad because they're uninspired or ugly. Some are bad because they are in poor taste. More specifically, still others are bad because they're sexist, misogynistic, or racist. If you've been following this site for a while, you know we've been pushing for a more inclusive beer community. One that makes all people feel welcome and engages new audiences with the beers, bars, and breweries we know and love around here. There's a lot of work to do on that front. When Mike Stein sent out this interview, the beer label controversy du jour was around J. Wakefield/Cloudwater's Dreamsicle. This week it's about Cantillon's Rose de Gambrinus and Fou'foune. Next week, it'll inevitably be someone else because, for whatever reason, some breweries just can't stop making horrible, indecent decisions about what should and shouldn't be on a beer name and label. You spent all this money on a fancy brewhouse and thousands of pounds of stainless steel and a TTB license and the infrastructure to distribute beer you think stands alone in a crowded marketplace and you decide to market it with a dick joke or scantily-clad women. It's exhausting, and it's stupid, if I'm being honest. I don't love calling out breweries for the names and labels that I think are mistakes. It's not fun. It's not where I get my kicks. I'd rather just drink beer. So why bother? Because somehow I (and we, collectively as a site) have both this platform and the ability to try to influence the beer community, here and elsewhere, into something more decent and inclusive. Anyway, I'm grateful for Carla Jean Lauter's interview below. It's thoughtful and it's incisive. You should follow her and read her writing on this topic and others. Thanks to her for her ongoing work to make craft beer more inclusive. Thanks also to the many, many breweries out there who manage to make great-tasting beer without dumb jokes and shitty labels. There are a lot of you. I just wish there were more of you who would violate the beer omerta and call out your brethren who are messing things up. -BD]

Carla Jean Lauter has been publishing as "The Beer Babe" since 2007. She has been a fixture of the Maine beer scene for years but also has a growing national audience as a voice telling the stories of and analyzing the trends in craft beer. Carla Jean is the newly minted beer columnist for the Portland Press Herald of Maine. She has been outspoken in her criticism of bad beer names and labels , and DCBeer recently got a chance to catch up with her to hear her views about beer labeling and branding and the cultural standards and norms around this marketing. Below is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity from Lauter's email responses. Thank you to Carla Jean for the time and the insight. 

Do you have any best practices to not have an offensive or exclusive label?

The easiest way to make sure you're practicing inclusive design - that is, one that is not intentionally or unintentionally targeting one group at the expense of another - is to increase quantity and variety of people that are making the decision. Simply put, the labels shouldn't be anyone's sole decision, it is much too easy to fall into a trap or not see a bias that is there. It doesn't have to be as formal as a sit-down focus group, but it pays off very well to have people that are different from you give you their take. For example, if your brewery staff is all male, it would be worth your time to find some women either in the industry or as customers to give you their feedback. I've heard many times that breweries simply "weren't aware" that a joke or label could be interpreted in such a way, and if there are more diverse views giving input then that helps to spot that sooner. 

More specifically, I also recommend breweries avoid making anything on your label into a caricature or cartoon. It is easy to slip into sterotypes by exaggerating features (that's what cartoons, are, really, exaggerations for humor or emphasis), and the result rarely is as mature as the business owners may want.

The easiest way to make sure you're practicing inclusive design - that is, one that is not intentionally or unintentionally targeting one group at the expense of another - is to increase quantity and variety of people that are making the decision.

How do you handle it (or suggest another concerned consumer handle it) when there is a shitty label and the brewery has no interest in changing it?

When a brewery has a label that has earned a negative response and the brewery is dismissive of that response, I do two things. First, I simply keep them in my mind as a brewery that I will not support. Secondly, because I have a visible voice, I tell people why I do not support the brewery. For example, if they put on a tap takeover in my town I may say that I am not going because I disagree with the choices they've made on their labeling, and prefer to support a brewery that doesn't do that. If the brewery continues to hear feedback from the consumers, perhaps it will lead them to understand that it wasn't just one lone voice who "took offense" but rather a group of people that would like to support the brewery but now can't.

There's a spectrum of breweries that have problematic labels, however. I try not to put too much energy into the ones that are extremely opposed to change. For example, if you've already named your brewery "Pig Minds," I don't know how far we're going to get in a level-headed discussion about sexism in beer. But, there are many more that have simply made a choice that was funny to their internal group, but doesn't stand up to the broad and increasingly diverse craft beer audience. It is those that I try to communicate with more directly for longer, because I feel like there is still potential for them to learn from their choices. 

What are your responses to the, "If you don't like it, don't buy it" line of argument re: sexist/racist beer labels?

