Nothing to hide, nothing to regret

When you start with all the right things, the only way to go is up. And Sleeman Breweries, which has built its name as a straight-shooting quality distillery, is definitely on its way.

When you start with all the right things, the only way to go is up. And Sleeman Breweries, which has built its name as a straight-shooting quality distillery, is definitely on its way.

The independent started out in a crowded field, which has only become more crowded. Not only did it have to stand out amid more than 20 microbreweries, it had to battle with the big guys, Molson and Labatt, who have strong entries in the field.

The maker of Cream Ale, Silver Creek, Honey Brown Lager and others, Sleeman is now the largest premium beer company in Canada. It achieved a 5% national market share last year – amounting to half of all premium beer sales – in an industry that is about 90% controlled by the two major breweries.

Now, after two years with the company, director of marketing Paul Brennan is taking Sleeman’s advertising in a new direction: The company is advertising on TV for the first time, and it has decided to drop John Sleeman as the spokesperson.

Which is a little ironic, because to date, the company’s success can largely be attributed to its founder, John W. Not just because he was a forthright radio spokesperson for the past three years, but because his strategy was to pay attention to the first P in marketing – the product.

Sleeman started his micro-craft beer company back in 1988 when he inherited an old beer recipe book from ancestor John H. Sleeman, who founded a brewery in Guelph, Ont., back in 1834. That brewery was passed to son George in 1867, then down to George A. Then it closed and skipped a generation before John W. restarted it.

The old brewery was shut down during prohibition, when beer was found under some vegetables in a cart trying to cross the border into Michigan. The Canadian government didn’t get them for making alcohol or smuggling, but, like Al Capone, on the taxes.

‘Taxes and beer go way back in this country,’ laughs Brennan.

However, the point of the story is the legacy that John W. received, says Brennan: old recipes, production techniques and the clear bottle.

Fixated on a quality product, John W. decided to stay with copper kettles, small batches and the distinctive bottle.

As Andy Macaulay, partner at Sleeman’s new advertising agency, Zig, says, ‘It was one of the smartest marketing decisions they ever made, using the original bottle. It was a difficult choice for John to make in the late ’80s. There were all kinds of reasons not to do that, cost being the major one, but he stayed true to the roots of that company.’

The clear bottle and John’s ‘sense of forthrightness and underhype’ led to their current tagline, ‘Nothing to hide.’ When tracking consumer satisfaction, Brennan heard appreciation for John’s honest approach, and comments like, ‘This is a company that has nothing to hide.’

These consumers were referring to John’s understated radio pitch. He simply says, ‘We brew good beer, I hope you like it.’ And it worked. Over the past five years, Sleeman has more than tripled its sales.

Things are so good that this past May, Sleeman took the plunge into television. It’s a risky move: mass advertising is the province of the giant beer companies, and it might erode Sleeman’s independent, high quality image. However, Brennan says they asked their customers about it, and they said it was okay, ‘but be different!’

Enter Zig. As both Brennan and Macaulay put it. ‘Zig is to the advertising business what Sleeman is to the beer industry.’ Smaller, leaner, smarter. So it was a match.

Zig created three off-beat ‘Moments of Truth’ spots aimed at the 25 to 35 male, centred around a ‘Nothing to hide’ slogan. Only this time, instead of John telling the truth about his product, people are speaking the truth in everyday, awkward situations.

‘The new campaign is about the drinker, not the proprietor,’ explains Brennan.

In the wedding spot, for example, the married couple is making the rounds and, as often happens, they meet a couple they don’t know. Instead of the usual pretensions, the bride says, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I’m sure you’ve brought a lovely gift.’ The couple honestly answers, ‘No.’

To take the concept directly to the people, says Brennan, Sleeman entered into a convergence deal with CanWest Global that crossed three media. This value-added, turnkey promotion invited people to submit their own moments of truth. It was promoted on Sportsline, and the Internet was used to drive entries. Each week of the promotion, five of the best stories were printed in the National Post, and on July 3 the grand prize winner of a fishing trip to B.C. for four was announced on TV by Sportsline’s Laurie Belanger, and John Sleeman himself.

Kevin Johnson, account director at Sleeman’s media agency, Carat Canada, explains the main reason for going to television: ‘Within this category, there is a lot of noise, and TV is the most effective way to get out a new message so our consumers can hear it.’

That noise is the sound of stiff competition. Not only are there domestic premium beers to contend with but, ‘The line between domestics and imports is blurred,’ notes Brennan. And both Labatt and Molson have specialty beers they own or rep.

But when Molson turned up the heat on Heineken, which it reps in Canada, Brennan said it only brought more attention to the overall premium beer market, and Sleeman benefits from that.

Macaulay sums up their success: ‘They’re a smart, ethical bunch of folks who have their brand and operating style figured out… and they’re rewarded for that in sales and stock prices.’

To wit, Sleeman reached its 52 week – and all time – high the first week of July at 9.65.