Big plans for Big Rock – Jim Button

When Jim Button heard that the Juno Awards were coming to Calgary this year, he knew he had a call to make. As the new VP marketing for Calgary-based Big Rock Brewery, Button takes pride in owning the local arts and entertainment sponsorship market in a category that tends to partner up with sporting and other big-ticket events.

When Jim Button heard that the Juno Awards were coming to Calgary this year, he knew he had a call to make. As the new VP marketing for Calgary-based Big Rock Brewery, Button takes pride in owning the local arts and entertainment sponsorship market in a category that tends to partner up with sporting and other big-ticket events.

‘We can’t have music come into our backyard and not be involved,’ says Button. ‘Our roots are around a group of people that are passionate about making a premium craft beer. What we’re doing with a lot of our music initiatives, of which the Junos are proof, is lend a helping hand to musicians as passionate about their craft as we are about ours.’

Founded in 1985 by former barley farmer Ed McNally, Big Rock’s products are now available everywhere in Canada except P.E.I. and Quebec. At home, Grasshopper and Traditional (‘Trad’) are pub favourites, but outside Alberta the 13-beer family is less well-known. Button won’t release market figures, saying only that ‘Molson and Labatt spill more than we sell.’

That said, Big Rock has ambitious plans to double its current output by 2012, and has shifted sales budgets to marketing to carry this out. ‘This company is at the point where it needs to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up,’ says Button, who switched from the agency side to brand management when he joined the brewer last June. ‘It’s grown so fast, and it’s gotten into the habit of following the big domestic breweries. So I’m saying let’s refocus back onto what we stood for.’

This refocusing means Button is taking a longer-term view of how Big Rock goes to market. He is reconsidering the emphasis that the craft brewer has placed on traditional advertising and in-package incentives for the past five years in favour of smaller, more targeted marketing efforts.

‘In Alberta, we’re [using] more of a defensive strategy,’ he says. ‘In our new markets we’re very much in a discovery phase, so we’re using more word-of-mouth, one-to-one engagement, media relations, samplings….We will use mainstream advertising, but the majority of it will be in Alberta. I don’t find mainstream media to be effective unless we have credibility. Unless I’ve interacted with the beer, I’m not going to believe it.’

Instead, Button is piloting a WOM program with Toronto-based Agent Wildfire in six neighbourhoods in that city. If it works, he’ll take it across the country. ‘Beer’s a local thing,’ he says. ‘I believe you have to be talking to people as if you were standing in front of their fridge at home; you have to be honest and genuine with them.’

Even the Junos deal focuses on local activities and emerging artists. As community sponsor, the brand will be most visible in the Junofest music venues around town leading up to the awards show on Apr. 6. Over the four years of the sponsorship, the brand will follow the awards to host cities Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto, meeting new beer drinkers on their home turf.

This city-level presence is reinforced by Big Rock’s Untapped CD, which features undiscovered Canadian musical talent and is currently available as an in-case premium. This year the artists were selected by hit producer Dave Pierce, but next year hopefuls will be able to upload songs to Bigrockuntapped.com (created by Calgary-based Critical Mass and launched last month), and fans will determine the finalists while an expert panel will select the winners. Ultimately, Button hopes to have the artists featured at the Junos – and, as luck would have it, Untapped artist Suzie McNeil was nominated in the New Artist category this year. ‘We just decided to really take advantage of [the sponsorship and] build a platform around it.’

You’d be forgiven for assuming that a Calgary fan like Button was born and bred there. Raised in a military family, he moved around Europe and Canada. After spending seven years in Toronto, buying media at McLaren Lintas (for Molson, among others) and as an account exec at Cossette, he realized two things: that he wanted to start his own company, and that Toronto wasn’t the place to do it.

‘I travelled around for six months in my car,’ he says. ‘I went to agencies, hooked up with old friends and slept on couches in Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa and Calgary. I would have chosen Halifax, because of the people, but the economy was in the dumper at that time and Calgary was just starting to go, so it looked like a good opportunity there.’

Button identified the need for a local event marketing agency, and started up The Event Group in 1997, with Big Rock as one of his first clients. In 2004 he sold the company and joined Venture Communications to expand their event marketing promotions and PR activities across the country. Last summer he got a call from McNally, who was looking for an agency. Instead, he got a marketer. ‘I was telling them they needed somebody to manage strategy before they could even start trying to hire an agency,’ says Button. ‘So they asked me to join.’

At that time Big Rock was a sales-driven company. Button subsequently reorganized the existing marketing staff and hired five more people to bring the count to 10. The team is responsible for everything from branding to POS to events to brewery tours and merchandise. They work with Big Rock’s original salesman, Alastair Smart, who now handles media relations and training exercises like the Big Rock University, and Ed’s daughter Shelagh McNally, who takes a creative branding role. Most recently she’s been wrapping hay bales outside Calgary to look like cans of Big Rock – which is exactly the kind of thing Button wants to do more of.

‘We have done a lot of radio, billboards, restobars and print, and I’m not 100% sold that it’s where we should be paying attention,’ he says, adding that a packaging redesign is also brewing. ‘I really want to get us back to being more grassroots, more unique, fun. Instead of putting up a billboard, we’ll do cans of beer in fields leading into town. Instead of doing 10 billboards, I want to do one billboard that gets some conversation [started].’

Online will also play a larger role, with a complete overhaul of bigrockbeer.com now underway, including the addition of an e-commerce element to sell branded merchandise. ‘Big Rock doesn’t have a significant marketing budget, so you have to be more clever and creative to get attention,’ says Dan Evans, president, experience design at Critical Mass, which is building the homepage Bigrockbeer.com – set to launch later this year – as well as Bigrockuntapped.com. ‘The two big projects align with Jim’s desire to shift the way people think about Big Rock. One is really addressing how the brand is presented, a centring point for a new brand expression; and then the Juno awards [and Untapped] just presented a great opportunity to get back to that place they had been in the past and look at how they can support grassroots development in the music industry.’

Button is also leveraging existing partnerships and properties to shift strategic emphasis to a consumer pull strategy. Big Rock sponsors nine folk music festivals across Canada, and he’s working on a program where attendees in, say, Edmonton can win a pass to attend five or six other fests the following year as a Big Rock reporter, adding photos and reviews to a branded blog. This city-to-city template is also changing the model for the Big Rock Eddies, the amateur beer commercial festival that has been a local phenomenon in Calgary for over 15 years, and in Edmonton since 2000. Toronto will host its first Eddies next month, with the top ads going to the finals in Calgary.

This approach means Button is unlearning a lot of old habits around planning. ‘I’m trying to think like a craft brewery,’ he says. ‘That’s hard, because you want to come up with very coordinated, long-term, synchronized touchpoints. You spend a lot of time researching and developing and then going, oh, I missed my door! So I’m trying to be more nimble. It doesn’t have to be 100% synchronized, because when you think of a craft brewery, a lot of the time they’re not slick like a large domestic brand. They’re just really proud of their beer.’