Inverting the traditional standards of beer branding with an innovative platform for artists

January 4, 2020


Kind of like how Picasso spent a lifetime learning to draw like a child, Collective Arts co-founders Bob Russell and Matt Johnson found the way to their disruptive label by spending years perfecting the big beer brand formula - and then turning away from it. The Hamilton-based (and globally sold) craft brewery’s creative products are anchored not by a logo but by an ever-changing array of art on its labels. And that’s by design. Russell and Johnson, one a former brand consultant and the other VP of marketing at Moosehead, respectively, collaborated as a high-performing team churning out best-selling products like Cracked Canoe. A deep passion for the craft of brewing paired with a shared entrepreneurial spirit led them to strike off on their own and try things they couldn’t do with corporate brands.

Gobi Kim is a seasoned writer and content strategist

“With the big corporate brands, you can go to the brewery, you can attend sponsored events. But is that all there is? That’s a rather shallow experience. Where is the emotional attachment? We knew there had to be something bigger,” recalls Russell. “I was always enamoured of the idea of brand co-creation and how consumers wanted to engage and help build brands that were more relevant. You’re depending on the consumer to go, yeah, let’s do that.”

A designer for many years, Russell had a great appreciation for how artists construct images, tell stories and illustrate their own passions. “I’ve always been a lover of fine art, street art and mural art. I really  appreciate artists who are trying to get their work out there.”

Russell and Johnson considered traditional label thinking and saw a pattern: big logo, supporting image, type of beer. “That’s the way beer brands typically behaved on a shelf,” recalls Russell. “Then every few years, they’d go, oh, now we have to refresh the brand. Tweaking, but not disturbing that symbol.”

For their own brand, they pared back the usual brand devices, made the product name secondary, and went straight for the art, building a platform for creators to submit their work. ”All of our brand peers said, ‘6 different labels in a case? You’re nuts,’” recalls Russell. But then along came digital printing, changing the game completely.

“And as long as we continue to stay authentic and attract a global audience, I think it will continue to grow. We believe we have a responsibility to help these artists get seen.”

Collective Arts’ first call for submissions had 540 artists, illustrators, photographers and musicians participate. Now there are quarterly calls that bring upwards of 2,400 entries (that’s roughly 10,000 per year), with over 200 pieces selected annually by a jury of artists, musicians, cultural writers – an eclectic group that’s becoming more international each time. The brief to the jury is pretty simple: select the work they think people need to see the most. 

“We’ve given up our brand to the art community,” says Russell. “For me it’s a true reflection of what’s on the street globally. A temperature check of what’s happening in real-time. We love the idea of artists connecting with a new channel. Artists are very social people, it’s a very global community. We’ll put it out there and see what happens. More than just art on cans, it’s part of our DNA.”

The constant refresh of art makes it the ideal “venue” for emerging artists to find an audience. The terms are simple: submissions can be an existing piece of work, there’s no exclusivity, and selected artists are paid a $250 fee, with additional fees if the work runs on any merch.


“We’ve been very concerned about the authenticity of the relationship with the artist,” explains Russell, “and make sure they are the first group we come to if there’s an opportunity, and the first group that can work on different projects. We are giving them a new platform on which to be seen, which is a pretty big challenge for anyone  but particularly for illustrators these days.”

Collective Arts produces 47 different types of beer, sold in Canada, 16 U.S. states, Sweden, the U.K., Australia and China. “As we grow, our reach grows,” notes Russell. And in today’s data-driven world, reach matters. “We’ll produce about 15 or 16 million cans per year. Each of these artists is getting 60,000+ impressions.” People are up close, holding it in their hands and staring at the art in real-life encounters, which is a luxury these days. The labels also credit the artist, providing a digital 411 of social handles and ecommerce URLs. “We’ve created a distributed network for the artists. To me that, along with the aspect of co-creation,  is the power of the brand,” says Russell. 

“And as long as we continue to stay authentic and attract a global audience, I think it will continue to grow. We believe we have a responsibility to help these artists get seen.”

The innovation shows no sign of slowing: Next up is a Brooklyn brewery with space for art and artists to play, and a foundation giving back to the planet. Changing the world, one beer at a time.

 This story originally appeared in Applied Arts magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.99 a year, click here.