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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mini Brand Dissection: Upright and Four Play

There is little doubt that when Pyramid decided to scrap their iconic labels and adopt their new look--an artistically indistinct, anodyne melange of colors reminiscent of what you'd expect to find on the wall of a doctor's office--the designers thought it was brilliant. They obviously didn't intend people to mock the brewery as a sports-drink wannabe. And thus did the control of the brand pass from Pyramid to the people. It's an iron law: ultimately, the customer gets to decide how she feels about your brand.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I saw Ezra's post about the release of the new Four Play, which features a surprisingly un-Upright-like label. Erza commented:
Jeff, there is no "brand." The 4 year round beers labels are designed consistent but there never has been a guide on seasonal and one-offs and that was purposeful from the beginning that those beers would have no rules. In fact it has been a personal goal of mine that if you hold those labels up next together they all contrast. So this is EXACTLY what I was wanting.
So, here's the thing: there's always a brand. The brand is the image that represents the brewery; it's the visual representation of the brewery's personality. The question becomes, does what you put on the label communicate what you want to say about the brewery?

If Upright Brewing was a person, it would be the ultimate urbanite: educated, sophisticated, and elegant. The name is a useful symbol--it refers to a musical instrument, which is a functional non sequitur for beer. It suggests jazz, but more than that, it suggests improvisation and lyricism. Of all the music forms, jazz may be the most laden with context; the improvisation requires communication between musicians and a shared understanding of the history, vocabulary, and discography of the form. Great jazz musicians riff on each other in a sly, knowing way. All of which makes "Upright" a perfect name for a brewery that demands a lot from its audience. Alex folds layers of meaning into his beers--like jazz compositions, you find references to the history and lineage of beer styles. They aren't recreations--Upright's not a cover band--they're improvisations.

The label art suggests this. Ezra's comment that variability is the one constant is appropriate: a different label for every new riff. Variability is a huge part of the brand. But there's variability and then there's variability. Discord may suit a composition, or it may damage it. Four Play is discordant: the question is, in a good way or a bad way?

Art and Context
Ezra is a gifted artist and much of his art--especially beer labels--is arresting. I have personally witnessed occasions when people bought beers based solely on his label art. As an intellectual exercise, Four Play makes sense. The double entendre here involves the base beer--Upright's Four--and the phrase foreplay. The connection continues to the beer, which is lush and sensual. The label is intended to evoke this.

I think, for folks like Ezra, Alex, and Gerritt, the meaning of the image is different than it would be for someone like me. They're all in their twenties or very early thirties (corrections solicited), and sexuality is one of the most generational of impulses. For anyone over forty, the photo of a lightly-clad woman in a sexual pose almost necessarily indicates objectification. In popular culture up until about the mid-90s, that would have always been the case. Of course, things have changed and women have taken control of their own images. Within feminism, there's a huge debate about what constitutes objectification (obviously, I'll avoid that rabbit hole). No matter which side of the debate you take, it's clear that context matters.

The problem, of course, is that art and commerce are both communications. To be communicative, they need a sender and a receiver, and the receiver always has veto power over the way they interpret the image. Artists claim this is a type of theft, but it's inevitable. For businesses, the point is more freighted; if the receivers--customers--apply a different meaning than the brewery intended, there can be trouble.

For a lot of folks, a cigar's never a cigar, and beer label with a scantily-clad woman in a suggestive pose means objectification, first and only. (Which is how the discussion played out at The New School.) For those folks, this is going to offend. There's no right or wrong here. In communications, objective reality isn't the point.

I don't really have an opinion about whether the label is appropriate or not. I know the people behind the message, and I know that there's no effort to objectify women. (In fact, Upright probably has a higher percentage of women drinkers than any brand in Oregon.) What I don't know is how the label will be received--part of the Upright brand, or a misstep. The 2010 vintage of Four Play had a risque label that to my mind didn't come close to the line of misunderstanding (it also features Ezra's art--a bonus). The 2011 vintage? We'll see.


  1. Well, there's nothing subtle about that new label. I'm a woman, and a fan (although not frequent drinker) of Upright's beers. For me the new label is a bit of a turn off, and makes me less likely to buy that particular beer. The previous year's label has a more artistic quality to it that makes it a bit classier IMHO.

