James Squire: Never forsake a good story

Don’t be fooled. No matter what size the brewery, no matter how crafty the brew, beer is all about marketing. Sure, flavour counts to an extent, but we humans are suggestible types really who are easily influenced by labels and advertising.

Don’t believe me? There’s a swag of psychological studies that show just that. The Economist most recently reported a study that highlighted new research confirming that with clothes it’s not the design itself that counts, but the label. We can add this to the many studies that develop similar themes, such as that expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, even when they are the same.

Which brings me to the James Squire rebranding.

The Lion Nathan owned Malt Shovel Brewery has unveiled a new look for the James Squire range of beers. The new labels delve even further into the James Squire character to, as the media release says, reveal “more about the man himself whilst helping beer lovers more easily identify each beer in the range.”

Beer marketing fascinates me with the emotional pull all beer labels have on us. But I have always been especially bemused by the James Squire brand. Malt Shovel makes interesting, flavoursome and drinkable beers. While that’s enough for brewers, marketers know they need more. As the craft arm of the Kirin-owned international brewing giant it wants to establish the Malt Shovel Brewery as a unique and interesting brand to set its beers apart. An interesting and well-crafted back story is an important part of that process and the story of James Squire is a very engaging one.

However, sometimes I really do wonder if the marketers haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid on this one. I never quite get the feeling that the marketers realise that, while James Squire did exist and is recognised as Australia’s oldest brewer, he didn’t actually found the Malt Shovel brewery.

You really have to wonder when you read a media release that says the “new names represent distinct chapters of James Squire’s life” followed by “our flavoursome beers are what set us apart – that and the unique history of James Squire and the Malt Shovel Brewery.”

The people that wrote this do understand that the Hahn Brewery was just renamed to create the Malt Shovel Brewery in 1999, not that it was founded in 1788…don’t they?

Sometimes I’m not too sure.

Exactly how is it that the story of the real James Squire in any way sets apart a 12-year-old brewery in any meaningful way? Apart from the clever marketing prose that conceptually links the two, that is?

It doesn’t, it’s marketing and marketing is engaged in an arms race with our mental filters. The image that is subtly painted is of a ye olde brewery handing down recipes through the ages. But if you stop to question it, even for a second, the perceptual mirage linking the two disappears and you wonder what it was you were looking at.

I guess the marketers hope is that not many people do this and the brand is left with the warm fuzzy patina of a lineage extending back 200 years. This way, when you look into the crowded bottleshop fridges or rows of bar taps, you’re not just seeing a label that connotes a high-quality and highly-awarded beer brand, you’re seeing a high-quality and highly-awarded beer brand with a history – one that you have an unconscious emotional bond with.

And it works. Just as with clothing, we make snap decisions about people based, not on the person or even on the inherent quality of their clothing, but on the little embroided polo player on their breast. And when we buy our beer, we buy it as much on how the label makes us feel when we see it as the beer tastes when we drink it.

That’s true of all beer, mind you. Beer is one of those things that an emotional bond really helps sell it…I have just always marvelled at how tightly Malt Shovel has managed to successfully weave their interesting but pretty irrelevant back story around the entire brand.

Their marketers are very good. [UPDATE: In fact, here’s their story of how the brand was created. Before there was even a beer.]

The media release is published in full below and you can get the full stories in the aptly named storybook.

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Media Release

James Squire, one of Australia’s leading craft brewers, has unveiled a vibrant new look for its range of six, well-loved, unique and flavoursome beers.

Each James Squire beer will have a new brand name and illustrative icon, aimed at revealing more about the man himself whilst helping beer lovers more easily identify each beer in the range. Reassuringly for beer lovers, there has been no change to any of the brews.

Ralph Simpson, James Squire Brand Director said, “We’re extremely proud of our James Squire range – it has set the benchmark for Australian craft beers.

“However we found that whilst our drinkers remained loyal to James Squire, they often weren’t sure which beer in the range they were drinking. The beer packaging just looked too similar, so we set about creating a new identity for each brew to help them stand out, while at the same time telling more of the history of the man, James Squire, a charming rouge and of course, Australia’s first brewer,” said Ralph.

The new names represent distinct chapters of James Squire’s life. The names include:

  • Stow Away IPA
  • The Jack of Spades Porter
  • The Chancer Golden Ale
  • Nine Tales Amber Ale
  • Sundown Australian Lager
  • Four Wives Pilsener

“We have a large fan base out there that loves James Squire, so we were conscious of remaining true to the original packaging. We think we’ve got the balance right – a touch of the old with a bolder, more distinctive look that’s also fun and engaging,” said Ralph.

Tony Jones, Chief Brewer at the Malt Shovel Brewery and home of James Squire, said whilst the packaging had changed, the beers remained the same.

“It’s important our loyal drinkers know we haven’t changed the brew. Our flavoursome beers are what set us apart – that and the unique history of James Squire and the Malt Shovel Brewery.

“We know our beers have unique flavours so it’s very fitting that they now have their own unique label,” said Mr Jones.

James Squire is one of the country’s leading craft brands. Currently growth in the Craft beer market ranks second only to the Premium segment.

More on James Squire – a whole new story to tell…


Chapter One – Stow Away IPA

Back in the day, India Pale Ales were brewed with higher alcohol and extra hops to survive long sea journeys from London to colonial India. James Squire had his own method of surviving this arduous voyage to Australia on the First Fleet. He smuggled himself onto the ‘Women’s Ship’ and by all reports the rest of his journey was quite nice, thank you.


Chapter 2 – Jack of Spades Porter

Back when rum was the unofficial currency, it took a real gambler to bet his future on brewing. But James Squire was never one to shy away from a challenge, quickly building a fortune from his brewery and tavern – though it could be suggested serving beer to Australians was something of a sure thing.


Chapter 3 – The Chancer Golden Ale

Never one to let a ball and chain hold him back, ex-convict James Squire seized every opportunity his emancipation offered. His unique blend of charm, skill and luck ultimately rewarded him with an enviable fortune as Australia’s first brewer. But was he really happy? A brewery, money and freedom – what do you think?


Chapter 4 – Nine Tales Amber Ale

Every man’s life tells a story, but James Squire’s would have filled a library. From a chicken thief and convict, he later found success as the Governor’s bodyguard, a publican, baker, butcher, moneylender and ironically, a local constable. But his greatest chapter was in brewing… which worked out nicely for the rest of us!


Chapter 5 – Sun Down Australian Lager

James Squire was a chicken-stealing, highway-robbing, convict lothario before he went straight and became our first brewer. As the sun went down each day, people would flock to James’ tavern for a refreshing beer and to hear the stories of his life… many of which were actually true.


Chapter 6 – Four Wives Pilsener

James Squire loved adventure and brewing fine beers, but even more than that he loved women, having a wife and three mistresses throughout his life. He left all of them something in his will, but thankfully we got the beer.

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