Branding from HONEY Design helps fuel success of craft brewery start-up

Case Study by Robin Honey RGD, President, and Amanda Boltë RGD, Creative Director, HONEY Design 


Forked River Brewery was a start-up that wanted to find a long-term brand partner, understanding that their initial small budget would not cover everything they wanted but knowing that the right brand would fuel their success and ability to pay as they grew. They were referred to us by a friend of a friend who had heard of 'HONEY's great reputation in branding.' 



Young urban males are traditionally the target market for craft breweries, but the growing popularity of new and unique brews has widened the audience for this industry. The demographic for beer made traditionally from natural ingredients has expanded to include the whole gamut of adults in most urban centres. Craft beer sales have seen double-digit growth in the past few years. In London, a university town, we were targeting a younger demographic.


Design Challenges


We researched the craft beer market extensively. The main challenge was sifting through how much there was to look at! We could have spent forever enjoying the clever designs and names of the different breweries and varieties of beer that exist in Canada and the US. We were definitely inspired and challenged by the great work that has already been done – the bar was set very high to stand out in this industry. 

The name 'Forked River' was chosen by the client to reference a particular local landmark where the brewery is located - the fork in the Thames River, which runs through London, Ontario. This is a common practice among craft breweries, which often rely heavily on local support. Our research showed many illustrative approaches depicting brewery locations – Creemore Springs is an example of a very safe graphic approach. We knew we didn't want to go down that predictable path.

Budget was of course a challenge. We had to find a solution that allowed quick and easy artwork updates to labels as the brewery looked ahead to extending its selection in the future. Many design ideas had to be put on hold - as much as we wanted printed bottle caps, something like this simply wasn't possible early on. Until quantity lowered the cost, the label was it.




The client identified a vision for Forked River based on their own extensive industry research. They provided market analysis and a list of competitors and described how they were going to sell their product both direct to customers and to distributors (restaurants and pubs), even explaining how they would brew the beer and their quality control methods. All of this information gave us a strong sense of their approach and vision for the business. The most important part of a business plan is the financial projections, which tell the story of the market potential. When all of this information was gathered together, we had all the facts we needed to dive into the design.


To target our approach for this project, our first step was creating three ‘mood’ boards. We gathered style references, like the Movember campaign, typography and various labels, which we grouped into different categories. In discussions with the client, we talked through what we wanted to do and all agreed that the quirky, witty feel of the Movember campaign and the historic reference of the Blackletter approach both fit what the client felt was right for the brand.



The client was heavily involved in the process of this initial identification using the mood boards. The three owners all have a love and respect for design, but taking into account the opinions of three different decision-makers could have been an issue. Of course this was their baby and they were very excited to be included in the process.

We initially planned to bring the client in at the concept stage, but as we got into the project we realized that it would not be possible to present the logo without showing the label as well. In fact, the design solution we presented needed to be all encompassing. It needed to work across many different applications and be adaptable to everything from beer taps to coasters, t-shirts to signage. We couldn’t show them one part without having the rest figured out.



Internally we struggled to find the right direction for the project and finesse the elements to make everything work together. This took much longer than we had anticipated (budget = blown). In the end, we essentially presented finished artwork – something we had never done before.


We took the clients through a digital presentation showing the evolution of the work. We started with the icon, then the typography, then the logo, then showed the label application and finally did a ‘reveal’ of some actual bottles we had mocked up.


Their response was the best reaction we’ve ever had. All three partners grinned from ear to ear. ‘Unbelievable’, ‘Better than we ever imagined’, 'x%$#$! Awesome!!!’ were some of the comments.




We started working with Forked River in late October 2013 and presented the mood boards and our research in November. The brand presentation happened just before Christmas and the partners took advantage of the holidays to poll their family and friends. In January we moved directly into finished art. There were small tweaks to be made, but essentially everything went forward as presented. HONEY continues to support Forked River with label design updates and POP sales materials.



Locally, Forked River got lots of media coverage for the launch and they always mentioned their design partner. Being represented in RGD's Design at Work also helped underline the success of the project, as did the Redgee Award we received for the design of the Forked River website. The client also received kudos from other breweries in Toronto and further afield, so, as always, referrals have been part of the ROI.


“Beyond their experience, their creativity and their professionalism, we found the members of HONEY Design to be among the most enthusiastic, genuine, collaborative people we have dealt with. We have received work that has exceeded our expectations, and which we believe ranks among the top-tier of national and international craft breweries. In fact, we were told at launch that ‘we looked too good to be a start-up.’ We will be in the LCBO a full year in advance of our projections in large part because of the brand and packaging.”-- Dave Reed, Founder and Brewmaster for Forked River 


Designer Takeaways

  1. Make sure the client has a plan.Taking on a start-up is always risky. This group had one of the best business plans we’ve ever seen. They clearly articulated what they wanted to do and whom they were selling to. This helped decrease the amount of research time required and also gave us the confidence that they were going to make it. If a start-up does not have a business plan – run away.
  2. Know what you're getting yourself into. If you are signing on with a start-up, you have to put the idea of budget out of your mind. We knew that if we did this project right, we would receive lots of publicity and attention that would be worth our contribution in the end. If money is the priority, this type of client might not be the right fit - make sure the payoff is worth it to you.


Client Takeaways 

  1. Do your homework. A business plan not only helps the designer get informed about a project's needs, it lets us know that you know what you are doing. If you are asking for more than you can afford, there has to be something in it for your design partner - we need to know that you're serious about making progress with your business and that our work will get enough exposure to make it a fair exchange. (Free beer is good, but so is treating us with respect and recognizing the value of the design work.)
  2. Chemistry between client and designer is important. You can ask for references and look at previous work, but ultimately the relationship is about chemistry. If you hit it off and feel like you’ll have fun, and also get great work, that is the best predictor of success. We love this client – and they love us back





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