50 years of Labatt Blue: Timeline

1950s

1950s

Hugh Labatt of the Labatt Brewing Company travels to Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic) where he perfects the recipe for Labatt Pilsener lager – a crisp, refreshing beer that contrasts with the heavier ales popular in Canada at the time.

The new brand is introduced in Ontario in 1951 and in Manitoba five years later. Because of its characteristic blue label, fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team adopt the beer as their own, nicknaming it ‘Blue.’ The name sticks, buoyed by the fact that the Blue Bombers went on to win back-to-back Grey Cup championships in 1958-59.

Advertising during this time, featuring a cartoonish Bavarian spokesperson called Mr. Pilsener, highlights the brew as a ‘thirst quencher,’ a positioning that eventually becomes extinct due

to regulations.

1960s

In the early ’60s the name Labatt Blue is officially registered. In 1968 the wildly popular ‘When You’re Smiling’ campaign, by J. Walter Thompson, hits the airwaves.

Like much advertising during this decade, the tone is absurdly happy. The lyrics, which instruct consumers that ‘next time you order, just call for Pilsener – the true-blue lager beer’ plays over images of young people dancing on a beach, playing touch football and enjoying a hot air balloon ride. (The iconic blue hot air balloon, first introduced in the ’60s – and originally red – will reappear in commercials until the ’80s.) A voiceover, meanwhile, explains the virtues of Blue. In one spot, viewers learn that, ‘Pilsener has today’s flavour for today’s people. It’s the true-blue lager from Labatt’s that never wears out its welcome. Ever.’ The commercials end with a shot of the Labatt Blue label, accompanied by the jingle ‘Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, call for Blue.’

1970s

Labatt continues with the ‘When You’re Smiling’ campaign, with different spots showing young folks tobogganing, floating down a river on oversized beer caps, and more. However, there are a couple of changes from the earlier advertisements. The tagline changes from ‘The true-blue lager’ to ‘The true-blue friendly beer,’ and later, ‘Blue smiles with you.’

While in the early ’70s the voiceover remains – serving up statements like, ‘See why Labatt’s Blue is catching on with people who like beer and like to smile’ – it is later dropped. Also, the cut to a label at the end of commercials gives way to a close-up of a frothy pint of Blue, or a glass of the brew with bottle. And the ‘When you’re smiling’ ditty becomes customized to match the action in the ads. For instance, a commercial starring a group of friends happily washing cars goes, ‘Get together, help someone, get together, get it done and let Labatt’s Blue smile with you.’

And in 1979, Labatt’s Blue becomes the best-selling Canadian beer in the world. Some observers have since suggested that the ‘When you’re smiling’ advertising worked so well, it helped Blue hold on to its top-selling rank in Canada despite a lack of consistent ad positioning after it ended.

1980s

Early in the decade Labatt continues with the ‘When you’re smiling’ effort, as well as the tagline ‘Blue smiles with you.’ The balloon still appears, and images include shots of people performing extreme activities like skydiving and heliskiing. And during this period a new tagline also emerges: ‘Smile, taste the real Canada.’

But regulations begin to impede how beer is integrated into commercials and the brewer is no longer able to present fun-loving, twentysomethings pursuing skilled activities after the beer has been introduced in an ad. So, with the action that pervaded the ‘When You’re Smiling’ campaign now deemed dangerous, Labatt is forced to drop it in 1985.

Thus a brand new campaign – ‘It’s the way we play’ – is born, and Blue advertising moves towards images that are more about entertainment and less about beer. These ads depict typical roaring ’80s scenes of beautiful young things partying in clubs, or in one case, tanning on the beach with cans – not bottles – of Blue handy.

In the late ’80s, Molson Canadian surpasses Labatt Blue as the number-one beer, perhaps explaining the number of different strategies during this decade. For instance, at one point, Labatt Blue’s advertising moves away from ‘It’s the way we play’ and gets patriotic. It shows Canadians across the land working or playing sports, while the corresponding ditty recounts that, ‘Hands across the country reach for the Blue’ and tells consumers, ‘It’s time to call for the Blue.’

Packaging innovation also crops up in the ’80s. The brewer introduces a new bottle, called ‘Big Blue,’ which contains 50% more beer than the old stubby versions. The advertising calls this, ‘Big news in beer’ and tells viewers, ‘You’ve never seen anything like it.’

This is followed by the introduction of the twist off cap, freeing beer drinkers from the tyranny of using tools.

1990s

During this period Labatt’s Blue becomes Labatt Blue. There is much more advertising, and the positioning of the brand changes frequently as the increasing popularity of imports and microbreweries sees the category froth into a fiercely competitive market. In the mid-’90s Molson Canadian solidifies its lead on Blue with its ‘I Am Canadian’ campaign, which doesn’t help matters.

