Brewers hit the ground running

For Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman, the Roulston brothers' May 24 weekend party is a slam-dunk: 250 young people, all around 25-years-old and mostly university graduates, out for a good time at a cottage on the first long weekend of Canada's beer-guzzling season.

For Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman, the Roulston brothers’ May 24 weekend party is a slam-dunk: 250 young people, all around 25-years-old and mostly university graduates, out for a good time at a cottage on the first long weekend of Canada’s beer-guzzling season.

The party is so up the brewery’s tap lines that, over the past four years, it has lugged 30 kegs of beer to the family cottage of twins Jason and Shannon on Crowe River outside Peterborough – 200-plus kilometres away from the microbrewery – along with complimentary t-shirts, plastic cups, keg pumps and cooler tubs, just to help the boys celebrate summer’s opening weekend.

‘Sleeman is good enough to drop [the kegs] off and pick them up again,’ says Jason. ‘They’ve definitely been good to us.’

While the Roulstons’ pay for the beer (and charge attendees to cover costs), the free delivery plus add-ons makes for a relatively significant investment by Sleeman. But as national grassroots promotions go, this one barely fills a pint glass. So why do it?

Because research indicates that such programs elevate brand recognition better than almost anything else in a brewery’s marketing mix, beer marketers say.

‘We don’t mind going that extra mile for them,’ says Court Desautels, assistant special-events coordinator at Sleeman, who has driven kegs six hours to a similar event north of Ottawa.

‘We’re still very small compared to Molson or Labatt and people perceive us as a microbrewery coming from a small town with a more personal approach. That’s what we offer.’

Sleeman is not alone in such devotion to its constituents.

The fact is that brewers across the country take their grassroots activities very seriously. While the big media buys get all the attention, brewers spend a significant portion of their budgets on the ground. The exact figures are hard to track because grassroots programs are executed either individually or co-operatively between events, marketing and sales departments, which all have their own budgets.

Andrew Barrett, VP of marketing Molson brands, says on-the-ground promotions are critical to the success of a brand.

‘These things are crucial to building a good relationship with beer drinkers, absolutely crucial,’ he says. Beer, Barrett adds, is all about socializing, good times and time away from home at parties, bars and beer-sponsored events.

‘We invest in it seriously; we develop the programs very seriously with a lot of effort; and we track them quite seriously so that we can learn and continue to make them better.’

Of particular interest to brewers are Canada’s universities. The reasons are obvious: the nation’s campuses are bastions of future money earners who have only just reached legal drinking age and have therefore not yet developed brand loyalties.

While grassroots marketing on campus is nothing new in the beer business, such activity has seen a particularly significant surge recently, says Alan Middleton, a marketing veteran who now teaches the discipline at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

‘Any student can get [posters] for their walls in college from any of the breweries,’ he says. ‘You see the kids walking around with [branded gear]…the Nike Swoosh is being replaced by free beers from Labatt and Molson.’

Middleton – who as president of Enterprise Advertising in the ’80s handled creative for Labatt brands 50 and Light – notes that both Labatt and Molson reduced their efforts in the ’90s as a means to rein in runaway costs. More recently, however, Molson has begun to push hard again and Labatt has been forced to follow suit.

‘Labatt is having to respond to it because it was beginning to lose significant momentum especially in core areas like universities and colleges – where students tend to be high beer drinkers – and youth markets in general,’ he says.

‘The other thing that has happened in parallel with this is that a whole bunch of other marketers have discovered street marketing. So they’re in the clubs with everything from condoms to soft drinks to books and CDs – you name it. The amount of street-based promotion activity is very high.’

One corner that remains in the shadows is the practice of sampling. While sales reps routinely offer beers to patrons in bars, on-campus activity is something not openly discussed.

Anne Braedley, manager of the Clark Hall Pub at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., says campus policy there forbids free alcohol at parties. ‘[The school] doesn’t want to promote alcohol. So having the breweries [market] on campus is against its position,’ she says.

So is that the end of it?

Not likely. Campus life generates two powerful yet conflicting forces with which breweries have to deal. On the one hand, there are lots of young people who are ready and willing to party. On the other, many university students have little in the way of so-called ‘beer money.’ So free beer is a quick and easy way to their hearts and minds.

Indeed, one former beer rep told Strategy that he used to watch in amazement as one of his associates ‘would take cases of beer out at night and just drop them off at every frat house on campus.’

Not only is such activity difficult to track, it can also land brewers in a whole keg of hot water if provincial liquor control authorities find out.

For one thing, there’s that sticky age-of-majority issue: Dropping off a free keg for a frat party provides no guarantee that the beer won’t find itself into – and back up – the gullet of a 15-year-old party crasher. Secondly, there is the risk that unabashed beer consumption can lead to dangerous activity, like pouring beer on your head and running naked through campus in February.

So how do stay within the parameters of the law and still develop strong brand presence?

For its part, Molson closed out last school year on university campuses across the country by prizing backpacks with ‘I Am Canadian’ stitched on the back for students planning to trek across Europe over the summer.

One of the prizes for the coming school year includes bus trips from across Southern Ontario to attend Octoberfest in Kitchener-Waterloo.

In Quebec, Molson Dry is attempting to brand every single back-to-school party at every university province-wide. While extremely ambitious, the brand’s strategy is fairly straightforward. Molson is setting up a Web site – manquezpasleparty.com – through Montreal-based P2P Promotions to provide students with a comprehensive list of every party on and off campus.

‘We’re positioning Molson Dry as owners of the back-to-school events. We’re taking over those events in a way,’ says Pierre Parent, P2P president.

‘In the schools, we’re trying to organize as much sponsorship as possible. On the sales side, that is a good opportunity to work with the different student associations to link them to Molson Dry, to actually sign them as the official supplier of beer for back to school.’

Parent says such a site will be particularly valuable to new students unfamiliar with campus life and local hotspots. The site will allow students to vote for the best student-association-sponsored party. The winning school will win a truckload of Molson Dry, Parent says, which should keep the party grooving all year long.

The site will be advertised through posters and flyers handed out at student bars on and off campus.

Parent says research and knowing exactly what the consumer wants and then delivering exactly that, is essential to a successful on-the-ground promotion.

Labatt is also ramping up for a big on-campus presence in the fall. Budweiser, for instance, is planning a major Bud Bowl promotion using the brand’s association with the gridiron to capture the interest of Canadian university football fans. While the details are unavailable, Gino Cantalini, director of partner brands at Labatt, which brews Bud in Canada, says such programs are crucial to Buds’ overall strategy.

‘You’ve got to understand your consumer and you’ve got to understand your marketing mix and what is most important to get to that change in purchase behavior,’ he says. ‘You’re trying to create a touch-point for the brand.’