JW Lees was founded by a retired mill owner in 1828, an age in which working men would drink up to 12 pints a day. Five generations later, the 21st-century pub is a very different prospect, with changing demands and ever-increasing competition.
What We Did
Visual and verbal identity
Guidelines and toolkits
Film and imagery
POS and merchandise
Events and exhibitions
The last ten years or so have been tough for the pub industry. First the smoking ban, then the recession; the sector had been hit hard. Even those successfully coming out the other side have found themselves under other pressures: supermarkets continue to sell beer at discounted prices, young people are drinking less, coffee shops offer stiff competition for daytime trade, and restaurant is as likely to be a competitor as the local boozer.
It’s clear that what people demand from pubs has been changing and still is changing. They are now places for women and men equally, as well as places for families. Clean toilets and nice soap matter. A dynamic service culture is vital. Great food is just as important as the great beer.
As one of Manchester’s traditional family brewers, JW Lees are often more careful with their heritage than the faceless pub corporations, but being overly conservative in this rapidly changing world can be dangerous. JW Lees approached Squad to help them answer a critical question: what is our role in the world?
The beer’s the thing
Squad interviewed management, held workshops and participated in company-run ones. We visited pubs across the managed and tenanted estates, talked with managers, and visited competitors. Industry experts provided us with unbiased opinions, and we began to piece together a rich picture of the opportunities and issues facing JW Lees.
It became clear that while there are still many challenges facing a 21st-century pub company, at the same time, it is also an increasingly exciting time in the industry. As one interviewee told us: “never in my lifetime has there been such an interest in beer.”
However, we’d found that many of JW Lees’ competitors were losing sight of the brewing and were splitting breweries and pubs into different businesses. Still, JW Lees was firmly committed to brewing beers. At the other end of the scale, the hipster beer brands, while incredibly exciting, could only dream of the rich heritage that JW Lees has in barrel loads.
What was needed?
People love working for JW Lees, and there is an incredible loyalty to the business and the family. But despite people’s passion, they were frustrated with not understanding the company’s vision.
We knew the right vision would be critical for energising the business, particularly for those outside the family. Our challenge was to ensure that it was not only motivating but also worked across the three core areas of the business: managed houses, tenancies and free-trade accounts.
Putting the brewery at the heart of the business
Our idea was to put the brewery back at the heart of the JW Lees business and use it as our magnetic north. The statement ‘the modern traditional brewer’ encapsulated being true to those who came before you but living for those yet to come.
We created a rough-cut film to get agreement among the board members. The galvanising effect was so powerful that we quickly started working on a brand film that could be used internally (for staff) and externally (for customers).
The JW Lees Annual Conference was the ideal opportunity to launch the new brand platform. Having themed and dressed the room, we set about delivering the first public airing of our film, which was unanimously well-received by staff and delegates.
JW Lees' previous beer range
A new family of beers
Through discussions with Squad, JW Lees agreed to invest in its reputation as a beer brand. We wanted the JW Lees name to become a brand people recognise and seek out for a great pint. The range looked like a series of guest beers, not a proud family of great beers. We identified the importance of creating a family of beers to improve the branding in pubs, but we also needed hero beers that could stand alone.
Our solution was a bold typographic identity that eschewed the restricted family of fonts usually associated with an identity system in favour of a graphic approach that achieved consistency through deliberate diversity. Our font choices were wide and varied, many born of the Victorian era, but their composition flexed to suit the beer, a moment in time, or a story. By doing this, fonts avoided association with just the 1800s or the middle-of-the-road approach of everything looking contemporary/traditional. We kept the traditional beer names and proudly positioned JW Lees’ title at the top of each pump clip.
Bringing the vision to life
Living up to the promise of the new vision meant rebadging beers and creating innovative new products. We worked with JW Lees to create Stout and Gold in the ale category, while Manchester Craft Lager saw them significantly up the ante in the lager market. This process has continued as we’ve worked together on seasonal ranges, collaboration brews with Professor Brian Cox and Northern Monk, and an experimental microbrewery range called The Boilerhouse.
At the centre of our experiential work for JW Lees was capturing a sense of the modern traditional pub company with a brewery at its heart. But we took great care to brand the pub without turning it into a bland chain experience. Smartening up the pub experience started with our designs for their external signage — in housing terms, curb appeal. The pub sign is an iconic part of British culture and must be treated with one part reverence, one part adventure. A strict two-colour approach provided a modern edge but with respect for tradition and a strong pictorial (pub signs originally had pictures on them because drinkers were often illiterate).
Inside, the bar became an altar, and we elevated the serve through our bespoke glassware. When combined with bar runners, beer mats, and promotional merchandise, the drinker enters an experience rather than just ordering a drink.
We created a pub standards manual that identified how to interpret our brand platform across the pub experience, including key design touchpoints, materials palette, lighting and touches of class.
You eat with your eyes
We set a new art directional style for JW Lees’ food photography. We helped them create an approach that captured all their website gallery requirements and playful social content. Our promotional campaigns and point-of-sale materials combined the new photography with arresting typography.
Innovation is oxygen
Our JW Lees brand platform unlocked incredible energy and focus within the business, and previously shelved innovations, like their microbrewery, were dusted off and brought back to life.
It was the story we wrote about the microbrewery’s home that captured people’s attention. We told the story of what was behind an old green door in a quiet corner of the brewery yard — a story about the old boiler house. So, we named the microbrewery the Boilerhouse. We avoided becoming a young upstart craft brewery – the Boilerhouse is part of a 200-year-old brewery but with a spirit of modern innovation. The Boilerhouse innovation helped JW Lees make their offer to a broader audience, including those interested in the newer, more experimental craft beers, without losing their soul.
“Squad provide us with consumer insight and expertise that goes well beyond JW Lees’ marketing requirements and helps to form and direct our strategy for the future of the business.”
William Lees-Jones – Managing Director, JW Lees