O, Molson Canadian, our true and patriot beer!

A look at how the patriotic brand has fought to win brand love over the last 60 years and what it hopes will be its next one-two punch.

molson adA 1960 ad celebrates the launch of Molson’s Canadian Lager Beer (later shortened to Molson Canadian), which originally featured the red, white, blue and gold colours of our national flag at the time – the Canadian Red Ensign.   

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy.

Over the years, Molson Canadian has had to battle opponents from all sides, particularly between the mid-1980s and early 2000s, when Molson marketers duked it out with Labatt marketers in what became known as the Beer Wars. More recently, the lager – and the beer category as a whole – has had to work to bring back fans, as some consumer tastes begin to favour craft ales, or opt out of beer entirely. And that’s not to forget cannabis, a new potential threat to the game.
But, like a stalwart Canuck, the lager always gets back on the ice to fight another day.

THEN: Brewing up a Beer War

When what was then known as Molson Brewery launched Molson’s Canadian Lager Beer (later simply known as Molson Canadian) in late 1959, competitor Labatt Breweries of Canada had already introduced its own pale lager – originally called Labatt Pilsener – eight years earlier in 1951. A promotional video from that time (above) shows Molson spent years doing market research before launching what it called the “clearest, brightest lager beer you’ve ever tasted.” By the 1960s, Molson Canadian’s main rival was rebranded as Labatt Blue and the two dominant brands would vie for supremacy for years to come.

While Blue was linked with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Molson Canadian was tied to the Montreal Canadiens. Members of the Molson beer dynasty bought the Montreal NHL team in 1957. The storied NHL team was later purchased by Molson Brewery in 1978. And the brewery sold the team in 2001, only for the Molson family to become majority owners again in 2009.

At one time, Molson even held the rights to NHL game footage in Canada, notes Ferg Devins, who worked his way up from intern in 1981 to chief corporate affairs officer for Molson Coors Canada from 2009 to 2013.

“Growing up, Molson Canadian was synonymous with hockey,” recalls Devins, who is now a freelance communications strategist. “They were the brand that supported my sport.”

Over the decades Labatt and Molson battled it out to be the beer of choice among sports fans and beyond, and by the mid-‘80s it was an all out war, recalls David Kincaid, who was VP of marketing at Labatt Breweries of Canada from 1986 to 1996 and EVP of marketing at Interbrew, post-merger. from 1996 to 2000.

Molson and Labatt “were investing at levels other companies just couldn’t, so we kind of set the tone and the agenda,” says Kincaid, who is now founder, president and CEO of Level5. “So they’d hit us with an uppercut and we’d come back with a jab, it was fun. You’d wake up every morning to see what they had done so you could respond with innovation and power – it kept you on your toes.”

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s both brands landed punches. After more than two decades of its products being on shelf, Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue were seen as beers your dad drank, recalls Kincaid. So to entice the next generation of beer drinkers, in 1985, Molson tapped into youth culture with “The Taste That Will Stop You Cold” campaign, featuring music video-style ads that were inspired by the mega-popular MTV and MuchMusic channels. Labatt then attempted similar ads, but it didn’t work as Molson had first-mover advantage, says Kincaid.

In 1992 Labatt started putting branded T-shirts and scratch-and-win tickets in its “two-four” cases of beer. Molson quickly followed suit and “it became [about] who was going to stuff as many things into cases as possible. It got a little out of hand,” admits Kincaid.

And then, around the turn of the century, two of the most iconic campaigns in Canadian history were launched: Labatt’s “Out of the Blue” and Molson’s “The Rant.” Perhaps the most memorable TV ad of Labatt’s campaign was “The Shopping Cart,” which opened with the bold “who whooo!” of Blur’s “Song 2” as young office drones triumphantly rode down a hill in the carts. But it was Molson’s epic 60-second “Rant” ad – starring a seemingly affable guy in a baggy flannel shirt (a.k.a. actor Jeff Douglas as “Joe Canadian”) ranting and raving about Canadian stereotypes – that tapped into something special.

“That was truly an integrated campaign. We had [Joe Canadian] do live performances, he opened up the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs after the anthem, we flew him around on Canada Day,” remembers Brett Marchand, formerly VP of marketing at Molson and currently CGO and COO at BlueFocus International. “We PRed the heck out of it, we actually started a rumour that [Douglas] wasn’t Canadian, which we knew he was, and the papers were flocking to it…We started Iam.ca, and added T-shirts and shorts in the cases. We said, ‘We’re going to throw everything against this idea.’”

