BRAND, MYTH & MAGIC

Daniel Neilson plots barstool stories from the very first trademark to the new age of label legends

Labels sell beer; we know that. On New Year’s Day 1876, under registration code UK00000000001, a red triangle, known in the file as the Bass Triangle, became the first registered trademark in the Intellectual Property Office. Under the List of Goods, it reads Pale Ale. It was first used in an advert in the same year. It worked.

The logo appears in a Manet painting, and more than 40 Picasso drawings. James Joyce wrote about it in Ulysses. It distinguished Bass from other beers ‘many years before 1855’. The Guinness Harp, based on Ireland’s oldest surviving harp dating back to the 14th century, was registered not long after the Bass Triangle. It’s a better logo.

Why? There’s an emotional connection: it was designed to appeal to a renewed interest in Gaelic art and music, but also to appeal to homesick Irish workers in London. The harp is a symbol of their homeland. It tugged heartstrings as well as thirst. Other early labels are a nod to the city or country: Amstel’s lions are from Amsterdam’s crest, and Beck’s key is on Bremen’s coat of arms.

Others are symbolic: the chimerical creature of the kirin, appearing on Kirin Beer, is a harbinger of good luck. Some are even politely mocking: the goat on bottles of German bock comes from the accent of Bavarians, who apparently when asking for Einbeck, sounded like ‘ein Bock’ or ‘a Billy Goat’. Labels sell. But so does myth; everyone likes a good story. No matter how authentic the origins, however, having a good story is also Marketing 101.
Take another classic logo: the red star of Heineken. Even the brewery’s own historians haven’t unearthed a definitive answer, but a favourite is that it was a symbol of European brewers in the Middle Ages, ‘who believed it to have mystical powers to protect their brew’. Cool.

More modern breweries also look at myth and legend for inspiration. Beavertown’s cans tell a story of something, though I’m not entirely sure of what: Star Wars viewed through the prism of Futurama perhaps? Take a browse of Magic Rock cans.
There’s a story there, an intrigue that allows you to draw your conclusions.

Designs on Burning Sky and Cloudwater all invoke something other than mere brand recognition. Sierra Nevada has an imperial stout called Bigfoot while Great Divide’s is called Yeti.
By latching on to existing myths, a brewery can set out a stall of enticing curios of which the beer inside is just one of them.

Allegory and myth have carried the human story since man first traced a handprint on a cave wall in somewhere like France and said here I am. The fear in stories where Prometheus ends up chained to a rock or Oedipus descends to the underworld warns us mere humans, against moral failure or mortal danger. Except, that is, in beer. In beer it means one thing: drink me, I’m interesting.
You hope.

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First published in Issue 17 of Original Gravity. Click here to read Magic & Loss by Pete Brown and Ritual by Adrian Tierney-Jones here.