  2. PC Portland navel gazing.

    "I'm not offended, but some hypothetical person I'm imagining might be."

    It's discussing whether or not something might be a problem (for someone else), instead of discussing an actual problem.

  3. I would also point out that for anyone with 25% of an imagination, the 2010 label is depicting the exact some thing as the new one. But apparently it is more artsy, so it gets a pass?

  4. This seems silly. I agree the picture is a little more risque than last year, but what do you expect with a beer named Four Play? I do fall in to the late 20's age zone, my wife into the early 30's so maybe we don't count? However neither of us were offended by it. There is a slightly Playboy-esque feel to the label and I personally like last years better but saying you won't spread the word or spend your money on awesome beer anymore because of one label that might not be their best? Pretty silly. Please stay home though, my chances of getting some Apricot Anniversary Ale and Four Play are increased by every person that is offended and decides to stay home.

  5. The lesson here: Butterflies. If Ezra just could have put some butterflies on this year's label this would be a non-issue.

  6. I was more offended by the beastiality depicted on the previous label.

  7. It is ironic that last years label gets a pass but was actually the one that was really rejected because of nudity. While this years is covered and depicts absolutely nothing more racy than the first one it apparently elicits stronger reactions. I can only imagine that it is the colors and tone of the work which are darker, warmer, more sensual and sexual feeling which if anything is more appropriate. I wonder if anyone can actually explain to me how last years is classier or better? Personally I also like last years better but I also love and hate various other labels that other people feel the opposite about. I am happy with this years label, it communicates the beer itself, not the brewery and I also got to have some stylistic fun and modeled it after pulp fiction novels and film noir with that darker tone. It is interesting how people project things that the label does not even begin to suggest like commenter Kevin who calls it:

    "stereotypical hyper-masculine, heterosexual males"

    Stereotypical? I suppose sexuality is sterotypical yes. Hyper-masculine? The label depicts a woman and does not necessarily have anything to do with a man or being heterosexual. In fact if you wanted to really overly read into it the lack of presence of a male could mean the opposite?

    I dont mind if some people do not like the label but it does bother me if people think it is objectifying women, thats up to ones opinion I suppose but like you said it's a beer called Four Play and I seeked to communicate similar, no objectification needed or desired. There are plenty of labels that do objectify I think, beers like 'Panty Peeler', Panty Dropper, and even Bombshell Blond that dont even attempt to say anything about the beer itself but perhaps its their unrealistic and over the top qualities that get them off the hook?

  8. Wow I think Harry just made my entire point in one concise and humorous line.

  9. This reminds me of that game they had on children's shows when I was a kid; "one of these things is not like the others".

    In upright's case, there are two that really stand out; the four play label and the clash inspired one.

    I got the clash one. They moved away from what they normally brew and did a high gravity lager. It's not a classy complex beer like their other stuff, and the label lets you know it.

    When I think of four play, the beer, I think of a very refined version of a beer that's already been presented as artisan and refined. Unfortunately, that's not the message the label sends. Does it bother me? No. Will effect sales of the beer? No - it will probably sell out just as fast because it's in limited supply and there are enough people out there that are familiar enough with the beer to buy it no matter what's on the label.

    It does effect the brand image as a whole though, and in that case I think this year's label is a misstep. As you've pointed out, it's a bit juvenile and gimmicky and certainly not indicative of the the approach to producing beers that I've come to associate with the brewery. I like the name, but I think there are better ways to utilize the theme on the packaging that would be a little more in line with their image and the emotions you want to invoke about a product of that quality and price.

    I'll still buy whatever I can scrounge up the cash for though. You could have hardcore porn on the label and I'd just sharpie censor bars on if I have to take one to a dinner party.

  10. Yes, I will certainly skip this beer release party.

    Instead, please tell me where the sexually-repressed sophisticates will be standing around snooting about brand optics that evening.

  11. Ezra, I believe you're making a mistake in thinking that you and Upright are being picked on to the exclusion of others. I don't buy Panty Peeler or Panty Dropper, etc. either. I also know quite a few people who won't go to Burnside Brewing on account of their logo.

