KANSAS CITY, MO
Rebranding an Icon: A Conversation with Frank Norton & Brent Anderson of Boulevard Brewing
INTERVIEWED AUGUST 26, 2016
AT HIGH DIVE - UKRAINIAN VILLAGE, CHICAGO
Next time you're in your local bottle shop, look down the seemingly endless beer options and see what jumps out. In an increasingly crowded market, just doing that is becoming ever more difficult. Breweries are only recently realizing the value of shelf appeal and the impact it has on consumer choice—just look at the number of rebrands we've covered.
Boulevard, a brewery that's been around longer than most, certainly had this problem. With a portfolio that stretched across nearly 30 years and hundreds of beers, the look and feel had gone awry. Enter Frank Norton, graphic designer, and Brent Anderson, Creative Director, the minds at the brewery behind the recent rebranding effort to bring it all together.
During a visit to Chicago, we sat down with the pair to discuss the rebrand and what it means to the long-time brewery. Clearly passionate about their employer and hometown, conversation quickly turned to the Kansas City identity and even how they fit into the Midwest mindset.
The new and improved look for the brewery is in the wild and now you're here spreading the word. Beer drinkers know the Boulevard name, so why come to Chicago at this time?
Brent Anderson: I feel like it's almost a reintroduction. We've been here in doses throughout the 27 years of our history, but now we have the opportunity to start fresh. For me, we're coming into a very crowded space that's well established. Chicago has a really defined sense of self and some great beers. So for us, going into Chicago–even though it's also the Midwest–almost feels like going into LA or New York. That's why we're coming in with some targeted beers like Tank 7 [Farmhouse Ale] and a couple others that we feel are really good representations of what we do.
When did you start the rebranding process?
Brent: Almost two years ago. When we first had initial discussions, we went around and did a lot of consumer research. To our earlier point, we needed a sense of self. We needed to have something to say that positions us in the larger landscape beyond the beer itself to where you know who we are, what we stand for, and hopefully you identify with that. The beer is only one level of keeping you coming back. If you're that drinker who always wants to try something new, you might have had Tank 7 and thought it was really good. But if the brewery didn't connect and you didn't have another one of our beers, it's just another check-in on Untappd.
What was your goal with this rebranding?
Frank Norton: The main work we've been doing is to unify the whole brand. We have so many beers—last year we came out with 15, on top of the existing portfolio. So it makes sense to make all of that look consistent so people don't see Tank 7 and think, "Tank 7 is a great brewery." They know it's Boulevard. No matter what it is, each beer now has it's own distinct personality with dynamics within each label to reflect the flavor and story of the beer, but also all unified under the Boulevard banner. We're making it easy for consumers.
Brent: Like many companies our size, there wasn't a lot of money going towards advertising and marketing. Only now are breweries realizing they don't have to outsource this stuff and they know it better than anyone else. Previous to my coming there–pre-Duvel merger–they didn't do a lot of advertising in the Midwest because they didn't have to. It was just, get the beer out there and the beer will sell itself. I don't believe that. I feel like you need a good balance. There's too much good beer out there.
You'll get no argument there. When I first saw this new 4 pack of Tank 7 on the shelf, it stood out immediately–something it hadn't done in the past.
Brent: I think this is also a matter of timing. Smokestack [series] came out in about 2007. At the time, it was meant to be a separately identified sidecar to the core things we do. A means for the brewers to experiment and do things that all brewers want to do—which was totally understandable. They were a bit ahead of the curve on that. As a result, it became two parallel paths that were perceived as not coming from the same place. We've gotten to a place in the industry now where there's side series, barrel variants, and all the rest of it. It just adds to the confusion. It's not that you don't want to have that variety but we wanted to make very clear that this all comes from the same place with the same philosophy. So yes, we can have some slightly different packaging for Smokestack beers but you're not going to mistake for a second that it's a Boulevard beer.
You mentioned sense of self. It feels like that's something you focused on with the new aesthetic.
Brent: Maybe that's the larger point. I always appreciate when a brewery has a definite point of view. They're not just trying to check boxes of what's selling right now. They're really true to the original vision and they know what they do best. I feel like we've gotten to a good place with that sense of self. We can stand behind our beers and know they have a place at the table.
Frank: Chicago is a big food town and I feel like a lot of beers are great with food. Tank 7 is a great pairing for almost any dish. That's something that we're really trying to lead with. It's a really saturated market but beer drinkers like variety. Our point right now is more about trying to find representation in areas we relate to. Kansas City is a lot smaller but we also value quality hand crafted food and beer. It doesn't make sense that we wouldn't try to contribute to Chicago's culture as well.
For an outsider who's sadly never visited, it feels like Kansas City has a lot in common with Chicago, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Brent: Definitely. Kansas City now is a vastly different place then when the brewery was first founded. The brewery started with a couple different beers and grew organically by just getting beer out there. It grew outwards from Kansas City but at the time they were kind of a pioneer. There are still places in the Midwest to where we're still synonymous with unfiltered wheat beer. We were a lot of people introduction to craft beer in the Midwest. To look at Chicago, there are so many things that are in parallel. And not just in the "Midwest-ness" and that identity. Probably because it's a little under the radar and affordable, you've got all kinds of people coming to Kansas City to make stuff and follow their heart.
Where does Boulevard fit into all that..."Midwest-ness?"
Frank: Boulevard represents embracing that part of the Midwest which is a little more comfortable. We represent a work life balance—on the brewing side, we're making something special and sharing it. But on the drinking side, we have a hobby that represents taste and a lifestyle that's about food and beer. You're choosing to enjoy your time instead of just, go, go, go. It makes life good.
We recently chatted with a local brewer who loves to talk about the "sense of place" for each of their beers. There's a perfect time and place for every beer that creates memories. For example, I'll always remember that beer I had on a great boat ride or in the lodge after a long day skiing.