Not only did “The Rant,” by the agency then known as Bensimon Byrne D’Arcy, win armfuls of industry awards, including a Cassies Grand Prix, it also made Molson Canadian the most popular beer in Canada, says Marchand.

Back then, Kincaid and Marchand would often compare notes while walking their dogs. “I remember walking along with Brett and saying, ‘You know what? I’ve got to give you credit. You’ve got a better ad, but I got a better campaign.’ We had a good chuckle over that one,” says Kincaid. In the long run, neither Molson Canadian nor Labatt Blue won the crown as our country’s top-selling beer – that title goes to America’s Budweiser, (which, like Blue, is now owned by AB InBev).

NOW: Battling disruption from all sides

The beer industry these days is perhaps even more competitive than it was during the heady Beer Wars years – as Molson Canadian (and the beer category in general) strives to stay relevant among Canadians who have shifted away from drinking mass-marketed lagers to sipping on small craft brands. Even Douglas, a.k.a. the actor turned CBC radio host who played “Joe Canadian” in “The Rant,” says he often opts for craft beer over Molson these days. That’s if Canadians opt for beer at all. For years, beer drinking in the Great White North has fallen flat, and in 2018, Canadians of legal drinking age drank, on average, 210 cans of beer – a decline of 1.2% from 2017, according to national trade association, Beer Canada. Meanwhile, sales for the craft category have increased tenfold from 2008 to 2018 and now accounts for 6% of the market, according to a University of Guelph report. And then there was the legalization of recreational marijuana last fall, the true impact of which still remains to be seen.

Molson Canadian was hit hard by this perfect storm, with brand volume in Canada having decreased 10% during the first quarter of 2019 versus 2018, driven by industry declines and competitive pressures in Western Canada and Ontario, according to Molson Coors’ Q1 financial summary.

Rebrand4

In a bid to right the ship, Molson’s marketing team unveiled a new masterbrand in January 2019 for its portfolio of beers, which also includes Molson Export, Molson Dry, Molson 67 and Molson Cold Shots. Molson Coors’ iconic bottles and cans were redesigned with the help of London, U.K.-based design firm BrandOpus. Molson Canadian’s new can, specifically, features a red-and-white background, a silver maple leaf, John Molson’s signature and a stylized version of the white clock on the brown-brick Molson beer factory in downtown Montreal.

John Molson

Molson is also attempting to position itself against local craft brews by marketing its own roots in Canada. This year’s brand refresh saw the beer create its first-ever animated commercial, called “The Label.” The ad (developed by AOR Rethink, with Wavemaker on media and Citizen Relations on PR) explores the history of Molson’s Brewing, which was founded in 1786 by John Molson (pictured above) in Montreal. Today, Molson is part of one of the biggest brewers in the world, Molson Coors Brewing Co., with headquarters in both la belle province and Denver, after Canada’s Molson Brewing Co. merged with America’s Coors Brewing Co. in 2005.

“Molson is the oldest operating brewery in Canada and North America [and] the second oldest  company in Canada and seven generations of the Molson family involved in the business and that story is relatively unknown,” says Joy Ghosh, senior director of marketing, at Molson Coors Canada. “When I came on I thought there was a great opportunity to tell that story and elevate the name as a way to help modernize Molson Canadian and the Molson name for the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

The strategy is part of an effort to educate consumers of the brand’s heritage is an extension of its efforts to shift away from being seen as a beer consumed mainly by white males in flannel shirts. These days, Molson is also trying to attract more female beer drinkers, as well as millennials and Gen Zers, explains Ghosh, who joined Molson in September 2016 after almost a decade at P&G. While young men are still a main target for Molson Canadian, the brewer is aiming to make the brand “more accessible to female drinkers. As a modern company we need to be much more inclusive and much more gender neutral and also be more overt where we can,” says Ghosh.

The Molson Canadian Global Beer Fridge

Its efforts to reach a broader audience were evident in 2015, when Rethink put an inclusive twist on Molson’s 2013 red-and-white branded “Beer Fridge,” which could only be opened using a Canadian passport. The 2015 iteration showed the fridge opening after the iconic phrase “I am Canadian” is spoken in six languages.

