Tree Brewing: from small acorns, big oaks

Put it this way: If Labatt and Molson are the Canadian brewing industry's equivalent of big Hollywood blockbusters, then Tree Brewing of Kelowna, B.C. is a no-budget indie feature. And if that sounds like a lopsided match-up...well, remember The Blair Witch...

Put it this way: If Labatt and Molson are the Canadian brewing industry’s equivalent of big Hollywood blockbusters, then Tree Brewing of Kelowna, B.C. is a no-budget indie feature. And if that sounds like a lopsided match-up…well, remember The Blair Witch Project?

For a tiny West Coast brewery with an annual advertising budget of $20,000-$30,000 – at most – this four-year-old company has succeeded in making a surprising amount of noise. Sales have grown steadily, and Tree’s edgy advertising has garnered both accolades and condemnation.

This year marks something of a turning point, as the brewery embarks on a number of major marketing initiatives. In addition to reformulating its brews, Tree plans to establish a new division dedicated to activities such as product development and online marketing. And, next month, it will undertake a highly unusual product launch, in partnership with one of this country’s hottest ad agencies.

Tree Brewing was founded in 1995 by Geoff Twyman, an Alberta native who moved to Kelowna after earning a biology degree from the University of Calgary. Twyman began working at Cedar Creek Estate Winery, and went on to start a company that provided testing products and services to the burgeoning B.C. wine industry.

Soon after, he noted that the craft brewing business was flourishing in the province – the growth rate was around 25% a year – and decided to start a microbrewery of his own.

Today, Tree Brewing produces 7,500 hectolitres annually – a volume that Twyman hopes to increase to 9,000 this year – and markets a roster of products that includes Tree Pale Ale, Tree Blonde Lager, Red Ale and the company’s best-seller, Amber Ale.

While Tree has never had much money to throw around on advertising, Twyman was able to get some unpaid assistance in the past from Vancouver-based Palmer Jarvis DDB, thanks to his old high-school friend Marc Stoiber, who was a member of the agency’s creative department at the time.

Tree advertising produced at Palmer Jarvis has earned honours in both the Lotus Awards and the Marketing Awards. (It also succeeded in generating publicity in B.C. and Alberta, after the brewery was compelled to drop a couple of more provocative executions, notably a print ad that included some fairly, um, frank discussion about the G-spot.)

Tree Brewing and PJDDB split up last fall, after the latter picked up the Budweiser account. So, at Stoiber’s suggestion, Twyman got in touch with Rethink, a new creative shop founded by former PJDDBers Chris Staples, Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky.

The match was clearly a logical one. Tree needed to work with an agency, and Rethink needed a "rogue" client that would provide some opportunities to create more adventurous advertising.

Their relationship, however, goes well beyond the typical client-agency marriage. The two companies have, in fact, partnered on the development of a new product called Rethink beer, which will launch in June. Tree will handle production, while the agency oversees packaging and marketing.

Staples says the agency decided to start creating Rethink branded products – the plan is to introduce one every year for the next decade – in order to develop case studies demonstrating its ability to think far beyond traditional advertising.

"We wanted to show clients that we could do the advertising, but that we could also come up with great product ideas, do the packaging and then do completely integrated marketing for them," he explains.

It’s also good experience for an agency to learn first-hand what clients go through on a day-to-day basis, Staples adds.

"We now understand what it’s like to be a client without a lot of money in your marketing budget, and what it’s like to go out and try to get your product talked about," he says. "We’re now in our client’s shoes for a change, and we understand that every dollar really does count. Too few agencies understand that."

Rethink beer is a "nutraceutical" – an English-style ale blended with a trio of energizing herbs. The idea is to tap the alternative beverage craze, and to appeal to younger drinkers – particularly the rave crowd.

Ultimately, the partners say, they want to create a kind of underground cult hit. To this end, Rethink beer will boast cutting-edge graphics that will stand out in nightclubs, along with unique reusable packaging and cool bottle tops designed to become collector’s items. A Web component will figure prominently in the branding strategy as well.

The Rethink beer launch isn’t the only major item on Twyman’s current to-do list. Tree Brewing is also in the process of setting up a new division called the Laboratory of the Liquid Arts and Sciences, which Twyman describes as a "product think-tank."

The Laboratory will play a number of roles. For starters, it will formulate new products, both for Tree and for other clients – and it will develop packaging and marketing for those products. It will also work to bring new products into B.C., through Tree’s distribution arm, and will help to facilitate the introduction of Tree beers into other markets. (The brewery’s products are currently sold in B.C. and Alberta, and will soon be rolled out in Washington state.)

In addition, the Lab will be responsible for developing Tree’s online marketing initiatives. Twyman says he envisions using the Web for research purposes, to generate consumer feedback on new product and marketing ideas. Through these online efforts, he adds, the brewery will also be able to establish a database of Tree drinkers, to whom it can then communicate information about promotions, events and new product launches.

Given all the new developments going on in other areas, one might assume that the company would want to keep its core brands relatively stable. But here, too, the spirit of change has taken hold.

According to Twyman, the brewery began reformulating many of its products in the fall – including the popular Amber Ale – in an effort to move away from the softer, maltier beers it has been brewing up to now. "We wanted to make them more distinct," he says.

Tree will be dropping one of its current brands, Red Ale, from the lineup. But it has also recently launched a new India Pale Ale called Hophead. And it has introduced a "Masterbrew" series of seasonal beers, the first of which – Old Stumplifter – came out at Christmas.

Quirkily-named brews like Hophead and Old Stumplifter should go some way toward helping Tree differentiate itself within B.C.’s craft brewing marketplace – an increasingly crowded and competitive sector.

Among Tree’s rivals in this marketplace are Granville Island Brewery, Vancouver Island Brewery and Bear Brewing, as well as Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman Brewing and Malting, which owns both the Okanagan Springs and Shaftsbury breweries.

Twyman’s goal is continued growth. Indeed, he would like to see Tree’s brewing facility reach its full 20,000-hectolitre capacity within the next three years.

"Our goal is to become the largest craft brewer in B.C.," he says.

Also in this report:

- Pharmasave carves its niche: B.C.-based drugstore chain finds itself facing stiff competition from big-box retailers and major supermarkets p.25

- TransLink touts broadened mandate: Vancouver transit authority lets consumers know it’s more than just "the old bus company" p.27

- Aquarium asks people to test the waters: New campaign will cast net wide to draw natives and tourists alike to venerable Vancouver institution p.30

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