Frank: Yea, Boulevard represents this really interesting mix of unpretentious beers that are done in a really focused and deliberate way. I think canning allows us to really tap into that "sense of place," which we just started doing a couple years ago. The Ginger Lemon Radler is a really awesome beer to take on a boat trip, for example. You're not going to take a barrel-aged 12 percent beer on a trip like that.
We've talked about the Midwest. How much does Kansas City identify as 'Midwest?'
Brent: Oh man, yea, plenty. I've been in Kansas City now for 12 years. The city itself right now is consummately Midwest. To your point about "sense of place," there's a new Midwest that's come about I think that has come via economic forces outside of us but have started to draw more attention. People are finding that balance Frank was talking about—having a place where you can have a thriving creative culture, technology, and business but balanced by that way of life and the ability to do the things we do. When the brewery was started, it helped that no one else was doing what he was doing, but it didn't hurt that it was in a place where you could do it and not go broke. As far as "Midwest-ness," I think it's a really great embodiment of all those things.
Frank: Do you think Kansas City is Midwest?
I suppose it's not my immediate perception of the Midwest, but now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not sure where else I'd place it.
Frank: I think some people think of Missouri as the South.
Brent: I think we're probably the southernmost tier of that area—the Iowas and Nebraskas.
Frank: I think the negative side of that is that we're sometimes perceived as a flyover location. But for us, we both ended up in Kansas City for a reason. Being part of a city that represents growth is kind of cool. You have the option of going to cities that are already established and have a great food, art, and beer culture. Boulevard has been around for almost 30 years now, so it's not new, but it was one of the first craft brewers in the country. Over the past five to ten years, Kansas City has been growing for a lot of different reasons. It's kind of an accidentally cool city in some ways.
Brent: Kansas City right now has totally turned a corner where it's like, "Fine, don't come man. More for us." It's not a humble-brag as much as being very appreciative and thankful of what we have and the ability to do the kind of things we're talking about. We're finally seeing that upswell start up breweries because...well, you can.
Maybe it's just that we don't hear much about Kansas City aside from the awesome BBQ, the Chiefs, college ball, and you guys. Oddly, we hear just mostly about the St. Louis beer revival.
Brent: We've always been the bastard step child to St. Louis. They have a great beer culture going on right now. But we never had that big city feel. We're kind of the functional, hard working, stockyard, kind of people. We have a place and things that made it cool, but it was under the radar for a reason. Now all of a sudden, there's a great rivalry on a higher level in business, in art, in creativity, in brewing, and everything else. But that's a boring four hour drive in a straight line between the two.
There're a lot of parallels there to the Detroit comeback we're very familiar with.
Brent: That's a great example because honestly when we were going through the rebrand, Shinola was always a great barometer of what we were trying to accomplish—a real hard working, quality identity. Those things that are so distinctly American but not necessarily in a flag waving way. Just get it done and make great shit. You know what I mean?
Chicago is a town of beer drinkers that was long starved for great local beer. Now that that's changed, the town remains open to beer from near and far. Who is the Kansas City drinker and what makes him/her unique?
Brent: I think that's a great example. We're definitely open and Kansas City has always been a brewing town. You're now talking about having multiple generations who have grown up with Boulevard. The kid who's graduating from college now, his Dad was drinking Boulevard. That's a nice sort of legacy where we have some history and it's no longer a new phenomenon. I come from San Diego, and growing up we had nothing. Now, they're drowning in beer. IPA's for days and over 300 breweries. That, to me, is completely unlike how I think of home but that's how it is. That's a totally different situation than Kansas City which actually has a history of it.
Frank: There's a lot of young art culture there too. There's a big creative scene. We have an art institute there, we have a lot of colleges that emphasis design, we have some world class museums, we have a great performing arts center. My point with that is that you have people who have traveled a little bit, get that there's more interesting culture out there, and there's no reason why we can't have that in Missouri. A few years ago, charcuterie was seen as, "What is that?" And now, you can find it at every bar in Kansas City. You had sour beers, and people said, "Is this beer bad?" No it's good, so we'll have sours here. Kansas City is late to the party, but when we come, we're ready to party.
Brent: Put that on a bumper sticker!
Brent: As a sidebar, we went out of our way to get beer to everybody that was doing something. We like to support entrepreneurial concerts, fund raisers, whatever...we'll get beer there. People saw that as a dedication to the community. Kansas City is very much a beer town in terms of our presence there, but it goes beyond the beer to where it's now becoming synonymous with our culture. People identify Boulevard as a very Kansas City thing. It's a nice foundation as we spread out elsewhere, but we've reinforced that, if anything, we're doubling down in Kansas City. We're not going anywhere.
Frank: Hands down, the number one way we earn Boulevard beer drinkers for life is that they come visit. They come do a tour, drink a beer at our bar, in our tasting room. Just coming from experience and people I know. We're trying to emphasize that. Sometimes you watch an interview with a musician or director you really like and sometimes they're kind of a dick.
Brent: They say 'never meet your hero.'
Frank: Exactly. It's kind of the opposite with Boulevard. They come from out of town and hear about the brewery. They'll do the tour and realize there are so many different beers, the people are really personable, and we're really good hosts. I think that, combined with having very good beers, means that if people love what they're doing and what they're making, that comes out in the product. There will be no way to ever encapsulate that in a billboard or ad.
You just have to experience it.
Photography by Kevin Schmalandt of Lakeshore Beverage, for The Hop Review.
Cheers to Brent and Frank for stepping away from a busy Chicago schedule to share a few local beers and Tank 7s at High Dive. Look for the distinctive new diamond themed Boulevard lineup on bottle shops shelves throughout Chicagoland and the Midwest.