Image isn’t everything in Canada’s local beer wars

Ding, dong. The door swings open, party chatter, laughter and clamorous music escapes, and a guy's head pops out; he props the door open while clinging onto two unopened Alpine beers.
'Is this your dog?' asks a sweet, smiling, pretty brunette.
'Spot!' he exclaims, over-dramatizing his relief.
He nervously thanks her for finding his wounded canine and invites her in to join the raging party. Spot, on the other hand, remains faithfully outside. Noticing the brunette is safely out of earshot, Dave whispers to his trusted companion who's now magically cured of his limp, 'we're a little short on blondes.'
Music swells again and Alpine's slogan is announced, 'Alpine, you gotta live here to get it.'
That slogan, which conjures the notion of exclusivity, with a little help from Spot the dog, has proven to be very successful for Saint John, N.B.-based Alpine, which is in a heated battle with beer giant Budweiser in New Brunswick.

Ding, dong. The door swings open, party chatter, laughter and clamorous music escapes, and a guy’s head pops out; he props the door open while clinging onto two unopened Alpine beers.

‘Is this your dog?’ asks a sweet, smiling, pretty brunette.

‘Spot!’ he exclaims, over-dramatizing his relief.

He nervously thanks her for finding his wounded canine and invites her in to join the raging party. Spot, on the other hand, remains faithfully outside. Noticing the brunette is safely out of earshot, Dave whispers to his trusted companion who’s now magically cured of his limp, ‘we’re a little short on blondes.’

Music swells again and Alpine’s slogan is announced, ‘Alpine, you gotta live here to get it.’

That slogan, which conjures the notion of exclusivity, with a little help from Spot the dog, has proven to be very successful for Saint John, N.B.-based Alpine, which is in a heated battle with beer giant Budweiser in New Brunswick.

It’s the same story across Canada. Smaller, regionally brewed beers are forced to compete with the infinitely bigger, deep-pocketed brewers, Labatt and Molson. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, but any smaller brewery from Labrador to Victoria would equate the beer war to a David and Goliath-scaled inequity.

Often, the best strategy to win the local battles is through fun, well targeted marketing, like Alpine’s, which champions the philosophical difference between the Davids and the Goliaths.

Regional brands obviously don’t have anywhere near the budgets and resources to market the way Labatt and Molson can. Most observers estimate both brands’ advertising budgets to be well over $40 million, whereas regionals are generally under the $1 million mark. Television is the main benchmark: a strong TV spot can cost over $1 million, which is why it is rare to see commercials from regional brands – they just can’t afford it – so most take a grassroots approach.

‘Craft breweries must adjust to be a part of the tapestry of the beer market,’ says Stephen Beaumont, author of five books on beer, including the second edition of The Great Canadian Beer Guide. ‘They have to be louder, they should stand up and shout ‘we’re cool and different, we’re unusual and we’re a part of the mainstream, but we taste better.”

Alpine has adopted that approach with Spot at the helm. A revived mascot from over a decade ago, the crafty pooch is back in the ‘Limp Dog’ commercial produced by Toronto’s Goodgoll Curtis. Focus groups conducted before Spot’s resurrection confirmed that consumers wanted him back; the older generation remembered him fondly and younger drinkers recalled seeing the dog in old commercials. With Spot returning, Alpine set to the task of snagging drinkers in an already heated beer war.

‘The old idea was that you had to get beer consumers by the time they turned 19, then you’d have them for life, but now that’s not the case,’ says Steve Porier, Alpine’s VP of marketing. ‘The people we target, the 25- to 35-year-olds, are loyal to a brand because of its taste, not like younger consumers who shop and drink based on the price.’

That’s the fundamental difference all smaller beer brands claim: they tailor their marketing efforts around the theory that if they make a better-tasting beer and push that to consumers, they will make the switch. While Molson and Labatt can afford to constantly sell an image (the fun-time, patio party mixer lifestyle complete with beautiful people and a pop music soundtrack), the regionals sell flavour.

Guelph’s Sleeman’s Brewing and Malting did so extremely successfully and it is now the quintessential malted Cinderella story, one that all others reference. It started as a microbrewery with a small reach and came to produce Canada’s top premium beer by aggressively marketing John Sleeman’s straight-shooting approach, family roots, its different flavours and its clear bottle packaging–all points that none of the heavyweights could boast.

After dropping Toronto-based Publicis SMW two years ago, Sleeman’s handed Toronto’s Zig the estimated $2 million account in late September 2000. Sleeman’s has done so well in the past few years that most don’t even consider it to be micro now.

While the national market is dominated by Molson with 44.7% and Labatt close behind with 43.3%, Sleeman’s has become the third most popular beer in all of Canada, with a 4.6% market share – all other micros in Canada put together only have a 2.2% market share, even less than the 3.1% enjoyed by imports.

