Buckley’s takes bad taste message abroad

Everyone's heard the clichés before. 'We're living today in a world without borders.' 'There is no such thing as a Canadian company anymore.' 'The whole world is our marketplace now.' But what, exactly, does all of this mean in terms of...

Everyone’s heard the clichés before.

‘We’re living today in a world without borders.’ ‘There is no such thing as a Canadian company anymore.’ ‘The whole world is our marketplace now.’

But what, exactly, does all of this mean in terms of concrete, day-to-day reality? What do Canadian firms go through in the effort to market their products and services internationally? How do they build brands on a global basis? What are the challenges – and the rewards?

For this special report, Strategy’s writers profile the global marketing activities of several noteworthy Canadian companies.

Frank Buckley wants to share his bad taste with the world.

As president of W.K. Buckley, he’s the man behind Buckley’s Mixture, a cough medicine renowned both for its efficacy and its spectacularly foul taste.

Buckley’s Mixture was first developed in 1919 by Frank’s father, William Knapp Buckley. Today it is the flagship brand for the company, which also markets a bedtime decongestant and a pain relief rub, among other products.

Based in Mississauga, Ont., W.K. Buckley commands a 14.5% share of cough syrup sales in Canadian drug stores. And it is making steady inroads in other markets, including the U.S., the Caribbean, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan.

Until the mid-1980s, Buckley’s foreign sales were small. In 1986, however, Frank Buckley brought in a new partner to help guide the business. John Meehan had worked for Schering-Plough in Europe and Asia before joining W.K. Buckley as vice-president and general manager, and he made it his mission to expand the company’s activities in foreign markets.

Nearly a fifth of Buckley’s business today comes from the U.S. market, Meehan says. Sales in the Caribbean represent another 9% of the business, while Australia and New Zealand account for approximately 2%.

In many ways, the Caribbean is where Buckley’s global efforts really began. Buckley’s Mixture has been sold there almost as long as the company has existed.

By the 1980s, the brand had a modest toehold in the U.S. market. Research showed that the American customer base consisted largely of Caribbean immigrants living in New York. So the company engaged a specialist ad agency to develop a campaign targeting black communities.

The initiative produced sales increases. But it also reinforced the perception of Buckley’s Mixture as a niche product, limiting its potential for growth. So in 1995, the company widened distribution to include major drugstores and some supermarket chains, and developed advertising aimed at a more general audience.

With the growth of the product’s following south of the border, the company has also rolled out a loyalty program for U.S. consumers.

At one time, W.K. Buckley relied on a different ad agency in each of the countries where its product is sold, Meehan says. From a management standpoint, however, this proved tremendously complicated. So today, advertising for all markets is handled out of Toronto by Publicis-SMW.

The company stretches its modest marketing budget by employing a creative strategy that is inexpensive and highly flexible. Much of the advertising features Frank Buckley himself as spokesman, and plays upon the famous Buckley’s Mixture tagline: ‘It tastes awful. And it works.’

The result? Creative tailored to different markets can be developed at a relatively low cost. In the Caribbean, for example, Buckley produces radio spots specific to each island.

The company looks for similar efficiencies in its media strategies, relying heavily on trans-border publications like The National Enquirer, with extensive distribution in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.

Global expansion hasn’t been without its frustrations. Meehan says he’s been particularly disappointed by the company’s efforts to crack the market in Pakistan.

The ‘bad taste’ theme just doesn’t seem to click with Pakistani consumers, he says. And the venture has been beset by numerous other difficulties related to the country’s economic and political problems.

As for the future, Meehan predicts that W.K. Buckley’s U.S. sales will top its domestic sales within eight years. The company is currently contemplating a move into U.S. specialty television, a media strategy that has proved successful here in Canada.

Also in this report:

- Tim Hortons issues wakeup call: Builds underdeveloped breakfast category p.25

- Faces adapts to local market: Cosmetics retailer leverages awareness of cultural differences p.25

- Honeydew pegs future on U.S. sales p.26

- Great Canadian Bagel makes slow but sure gains in Moscow p.27

- Southbrook Farms and Winery proves its worth abroad: Ontario winemaker uses foreign success to boost sales at home p.28

- Seagull Pewter sells at shows: Family-run giftware operation does business in over 20 territories p.28

- Clearly Canadian launches in U.S. first p.28

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group