Highland Brewing Company Redefines Itself

After a series of brand identity exercises, the North Carolina brewer unveils a sleek, modern look

Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.

In North Carolina, and especially Asheville, Highland Brewing Company is recognized as one of the pioneers of the state’s beer industry. Founded in 1994, it was the first post-Prohibition brewery in a place now often referred to as Beer City, USA—alongside Portland, Oregon, and San Diego.

Highland has always been backed by that history, but the brewery, which was founded in homage to the Scottish and Irish populations that settled the Appalachian region of North Carolina, began to shift away in recent years from the U.K.-inspired beers it originally focused on to more modern, American styles. Lately, Highland has become known for its IPAs and experimental one-offs much more than for its English pale ales and porters.

As this trend in Highland’s beers developed, its leadership began to realize that the brewery’s customers, employees, and neighbors had also begun thinking about the business in a number of ways that the business wasn’t thinking about itself.

“We were getting input from the people that know and love us the most that was very revealing,” says Leah Wong Ashburn, the family owner and president of Highland. “When I asked [customers] for words that described us, there was a pattern of ‘pioneering’ and ‘super consistent,’ and [an emphasis on] areas of authenticity, leadership, sustainability, and community. What didn’t come up one time was ‘Scottish.’”

After more than two decades, it was decided in January 2017 that to better showcase how Highland had evolved, a new look and feel would be necessary, as would a full refreshing of the brewery and its marketing strategy. Ashburn points out: “Our brand and beer were saying two different things.” In April, the project moved forward.

Setting Off in a New Direction

What came of those initial discussions led to six months of research and development, including the distribution and analysis of a collection of surveys, a search for a design company to lead the project, and intricate planning for rolling out new looks and branding. When Highland’s new look is unveiled this week, it will have been just over a year since the idea for a redesign was first broached. Throughout the process, Ashburn and her team relied on employee and customer feedback to guide choices that mark a stark departure from the brewery’s 1990s look, which relied heavily on “Scotty,” a Scottish character who adorned packaging, tap handles, and promotional materials.

Gone are the tartans and bagpipes. A logo that once required up to 11 colors now has a maximum of four. The new packaging features the colorful, rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on bottles and cans, with the visual centerpiece of a pioneer’s compass—a nod toward the brewery’s connection to Asheville and its history as the city’s first brewery after 1933. In all, the cost of the transformation of the brewery’s identity landed somewhere in the six figures.

“I think we’ve been automatically deselected by certain consumers because they think they already know our beer and what’s inside,” says Molly McQuillan, Highland’s marketing coordinator. “This [rebrand] is going to get people to take a second look at our beer, because we’ve been surprising people with what we’ve been creating the last few years—and this will surprise them more.”

Positioning the Building Blocks

To decide on the direction for the rebranding, Highland went through several steps, first making use of a Nielsen survey to test 400 U.S. residents 21 and over who self-identified as their household’s primary alcoholic beverage decision maker and who had made a craft beer purchase within the previous three months. Highland also set up an informal poll through its social media platforms, including Facebook, where the brewery has nearly 44,000 followers, 55 percent of whom are male, and 45 percent female. Nearly 75 percent of 500 social media responses said the brewery needed to change some aspect of its branding. Lastly, nearly 100 full- and part-time employees who work for the brewery also contributed their views.

After collecting the responses to the surveys, Ashburn created a list of 15 design firms and made use of time at the annual Craft Brewers Conference to talk directly with representative of half of them. She had a second follow-up conversation with three of those vendors, and estimates that altogether she spent about 20 hours doing research and talking directly with potential partners to find the right fit.

Ashburn decided on Helms Workshop, a brand design studio based in Austin, Texas, whose founder, Christian Helms, had taken family trips to Western North Carolina every summer while he was growing up. It was serendipitous for Ashburn to find a partner who was familiar with Asheville and her brewery, and who had previously done branding work for breweries like Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Massachusetts, Modern Times Beer in San Diego, and Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I really loved what [Helms was] doing with modern looks, keeping things sleek and so simple,” says Matt McComish, a supply chain director with Highland. “I wanted the polar opposite of what we had, and this was it.”

With Helms in place, Ashburn brought the entire Highland team up to speed on the rebranding plans. Between June and August, brand analysis would be conducted by Helms, with the design work to be completed by October. Details had to be agreed on, with choices as simple as a new palette of colors important for the brewery.

“At the time, all our beers had some sort of plaid, which made it difficult to create new variations every time,” McQuillan says. “We were actually running out of colors, and I needed simplicity [for] our system.”

Bringing the Vision to Fruition

To manage the rollout, McQuillan kept seven spreadsheets, all with multiple tabs, as well as three Trello boards and a Slack channel, specifically for brand refreshes, for real-time discussions with staff and outside partners. It was all necessary for tracking where and when newly packaged beer would go to locations across Highland’s seven-state footprint, as well as for supervising marketing plans for each location—four markets in South Carolina and Tennessee to six in North Carolina and eight in Florida.

McQuillan says that the number of changes and where they were happening proved to be the biggest hurdle of the entire rebrand: tracking what needed to be updated, designed, and ordered, all while making sure the older branding was flipped right as the new became available. The volume of detail, she says, required close coordination and teamwork from all Highland’s leaders.

McComish has been in touch with distributors weekly to monitor inventory, keeping them stocked with just enough beer so that when new packaging was became available the week before the launch, it would arrive at its destination just as beers with the old look were being phased out. Stickers, shelf talkers, printable posters, and sales sheets have all been made available digitally for retailers and distributors so the updated look can be promoted in one coordinated swoop this week.

“Those spreadsheets were super important,” McQuillan says, with a laugh.

After more than a year of work on the project, Ashburn says the most important lesson she’s learned has come from the opportunities for collaborating. A complete rebrand presents many challenges, she says, but seeking input from others and always being honest about the reason it was necessary encouraged patience, which ensured that the final result was exactly what Highland needed.

“At the start,” she says, “we were clearly showing something that wasn’t reflective of our beer or how we thought of ourselves. But the core reason behind what we do is always to share more accurately who we are.”

Bryan Roth is an award-winning journalist and the director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He’s written for All About Beer, Beer Advocate, Good Beer Hunting, and other beer industry publications. Find him tweeting about beer at @bryandroth.

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