2020 Brand of the Year: The rise of Collective Arts

The Hamilton craft brewery is scaling and finding success in a formula it spent seven years mastering.

Collective Arts Brewery

This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2020 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

Along Dundas Street West, Collective Arts’ new Toronto brewery shines like a beacon, calling on beer drinkers with a penchant for the arts. On its facade, a folkloric fantasy comes to life through colourful shapes, articulating the artist’s aesthetic – and the brewer’s creative purpose.

In 2013, Collective Arts co-founders Matt Johnston and Bob Russell set out to build a company that could fuel creativity by lending support to emerging artists and musicians. Early on, the concept hinged on swapping out its beer labels with different artists’ work every few months so that it could always have fresh packaging. To date, more than 2,000 artists from 40 different countries have been featured on its labels.

The concept helped solidify Collective Arts’ place within Canada’s booming craft beer scene. Today, the Hamilton, Ont.-based brewery distributes its suds across the country, more than 20 U.S. states, nine European countries, China and Australia. Sales have grown by 29% over the last year and, in Hamilton, a new canning line was added to boost production to 200 cans per minute, enabling future expansion. In addition to the new Toronto pub, it plans to open a taproom and music venue in New York City in 2021 to cater to its growing U.S. audience.

Collective Arts

While the brewer consistently works with artists from around the world, it has entered new markets, such as China, through a localized strategy, partnering with local creators on limited-run packaging to drive awareness and trial. When it brought its brews to Florida for the first time in 2018, it hosted a week’s worth of events accompanied by art installations, live music and “tap takeovers.”

And, over time, Collective Arts has looked beyond craft beer for growth. Since 2019, it has applied its M.O. to cider, spirits, ready-to-drink, and even a series of coffee blends in partnership with Dundas, Ont.-born Detour Coffee Roasters. Most recently, in the U.S., where cannabis packaging regulations allow for more flexibility, it launched a series of CBD-infused sparkling juices and teas (through sister company Collective Project). True to form, the products’ labels and cans are regularly refreshed to ensure new creative voices are given the opportunity to shine.

Innovating continuously is part of its vision to be as creative on the inside as it is on the outside, says Johnston. “There’s art in innovation,” adds Toni Shelton, director of brand marketing and communications. “Our brewmaster and distiller are artists in their own way.”

Beyond new product lines, the brand has established a resident artists program and launched Collective More, a charitable initiative whose goal is to create paid production opportunities for artists and which has led to special-edition beers and artist apparel, with proceeds going to organizations like Rainbow Railroad and the Bartenders Benevolent Fund.

In short, Collective Arts goes wherever creativity beckons. It approaches every new product, label and line of business as a potential platform for artist exposure – hence the murals on its Hamilton and Toronto breweries, where even a wall can be made into a canvas.

SPARKLING-HARD-TEAS

“We have a system, and it works,” says Shelton. Now seven years old, the company has mastered what she calls the “Collective Arts formula,” which can be applied to new markets, products and sister companies knowing “it’s going to be beautiful [and] we’re going to support artists as we do it.”

And the goal isn’t growth for growth’s sake. Rather, Johnston says the company wants to use its success to connect an even greater number of creators with new audiences and paid opportunities – which is why it will work with the same artists on multiple projects. “We become old friends with a lot of these people,” Shelton says. “We knock on their door when we have more paid opportunities, and it’s how we develop these deep relationships.” At every turn, the company looks to tell the personal stories of the artists, which the marketer says reinforces its position as an ally to the community.

In a typical year, those stories come to life through digital and social content, as well as creativity-based experiences. The brand hosts launch parties to celebrate the release of new labels, and its annual Liquid Art Festival – one of its largest events of the year – brings together brewers, artists, musicians and foodies from around the world. “That’s when things are best,” says Johnston, “when creativity is in balance across those different mediums.”

With the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, which restricted in-person gatherings, the brand had to accelerate efforts to bring more content and experiences online, according to Johnston. Its live music series and resident artists program, for example, were “already in play” but have since become “the centrepiece of how we tell our story.”

WERC MURAL_LIQUID ART FEST 2019

For its live music series, the brand invites musicians to take over Instagram Live. The social channel delivers strong engagement for other content, such as artist Q&As and doodle sessions, but Shelton says musicians found the platform less-than-ideal for musical performances. So Collective teamed up with Soundbox Productions on a monthly concert series. Videos are shot at empty music venues and streamed on social, with better sound quality and multiple camera angles. “We’re going to try to keep scaling that,” Shelton says. “It’s ticking the box of experience and it’s also supporting musicians, which is the goal.”

In the name of authenticity, the grassroots brewer has traditionally avoided paid advertising and invested those dollars in content instead. But Shelton admits there are obstacles to delivering a purposeful message using mostly unpaid channels. So this year, it’s exploring paid advertising. “I’d love to see us have a Collective Arts media house one day,” she says. “Telling stories is how we’re going to scale.”

Recognizing it required more support with video and photography, it hired its first full-time content developer at the start of the pandemic. Shelton, who was hired to lead social four years ago, now oversees all aspects of brand marketing, working alongside CD Ryan Thibault. The team handles everything internally, including strategy, design and content. To lend further support, VP Chris Waldock was hired to lead sales and marketing across markets and to serve as a mentor to the growing marketing team. Johnston, himself a one-time VP of marketing at Moosehead Breweries, says it was time to bring on expertise to help “organize the chaos a bit.”

A brand that rests on ever-changing packaging and constant collaboration would seem the most challenging concept to bring to life and scale, says Johnston. But Collective Arts has stuck to its original formula: blending the craft of brewing (and now distilling) with art. As it launches new products and enters new markets, Shelton says it will stay true to where it began, telling the stories of the artists it works with and letting consumers know “where this art is living.”