Here’s to real beer: 50 years of Labatt Blue

Back in the day, Canadians were as loyal to their beer brand as they were to their hockey team. However, in the last decade, with the introduction of imports, microbreweries and, most recently, low-price brands, that fierce loyalty has eroded.

Back in the day, Canadians were as loyal to their beer brand as they were to their hockey team. However, in the last decade, with the introduction of imports, microbreweries and, most recently, low-price brands, that fierce loyalty has eroded.

That’s probably why 50-year-old Labatt Blue’s marketing strategy, which was so consistent in the ’60s and ’70s (see timeline), has been tinkered with time and again over the last decade, especially in the ’90s. Last year, Labatt introduced a brand new campaign it hopes will have a long life, which carries the roots-proud tagline ‘Here’s to real beer. John Labatt Blue.’

Explains Harvey Carroll, VP marketing at Labatt: ‘The biggest change from the time Labatt Blue was introduced until now is increased competitiveness in the category – there’s way more brand choice. There are more segments, and that has probably driven the biggest change in the beer industry. People are looking for different experiences. They’re less brand loyal, and when that happens, brands that face the biggest challenge are brands with the biggest heritage.’

Labatt’s response to the market change is evident in the diversity and breadth of brands offered as part of parent company Inbev’s portfolio. Labels like Stella Artois and Alexander Keith’s make the company competitive in the imports and microbrewery categories. Meanwhile, Blue’s new campaign is mainly a strike against its low-price competitors, the Lakeports of the world. The strategy is to focus on Blue’s heritage to set it apart from latecomer brands. This entails reinforcing its roots in ways and means beyond advertising, such as strengthening its connection with traditional sports.

The goal, says Bob Shanks, partner – business of Labatt Blue’s Toronto-based agency Grip, is to ‘differentiate vis-à-vis the discount brands…and align Blue to the higher end of the category by elevating the proposition and the value equation.

‘People are prepared to buy your brand for an emotional reason,’ says Shanks, ‘but you need to give them a fact, so that when somebody challenges their purchase, [they have an explanation].’

The new advertising, introduced a year ago, aims to accomplish this by recounting the story of John Labatt, in particular the more interesting tidbits, such as the fact that he started as a farmer, had a large family, and withstood a brewery fire, kidnapping and prohibition to make his business a success.

It also touches on how Blue was named by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team not long after its launch. To highlight this fact even further, five years ago, Labatt Blue became the squad’s title sponsor, giving the brand major signage in the stadium, and national exposure, since all games are televised.

‘Those are legitimate factual events that start to build the character of the individual and as you build that hopefully that character gets assigned to the beer,’ adds Shanks, who points out that the message is factual, yet still entertaining – unlike beer advertising from the mid-eighties until recently, which was simply entertaining.

The new advertising also appeals to a broad target, including the biggest group of beer drinkers (LDA to 25) but not to the exclusion of older consumers, points out Carroll.

This is no accident; the integrated effort, which includes everything from TV, to POP in beer stores and beer coasters in bars, actually helps differentiate Blue from its main foe Molson Canadian. ‘[Blue's advertising] is a little more mature in its presentation,’ says Shanks. ‘[Molson Canadian] is probably being more cautious trying to maintain that real LDA-to-25 kind of look and feel, and we’ve tried to be a little more adventurous.’

Labatt Blue has also been adventurous in its non-traditional marketing efforts recently, according to Carroll. He points to the Labatt Blue Cube, an 18-wheel trailer that makes the rounds to events and folds out to become an instant club, complete with music, visuals, and lights.

‘It offers the opportunity to learn and interact with the brand and there are people there who can tell you about Blue’s history and heritage,’ he explains, adding that he is also pleased with the brand’s sponsorship of the World Hockey Pond Championships, which reflects the historical roots of the sport, as well as its sponsorship of the NHL. During the last Stanley Cup finals, he says, Blue gave away free trips to games via a text messaging initiative.

But how is the new focus on history being received so far? According to the Brewers’ Association, Labatt Brewing’s overall share is neck-and-neck with that of Molson Coors; Labatt had a 41.5% share this summer, compared to 42% for its main competitor.

As for Blue in particular, Carroll won’t give specifics, but says he is ‘happy with how the campaign is performing and impacting the overall health of Labatt Blue. Overall, we’re seeing an uptick in terms of brand health.’

Cheers to that.