“We wanted to create an icon that could strike like a lightning bolt and trigger pride in the same way we feel pride on Canada Day,” explains Aaron Starkman, partner and CD at Rethink. Starkman entered the ad industry just as “The Rant” hit airwaves in 2000 and could barely believe his luck when he was part of the pitch at the now defunct Zig, which won the Molson Canadian account in 2004. The brewer ultimately landed at Rethink right before Starkman joined in 2012.

While Ghosh wouldn’t provide specific details at press time, he says the fridge would have a prominent place in the marketing strategy for this year’s Canada Day, which he calls a “key anchor moment” every year. With the government recently announcing its intention to welcome more than one million new immigrants to Canada over the next three years, reaching out to a diverse demographic is crucial to Molson’s future success, notes Ghosh. And while Molson Canadian will always stir up patriotic pride in many on Canada Day, the masterbrand strategy going forward will focus on Molson’s entire family of brands, adds Ghosh.

In a bid to get ahead of further industry disruption, Molson Canadian’s parent co., Molson Coors, jumped into the cannabis space last year, partnering with Quebec-based licensed cannabis producer Hexo on developing and selling cannabis-infused beverages. The brewer picked Rethink to oversee strategy, design and creative on what’s been dubbed Truss. Cannabis-infused beverages are expected to be legalized for retail sale in Canada later this year, so it remains to be seen if Molson Canadian will offer its own CBD-infused option. Hopping into the growing cannabis space is a smart move for the brewer as pot is a real threat to the beer industry, says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. And Dave Bioginiwho led marketing for Molson Canadian for a time when worked at Molson Coors from 2008-2017 before leaving to become the chief commercial officer of Tweed parent company Canopy Growth, agrees that cannabis was, and is, a competitor to beer brands, including Molson Canadian. Of course, the impact of legalizing cannabis-laced drinks here remains to be seen, Canaccord Genuity Group analysts have estimated drinks infused with marijuana-derived compounds could grow to a US$600 million market in the U.S. by 2022.   

Molson_firstbottle_1959ALT

While much has changed (such as the original 1959 bottle, pictured above) some things never really change – Canadians still have a thirst for both patriotism and beer. Now it’s up to Molson Canadian to come out swinging once again to regain its status as Canada’s beer, not just on Canada Day, but every day, says Kincaid. “There’s still room for a very nationalistic brand and what better brand to own that than Molson Canadian?”

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 5.07.31 PM

Three timeless lessons from “The Rant”

“The Rant” has gone down in history as one of the best Canadian ads period. Full. Stop. Here’s three lessons for the next generation from industry giants who were involved in the classic ad:
1. Write what you know: When Glen Hunt worked in Manhattan in the 1990s, his co-workers constantly mocked his Canadian accent, saying “no doot aboot it” and asking if he got paid in “beaver pelts and caribou meat.” Ha, ha? But Hunt got the last laugh when he moved back to Canada and used several of those jokes when writing “The Rant” as a young CD at what was then called Bensimon Byrne D’Arcy. After being mercilessly mocked by his American peers, his creed on Canadian stereotypes quickly poured onto the page, recalls Hunt, who is now a freelance coach and consultant.

2. Leave your ego at the door: The iconic slogan, “I am Canadian” was actually penned by then-AOR MacLaren (now part of McCann Canada) and was used between 1994 and 1996, recalls Jack Bensimon, president and founding partner of Bensimon Byrne. In 1999, during the agency review process, Bensimon and his team pitched bringing back the patriotic slogan from a rival agency. “Dan O’Neill, president of Molson at the time, was astonished we would recommend using another agency’s copy. But we saw it as Molson’s ‘Just Do It’ and expressed astonishment that they would have abandoned it,” says Bensimon, who was right.

3. Ask for forgiveness, not permission: Marchand, VP of marketing for Molson back in 2000, knew after doing market research that “The Rant” was going to be a massive hit. It was the most popular ad the research firm had ever tested, recalls the now chief growth officer and CCO at BlueFocus International. Marchand wanted it to play during the Oscars telecast as close as possible to the South Park movie’s “Blame Canada” song, but not everyone was on board, with some arguing “that’s not LDA (beer industry speak for Legal Drinking Age), no guys watch the Oscars!” But trusting the research, and his gut, he decided it was “better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” It played right after the song and the rest is advertising history.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Joy Ghosh due to a transcription error, in fact Molson is actually the second oldest company in Canada and is also the oldest operating brewery in Canada and North America. We regret the error.