AIGA Santa Barbara returned to San Luis Obispo this month in a big way for a presentation on meaningful branding by Sarah Berger, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Makers & Allies. The setting was brilliant: while M&A is very near the heart of San Luis Obispo, once inside we might have been touring a treehouse. Their split-level location is almost on top of a creek in the back, an inspiring space with lush greenery everywhere. Our reception was gratifyingly huge; when Sarah and her co-founder Garrett Deiter began their talk it was to a packed house.
Their work immediately stood out; wine labels and other collateral for wineries like Tooth & Nail, Foremost, Grey Wolf, and Ancient Peaks dominated the presentation, but Sarah also included their designs for tasting rooms and related interiors. When they founded the company, Sarah and Garrett were determined to differentiate their clients from other winemakers by consistently advocating for and designing bold, brave identities. Their plan has paid off in the form of numerous awards, features in Forbes and Wine Enthusiast, and (most importantly) strong sales—enough to change the clients’ perception of their own product.
Sarah’s main point was “whatever’s outside the bottle must reflect what’s inside the bottle,” which could be simple, elegant, bold, edgy—but always dependent on the wine itself. In order to convey the value of design to a client, she highlighted several key beacons to steer by: the element of surprise for novel, compelling imagery (often by reinterpreting something familiar), the element of consistency regardless of media (the brand should tell the same story everywhere it’s experienced), and the element of clarity for the sake of trust (spending time on ideation appropriate to each brand’s goals, be they modest or massive). Garrett noted that for each highlighted piece (all handed out and passed around the room) the reception from winery sales staff and distributors was overwhelmingly positive—a relatively predictable indicator that sales would be strong. One wine went from 1,500 cases to 5,000 to 10,000 over three years.
Both presenters also highlighted the discovery process, especially shelf study in the retail environment and the importance of knowing a winemaker’s long-term plans for each wine—would it be staying local, or going for national distribution? How would the customer interact with each product, i.e. how much would they actually engage with tit before buying? If the only point of contact is an image on a website (as opposed to the full live tasting room experience) then the pressure for differentiation is extremely high. Can the product itself deliver an amazing experience? In that case, why not go big and bold for the most immediate, compelling impression? Finally, even though the sales process may be complete, the work isn’t; Sarah cited project post-mortem analyses as critical steps for each brand.
The following Q&A session centered on how Makers & Allies stays inspired (by everything from each other to their competitors), how they define success (fortunately every product was successful on launch, but several were difficult to get there) and best practices for discovery (especially doing homework for the brand naming process—either by the agency, the client, an attorney, or all of the above). As Cal Poly SLO alumni, Sarah and Garrett were also peppered with questions from current students seeking advice. Sarah: “Work outside of your aesthetic comfort zone.” Garrett: “Say yes to everything and figure out how to do it.” Both: “Learn how to filter criticism—what’s useful and what’s irrelevant—and don’t take it personally.”
AIGA SB thanks Sarah, Garrett and the entire Makers & Allies crew for welcoming us to their studio and helping everyone feel at home. Thanks as well to event sponsors Alyssa Larson (Ancient Peaks Winery) and David Ballantyne (V3) for pouring and printing. Thanks to our attendees, especially from the AIGA student chapter of Cal Poly SLO. Last but certainly not least, thanks to AIGA SB board member and SLO liaison Rachell Newburn, who spearheaded the entire event, stood out, and made it great.
Photography courtesy of Makers & Allies.