    If anything, it's because I like everything else about Upright that I've been vocal in my dislike of this label (and, for the record, I didn't like last year's label either).

  12. Good God, just because I'm over 40 I have to think of pictures of women as "objectification"? Don't you oppress me.

    I like where Ezra's going with his comment -- I hope next year's label has two naked women on it. Or more.

  13. I'm with Bill on this one. Good call bud.

  14. I think the problem is matching the class of the beer with the class of the label.

    I don't think the site of a naked breast can't be classy or artistic if its done right and its necessary in the context of the image. Detailing the shape of the areola and the peak of the nipple when it could have just been left smooth under the garment she's wearing without taking anything away from the theme is where the class starts to slip on this one.

    Although I could get behind Bill on this.

  15. Upright should bottle a milk stout.

  16. Kevin,
    picked on? I mean I dont care I love these kind of debates its fascinating the way people react. Also I am only speaking for myself and my own art not for Upright. I certainly design the art with the beer in mind but there is no panel deciding what goes on the label and usually no direction.

    I think as we can see here most people are open minded and atleast I get a reaction and overall a lot more positive than negative.

  17. Ezra, I'm sure you're not sexist. The problem is, is that people who are produce similar (I realize that yours is in a different class art) images that do objectify women. If you have to explain how you aren't doing the same, in my opinion no matter how good the art is, the image fails its original intent.

  18. PedXer,
    thats exactly as how it looked in real life. I would have preferred to leave it completely uncovered! Personally I think taking something out that is there because it is apparently not "classy" to some is not classy or tasteful to me.

  19. Hang in there Samurai. Sounds like some of these dudes might really benefit from a surge of testosterone whether they realize it or not.

  20. Ezra:

    "thats exactly as how it looked in real life"

    That's a cop out. If keeping the image as true to life as possible was important, you could have just used a photo. As an artist, you have a choice about how to interpret the content in your work. My point was that it would have been just as sexy and natural looking without all the detail - regardless of how you saw it.

    "I would have preferred to leave it completely uncovered!"

    not sure whose case that's helping!

  21. Pedxer,
    A copout really? Sure I could have left it out and I would have if it looked bad but aesthetically I like it. If you don't then I guess that's just personal taste. I love drawing figures the curves and sharp edges are what make it interesting and I am not about to leave them out.

  22. For the record, I love looking at boobs. It's just as a business owner, brand identity is something I've struggled with myself, and I understand where other-jeff is coming from on this. If this was a piece in a gallery it would be a non-issue; but that's the difference between fine art and commercial art. When you're dealing with a brand identity it's usually better to appeal to as large of a crowd as possible, and when you have people being vocal about their perceptions of the choices you've made in a piece, you have to think "how can I include these people too next time?"

  23. "If you don't then I guess that's just personal taste."

    I'm not talking about what I personally like or don't like. I'm not offended by it, and I'd love to see that milk stout label! I'm not even sticking up for people that don't like it.

    I'm just talking about how effective it is for the brand, since that's what Jeff was addressing in this post.

    It's not really about getting approval or defending disapproval when it comes to the piece of art, it's about effectively selling beer to as many people as you can.

  24. Bill is right, the over/under 40 distinction seems tenuous at best. However, every woman who has replied here or on Ezra's post has responded negatively to the label. That should perhaps give people some pause.

  25. pedXer, if this hurts the overall brand you may have a point. I doubt even with any negative response this beer sells out super fast. This particular beer appealing to a large number of people isn't much of an issue in my opinion.

  26. Ben:

    I think you're absolutely right. This beer will sell out super fast. You could put a picture of a turd on the label, and it will sell out super fast. It's a great beer and it has a reputation, and Upright has a strong enough following locally.

    The problem is that in the process of selling this beer, some people have been turned off a little to the brand. It's not just the one particular product you have to worry about selling. Sure, four play isn't a beer that necessarily has to appeal to a large group, but there are other beers in their line-up that should, and from a business perspective, wouldn't it be great if they all did?

    Why risk turning some people OFF to your products because you're trying to turn some others ON with your label?