The biggest problem about this is in terms of proportional influence and targeting. If a brewery puts out a label that mocks a small portion of the craft beer-buying audience, then that small portion alone will not make a dent in that brewery's sales by boycotting it. For example, let's say that 25% of potential craft beer purchasers are female, and a brewery puts out a [bad] label. If the 25% of people affected by that label say nothing, but just don't buy the beer, that's too small for the brewery to know or be aware that the label is causing the sales there to be a little off (especially with so much other competition happening). There are too many other factors. How are minority voices supposed to exert their buying power by taking purchases away from breweries they don't support - if they have so little buying power in the first place? The goal of inclusive design for breweries is also to invite more diverse people to become craft beer consumers. But until then, the only tool that can be effective, in my opinion, is to bring these issues out into the open. Then, perhaps, people who are not in the targeted groups can lend their voices to the issues at hand as well.

Can you assess the intent of breweries that make these offensive beer labels? What are the odds they're ignorant/uncritical of their labels versus promoting a racist/sexist agenda? Is this a distinction without a difference in terms of effects on craft beer?

To me, intent is somewhat unimportant when compared to the effect of the label. I understand, and I empathize, that there are certainly innocent, naive mistakes. And there are also those that clearly reflect the culture of the brewery because of the comments and makeup of their staff and ownership. Whether we want to [believe it] or not, the businesses that we run reflects our values. The problem is that a craft beer curious consumer doesn't get any insight into your brewery's culture or your intent beyond what's on the label itself in a beer store. 

Whether we want to [believe it] or not, the businesses that we run reflects our values. The problem is that a craft beer curious consumer doesn't get any insight into your brewery's culture or your intent beyond what's on the label itself in a beer store. 

Without context (if there is any), a woman walking down the aisle of the beer store just sees exaggerated breasts and puns about dropping their panties. They're going to assume that beer (both from that brand, and in general) must not be for them. That hurts everyone, and that's why I don't really care why the label was chosen: the effect is the same. It makes the target of the label feel like they are not or will never be part of the normal group of people who like that product. And that's really bad for an industry that is competing not only among brands, but is losing drinkers to cocktails, malt beverages, ciders, and wine. There are choices other than drinking a bottle with a sexist trope on it, and if bothered, they don't have to accept it.

To what extent should small breweries' labels and names that will never see broader distribution aim to, or have to, live up to a broader set of cultural standards and norms? 

There's a lot of discussion about the "free-for-all" labeling happening at the self-distribution or on-premise-only sales. Trademark and copyright claims are kind of ignored because by the time a C&D can come down, they're done selling it. So really, breweries can get away without official consequences at this level. But to me, it's still about the broader issue. Do you really want someone to come into your tasting room and face a line of tap names that make them feel like they don't belong there or are being made fun of? What's the long-term consequence to that tiny chuckle that you may get behind the bar when someone asks for the beer with the funny/sexist name? If I walk into a tasting room and the beer names or tap handles are sexist, I won't be back any time soon. Narrowing your customer base in this super-competitive beer world is probably not worth the joke.

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

If you're a corporation, and you're huge, and you have something controversial happen, yes, that can bring eyes to you that you may not have had before, and may have some kind of neutral or positive effect on your brand. But this is so untrue at the small business scale. One scathing restaurant critic review and a cafe may be toast. A comedian says something racist when he gets pissed off at a heckler and his career is over. ["There's no such thing as bad publicity"] is a dangerous saying to rely on if you want to have a long-term, healthy, and viable small business. Bad publicity can hurt, and the more options there are next door that don't have the same reputation, the less likely your business is going to be able to bounce back from it.

It seems some breweries just don't mind being heels. They think it's funny or "just beer" or that the people complaining are snowflakes. To what extent does this mirror the current culture war and dig these people in further?

I don't believe that there's a "culture war," but I do believe that people are beginning to have to adjust their worldviews to voices that have not been heard before. More women have stopped being quiet about harrasment and abuse in order to keep their jobs, and they are being listened to. More Black people are being heard about the issues that they face in their communities and with the police, the government, and beyond. If anything, the beer industry is simply experiencing the same thing. Women and minorities are finally being listened to, and at the same time, the beer industry is realizing that its growth cannot be sustained by 21-34 year old white males forever. Broadening the audience for craft beer is a worthy goal not for "social justice" but because the beer industry needs more consumers of all kinds in it. Marketing only to boys who find jokes about women's bodies funny isn't going to pay off long term. 

Broadening the audience for craft beer is a worthy goal not for "social justice" but because the beer industry needs more consumers of all kinds in it. Marketing only to boys who find jokes about women's bodies funny isn't going to pay off long term. 

That being said, not everyone can handle the cognitive dissonance of hearing from voices that don't reflect what they've always believed to be true. That kind of resistance - the "poking the bear" mentality - is just one way in which those who feel threatened cope. I am hoping this is something that we can work through together. There are so many breweries marketing and being inclusive and making wonderful beer that doesn't need sex to sell it. Breweries that hold out and insist that everyone else around them just happen to be oversensitive are still in the minority, and honestly, they're not going to be able to maintain that attitude for long, especially when a brewery with similar beer and better labels opens up down the street.

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Thanks again to Carla Jean for taking the time. Find more of her thoughts at @beerbabe and let us know your thoughts about this interview at @dcbeer.

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