At first, Labatt goes back to, ‘It’s the way we play,’ but that later gives way to, ‘Honest and true, you bet it’s Blue,’ and then, ‘Now you’re laughing. Labatt Blue.’ This latter campaign introduces contemporary humour in Labatt Blue advertising. One spot stars a guy who enters a cabin to get beer. He is confronted by an angry grizzly and feeds him with a hunk of meat to save the Blue. When he gets back to his friends, he asks: ‘Whose turn to clean the cabin?’ When his pal answers: ‘Mine,’ his only response is: ‘Perfect.’

In 1994 another new tag emerges – ‘Labatt. Good things brewing.’ The brewer introduces ‘to be continued’ advertising, featuring two explorers being hunted down by Brits for courting a young woman. The hunted French explorers predicts the arrival of a ‘true Canadian lager’ in 200 years. There are six spots in total.

In 1997, Blue commercials opt for the aspirational. The new tagline is, ‘It’s your call,’ and spots consist of young people talking about what they will do in their future.

In 1998 this is replaced by, ‘A whole lot can happen out of the Blue,’ by Toronto agency Ammirati Puris Lintas, a well-received campaign that helps Labatt Blue finally regain its momentum and make gains on Molson Canadian. The campaign lasts until the early 2000s (outlasting Ammirati), and its most popular spot is ‘Street Hockey,’ which portrays an impromptu game breaking out in downtown Toronto.

In the late ’90s Labatt begins to highlight its NHL sponsorship, and starts playing the premiums and incentives game. The brewer gives away freebies such as mini replica Stanley Cups, collectible team magnets and NHL videos in cases. Advertising begins to tie into hockey more often too. An ongoing series of humorous commercials feature a group of guys kidnapping the Stanley Cup and taking it on a road trip across Canada.

Contests also become de rigueur as the decade draws to a close. One of the more innovative initiatives is the Out of the Blue Jetaway, where young adults, chosen from select clubs, leave to visit a mystery city that very night. Another interesting promo revolves around a free phone in cases of Blue. Beer drinkers have to answer a call to win tickets to various special events.

2000-2006

The ‘Out of the Blue’ campaign continues, as does the kidnapped Stanley Cup idea. This time, a series of six ads stars a trio of guys who take the iconic cup on a train ride across the country. Unfortunately for Labatt, in 2000 Molson Canadian comes out with ‘The Rant’ and makes significant gains.

Meanwhile, Labatt sticks with ‘Out of the Blue’ and plays up its sponsorship of the Canadian Olympic Team, first in Sydney and then in Salt Lake City. The summer Olympic spots, for instance, star regular Joes competing in activities, such as shotput with a watermelon.

By far, the biggest news out of Labatt in this period is the introduction of Grip, the agency it conceives and declares to be the first of its kind in the world. Among its most distinctive traits are an open-accounting policy that gives clients access to the books, and a client advisory board. From this point on, Grip assumes the reins for Blue’s advertising.

The new shop continues with ‘Out of the Blue’ and much of the advertising going forward hilariously plays on Canadian males’ love of hockey and how their spouses often can’t comprehend their passion.

In 2003, ‘Out of the Blue’ is finally replaced with ‘Cheers. To friends.’ The latter campaign involves a series of spots where guys pull pranks on their pals. For instance, one poor schlep is tied naked to a pole on the street, and left holding a sign that says: ‘Kiss the birthday boy.’ Interestingly, one of the ads is a throwback to the past, showcasing a series of pranks to the old, ‘When you’re smiling’ tune. Later, a bunch of TV commercials in the same campaign mine the humour vein a bit differently, by labelling different types of buddies, such as the ‘always have an excuse friend’ and ‘the bad influence friend.’

The premiums and incentives also continue, with more mini Stanley Cup replicas, bottles branded with the logos of the original six hockey teams, and team-branded coldies up for grabs. Labatt also offers consumers the opportunity to put their own mug on a beer bottle label in a unique promo; folks simply have to submit their photos and a special case of Blue is delivered to them.

It’s also in 2003 that Labatt begins to turn its attention to quality messaging by, for instance, promoting its recent Gold Medal Monde Selection award from Brussels while still running the ‘Cheers. To friends’ campaign. But the brewer decides its best strategy is to talk quality while still entertaining viewers.

In 2006, it further addresses providing real reasons for choosing Blue and goes the historical route, reminding beer drinkers about how John Labatt was a self-made success story and that his brewery withstood fire, kidnapping and prohibition. The new tagline is ‘Here’s to real beer. John Labatt’s Blue.’