  27. I totally agree with pedXer. Why risk turning people off from your brand? I love Upright's beers, but this turns me off a little. And, on top of that, I don't think the label is particularly good. It looks like slut-whore beer. If I didn't know the brewery's reputation, there's no way I'd buy that beer. Maybe the 20-something 'dudes' are the market for this beer? Who knows.

  28. While I'm not offended by the Four Play label, I think part of the problem that you guys are missing here is that it is more of the same old thing. Anytime there is a women on a beer label it is almost always sexual. Can anyone name a beer where there is an attractive male or a male in a seductive pose on the label? With women wanting to be more apart of the beer community they, or at least I, would like to see a bit more equality here, especially in beer labels/art. I have talked to Preston about this with the Holiday Ale pin-up girl art and you know, it would just be nice to look at a little male eye-candy. Is that too much to ask for? I think next year's Four Play should have a guy on it. Then it would really be making a statement. (Although I don't think Ezra would enjoy drawing that one as much)

    As for brand identity, this is just one label of many that Upright has and the name of the beer does match the theme of the art. Does this in anyway translate to Upright's over all branding, I don't think so.

    I just hope that if a guy ever does appear on a label in the future, that the men of beer don't become offended or afraid to purchase a bottle for fear of looking homosexual. Art in any form should at least tried to be appreciated. And with beer (at least in this case), there are really two art forms we are dealing with - the label and the beer itself.

  29. Since there are views all across the board here, I haven't felt any pressing need to jump in (I got the first word, after all). But I will say that I concur with Margaret about a man on next year's label and at one point intended to mention that in the post. So see, eventually you'll all say everything I might have mentioned anyway--

  30. Yup, Margaret hits it dead on. No one I've talked to about this is anti-sex, they are anti- the same old eye candy for het boys. If, as has been claimed, Upright's brand is about improvisation and experimentation and getting people to try something other than the same-old, then what I think would really be in line with the brand would be to come up with a label that goes somewhere new. Maybe that's just a scantily-clad man. Or maybe two of them (*gasp*). Or any number of items which might actually suggest foreplay. (Hate to you break it to you guys, but a woman taking of her clothes and displaying her body is not foreplay.) So that's my challenge to Upright and to Ezra: come up with something that's actually edgy or clever; something that's worthy of the beer and the name, which is admittedly a clever pun; something that's not just the same tired stereotypical beer marketing. Because, you can't be an iconoclast and also fall back on the excuse of "we're just doing what people like".

  31. I objectify women. I do it every day (you should see my internet history!) I'm also married, and hear my wife talking about guys from bars and on reality TV shows with her friends every day. It goes both ways.

    Margaret is right to suggest hot dudes for the next label. And not just hot dudes, but hot dudes in thin briefs where the shape of their cocks are paid specific attention in the final rendering. They might show up good in real life, but the detail wouldn't be crucial to the label art.

    As uncomfortable as I'd feel with that bottle in hand, it illustrates a great point.

    You can try to back-up your artistic tastes however you want, but personal taste and good taste are different animals.

    Focusing on erect nipples will appeal to a certain market (schwing!) but if it's not equally attractive when you turn the tables, you need to admit you might be alienating a good portion of your potential market.

  32. Oh man, it's definitively time for my mandatory monthly waynes world viewing after that one.

    Foxy Lady!

  33. One thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet, but which is inconsistent with Upright's brand labeling is this: 2010 Four Play had a lighter color palette and 2011 Four Play has a color palette that is consistent with grindhouse films and/or horror posters. While I'm still going to buy the beer because it's extremely tasty, I agree with Jeff on this one. 2011 Four Play doesn't even match up with Billy The Mountain or Oyster Stout in terms of darkness since those seem to steer more towards adventure and/or suspense (different from horror as mentioned above.)

  34. kevin makes an excellent point. What is so edgy and experimental about this label? It's the same-old-same-old that the mega-beer corps have been using for decades. Sexy ladies! Buy our beer! Not original in the least. And I stand by my previous statement: I just don't think the label is very good, and definitely not good for a beer label. It's something that looks like something I've seen airbrushed on a t-shirt or black velvet. "Sexy lady! Nipple! Look at me! I'm edgy!" No. No you're not.

