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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Mastering the masterbrand

Self-confessed Brooklyn Brewery fanatic Matt Burns is still pinching himself after being handed a once-in-a-lifetime design mission: to globally unify the NYC brand icon


Mid-March 2020. I was in the gym when I got an email that changed my life: Brooklyn Brewery wanted us to create designs for Brooklyn Pulp Art: Hazy IPA. I’d been obsessed with Brooklyn forever – from its legendary brewmaster Garrett Oliver to its Milton Glaser-drawn logo – it’s that rare thing, a truly iconic brand.


We developed a concept combining the worlds of art and beer by mashing up two New York icons: Brooklyn Brewery and pop art. It used Lichtenstein’s signature style of thick black lines, clashing colours, and a healthy number of polka dots (or Ben-day dots to use their official title), and we are to this day hugely proud of the work.

I’m not alone in my fandom for this brand. In many ways it’s always been the beating heart of our agency – we even have a big Brooklyn sign up in the studio. So, when they went on to ask us to develop the masterbrand it really was our dream project – we all felt like our role was to get the rest of the world to love it as much as we do.

Channelling creativity

Our work on the masterbrand came about having worked on a number of projects with the brewery, including the creation of Brooklyn Pilsner. A brand audit had revealed considerable inconsistency and confusion across geographical markets on how typography, colour palette, even the Brooklyn Brewery logo itself were used. We had to consolidate the brand’s countless assets, and address its global fragmentation.

In the UK, for instance, a lot of people had assumed that the Pilsner variant was the whole brand – they didn’t realise that there is actually a brewery in Brooklyn, so a significant part of our task was also around awareness of the brand and its heritage.

The main task, however, was bringing consistency to the brand assets through a proud masterbrand that formed part of an expansive creative ecosystem. Of course, we wanted to be building one brand – the Brooklyn Brewery brand – but at the same time we needed to celebrate the sub-brands and help them flourish.

We faced an unusual challenge in that Brooklyn Brewery is a super-creative brand – that’s one of its main pillars. But if you brought too much creativity into the master brand, you could dilute its edge.

Brooklyn is ‘always in the making’

Our initial audit revealed that while the brand had three main points of distinction – the logo, colour palette and typography – there wasn’t really a system there. We wanted to introduce something to connect and bind it all together so it felt like a cohesive brand.

We had the idea of Brooklyn Brewery as being ‘always in the making’. Brooklyn is a place that’s always moving, always changing, always creating. We wanted to capture the dynamism of those moments, as well as the distinct energy of the individual sub brands.

The masterbrand strategy was built around evolution not revolution, ensuring the brand’s globally recognised creative platform was being used as effectively as possible, and in a way that honours the original creative idea. The central concept here is that everything Brooklyn Brewery does and creates reflects its home borough of Brooklyn which isn’t just a place, but a mindset: ‘The Brooklyn State of Mind’.

You can’t draw a mindset with a pen and paper; an attitude is something that reveals itself through time, and through the way the brand acts and shows up and connects with its consumers. The new masterbrand communicates and celebrates this intangible brand purpose – broadcasting the Brooklyn State of Mind everywhere that people feel it.

A window into a mindset 

Our solution was to create a window into the world of Brooklyn Brewery: the master brand would be a strong, consistent thread throughout everything, but we’d have a lens into the sub brands and the Brooklyn lifestyle. We created a black frame as the unifying backdrop that captures and shares ‘Brooklyn State of Mind’ moments, taking inspiration from photographic contact sheets. The frame, or window, grounds everything else and ensures consistency, offering a flexible layout system which gives the master brand versatility, energy and cohesion.

The frame can showcase brand campaigns, a single sub-brand, or endless combinations of multiple sub-brands as needed, while maintaining a grounded visual consistency. We also created different taglines for global use (“This is Brooklyn” globally) and in the U.S. (“Always in the Making”).

We had to work really closely with the Brooklyn Brewery team, because everything needed to be authentic – nothing could feel frivolous. It’s such an iconic brand with so much heritage, so we wanted to create a system without changing its direction or muddying its legacy.

We (still) <3 NY: retaining Milton Glaser’s legacy

We retained the iconic Brooklyn Brewery primary logo, which was originally designed by ‘I Love NY’ graphic designer Milton Glaser when the brand was founded in 1988, and then updated as part of a 2022 brand refresh. We did make a slight adjustment to the secondary logo, the horizontal wordmark, to add impact while retaining strong visual links with the primary logo.

If we’d gone wild with creative flair on the masterbrand it would have been too much – it would compete with the energy of the photography, content, or sub brands. We had to design with restraint, understanding that the creativity was going to be brought in from the content itself, and the masterbrand was really there to connect it all together.

Being forced to design with that level of restraint is helpful to create a more timeless brand. A more overwhelming design language could leave the brand open to being revised sooner rather than later.

Balancing concrete rigour and abstract attitude 

The masterbrand was about balancing rigour and flexibility. The guidelines took us around six months to create: everything had to be stress tested for every possible touchpoint – from digital formats to OOH ads, merch, festival promotions and more.

Countless in-house teams from across numerous global markets would have to find the guidelines easy to use and comprehensible, with flexibility and freedom to come up with lots of different ideas about new products, events, or campaigns.  We had to make sure that in a few months’ time things wouldn’t get broken and messy again.

The process we undertook, breaking everything down and trying out every possibility, highlighted how amazing all the sub-brands are. Now, we also have a gateway for people to engage with the authentic story and substance of the Brooklyn Brewery masterbrand.

Matt Burns is the Executive Creative Director at Thirst

He co-founded Thirst in 2015, with Chris Black. Since then, the agency has been creative partner to some of the world’s best and most ambitious beverage brands. Matt has helped build problem-solving, fame-making, multi-channel work for names including Remy Cointreau, Carlsberg Group and C&C Group.



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