‘These brands exist because people think they supply a better beer,’ says Andrew Stodart, president of Toronto-based Brand Builders. ‘Sleeman’s is the most successful. They talked about the functional benefits in their marketing, they claimed it was ‘real beer.’ They never knocked the competition and they built their empire on honesty and authenticity. Other brands must find new ways to do that, to give consumers a reason to spend more money on them instead of the big boys.’

For Alpine, it sponsors 85% of all the festivals in New Brunswick on top of its traditional advertising methods like television, print and radio. Promotions, like the successful ‘Cool Caps,’ also help tip the scales. Over the last three years, Cool Caps, which tempts consumers to collect points from the underside of beer caps to win prizes (anything from beer gear like T-shirts and hats to a bar fridge), has had extremely high redemption rates. It has become a key component of Alpine’s marketing plan.

‘Bud gets way more media spill over from the States – a lineage of sports properties that we could never afford – that forces us to be more strategic,’ Porier explains. ‘The ‘you gotta be here to get it,’ tagline resonates well with consumers, it makes them proud to know that everyone else in Canada can buy a Bud, but only people in New Brunswick can drink Alpine.’

Over the last 40 years the two brands have battled for market share; currently Alpine claims to hold a slim lead. But since the late 1980s that lead has declined. Porier concedes Alpine simply got a little overconfident while at the same time Bud became very active, causing Alpine’s volume to flatten out.

Alpine is a bigger brewery than most regionals. It’s owned by Moosehead (a brand that’s made inroads from Eastern Canada into Ontario and westward and has captured a 2.1% market share nationally), so it has more of an advantage than the average regional brand.

Oakville, Ont.-based Cameron’s Brewing opened in the fall of 1997 as a family-run operation with each member wearing several hats. Cameron Howe is the brewmaster and president, his sister, Karen, is the marketing and advertising director, her husband Randy heads up sales, and Mother Howe, Allanah, handles the administrative and logistic duties.

Humble beginnings indeed. Cameron’s began only offering one brand and consumers could only order it in a 24-pack. Now, there are four flavours and like Sleeman’s unique clear bottle, it began delivering nine-packs hand-signed by Cameron himself. The cases contained a newsletter apprising drinkers of the latest goings-on, interest grew and Cameron’s moved on to a campaign on the back of coasters, then to today, where it can finally afford a radio campaign.

Its message, like that of so many other regionals, focuses on the qualities of the beer: its fine ingredients and good taste.

One broadcast spot, called ‘Accountant,’ devised by Toronto’s Due North Communications where Karen Howe is also creative director, begins with the brewery’s accountant pleading with Cameron to use cheaper hops to save money. He ponders for a moment, pours himself a beer and ‘puts the bottle to good use.’ A loud crash is heard followed by the accountant’s whimpering as he falls to the floor from the implied blow to the head. The tagline explains the carnage: ‘Brewed by a connoisseur, not an accountant.’

‘We want to tell people about our uncompromising mindset,’ says Karen Howe. ‘Our attitude is entrenched in quality, we really have a clear distinction. We can’t compete with the big boys, so why not celebrate our size? Bulk beer is not what we’re about.’

Aimed squarely at 26-year-olds and above, with the ‘Accountant’ spot as well as another called ‘Bavarian Hops Broker,’ Howe is targeting educated, more urban, white collar drinkers for her brewery. The spots are running on Toronto alternative radio station Edge102. Howe feels the edgier the audience the better, and she plans to move into magazine and television advertising within the next five years.

While competing in the crowded Ontario market can be frustrating, for Whitehorse, Yukon-based Yukon Brewing staying competitive way up north is equally difficult. Yukon has carved out a small niche in a market dominated by Molson and Kokanee through sponsoring local festivals and events. It has concentrated on the 19- to 25-year-old adventure crowd who traverses north seeking a challenge like conquering the many mountain ranges or heli-hiking.

‘We partner with events like ‘Raid the North.’ It’s like a smaller version of the Eco-Challenge. We try to sponsor every event possible,’ says Yukon’s president Bob Baxter. ‘The more extreme the better, that’s where we find our demographic. Our marketing budget is spent in 10 minutes by the big guys.’

Baxter is trying to break into the B.C. and Alberta markets through cross-promotional campaigns with other local companies. Its latest promotion saw Yukon partner with Vancouver-based courier OCS Canada to give a free six-pack to shippers and receivers in Calgary and Vancouver if they filled out OCS’s questionnaire. Produced by Vancouver’s Hybrid Creative Group, all that Baxter wanted was to build brand awareness outside of the Yukon–and hopefully win over a few drinkers.

Big brewers, Baxter says, don’t have to resort to such guerrilla-style marketing strategies, but he does take solace in one frequently used promotional trend that he thinks is damaging their brands.

‘They’re always giving away free gear–that’s your new brand loyalty. How can you be loyal when you buy Labatt one week for a coldie and Molson the next for a T-shirt?’ he asks. ‘If I had the money for a TV spot, I’d advertise for a free toque inside every six-pack and show a guy emptying the case and wearing it like a hat.’