  35. Bunch of school marms who like to hear yourselves talk. Upright is a business doing what they want.

    If you want to open Touchy Feeling Portlandia Brewing and design a bunch of labels with kittens and photos of Hands Across America, knock yourselves out.

    They're doing what they want. This isn't my kind of beer, but now I think I'll buy some just to support them against the braying of sissies.

  36. Those labels look like they were drawn by some horny dude who hasn't been laid in years, but likes doodling his own spank fest fantasies. Maybe next year the label will just have a big penis on the label and the beer will be called "4 Skin."

  37. I will just ring in to say that I agree with Jeff that there is always a brand and that though one may wish there weren't, every image Upright puts out affects the perception of the beer and the company - affects the brand.

    Now, that said, it doesn't have to be consistent and especially on special releases that don't show up on supermarket shelves. But it all iconography ends up mingling in consumer's minds and it is probably better to keep that in mind as the company grows.

  38. I can't even believe this is an issue. If the label offends you go back to Saudi Arabia.

  39. @Cook Ass

    Have ya noticed we now live in a society that strives on being PC about everything? Gotta worry about everybody's feelings and sense of well being. It's a bunch of crap. That said, being PC and not offending people is very American. The Saudi thing would be backwards. :-)

  40. Yes, discussing whether a particular label is a good brand strategy is exactly like living under Sharia law.

    Someone's been watching too much Fox News!

  41. Yr all gonna shit when you see the OOW! beer or the one of Capn Neil naked from the waste down with Lamborghinis and dudes in Armani tuxes.

  42. As a 26yr old woman who is heavily invested in beer, art, and woman's issues, I have to side with Upright. I think a major component that's been left out of this debate is that the label is art. Sensual, erotic, yes, this is a depiction of a real woman. Her curves are honest and Ezra did a wonderful job of capturing the emotional influence of lust without getting anywhere near trashy. If the label featured an over-sexualizd, objectified, idealized woman, then I'd have a much different opinion.

    Upright does have a reputation for being an intellectual brewery, and I think this label falls into that line. Human form and sexuality are wonderful things, and unfortunately our society has a very hard time distinguishing sensual art from pornographic materials. Fourplay is a sensual, complex beer, and it deserves a sensual, complex label.

  43. Alison, I beg to differ. Of course, it depends on what you define 'art' as. If everything is art, then, yes, it's art. Would anyone other than a horny teenager want something like that hanging in their house? Probably not. I hate to side with Anonymous when s/he said, "Those labels look like they were drawn by some horny dude who hasn't been laid in years, but likes doodling his own spank fest fantasies." but you know what? That kind of rings true. Not exactly how I would have worded it, but, yeah, that feels about right.

  44. I don't understand how an image of a solitary woman illustrates foreplay, as others have pointed out. The solution is obviously to change the name of the beer to Solo, which maintains the jazz reference and embraces the spank fest fantasies! Or they could call it Jill, as in Jill Scott.

  45. Any negative feelings from the "scandalous" art must be far outweighed now by all the attention it has been garnering. Would I want this label hanging on my wall? Probably not. Would I want this label on a bottle in my cellar? Sure, why not...I may be a bit insensitive but I think some of you are going overboard on the PC thing especially after Alison came on here and explained why she thought it was appropriate. It is a beer label. It features a local artist and a local model. It is not a bikini blonde swinging her DD's around. It is Portland and you are not, sorry. P.S. I think this label does fit Upright.

  46. You people are absurd. The writers at IFC are reading this thread and taking notes for the next skit on Portlandia.

    So Ezra, will you be selling autographed prints at the release? Maybe autograph a boob or two and get everyone really fired up!

  47. To think that any work involving scantily clad women is not art that one would want hanging in a home is pretty silly. The work is obviously art, and while there are definitely brand considerations for Upright, I think that derogatory description was both foolish and unfair. You needn't like this, or any, art, but ridiculing something as unskilled simply because it is not to your taste is plain ignorance.

    Offense, alarm, concern, and excitement are all fine emotions to debate in a piece, just as is Upright's strategy in using it. But debate those things, rather than pretending your sensibilities are the same as quality.

  48. I notice it's mainly men who are offended here.

    Portland: where the men are more feminine than the women.