Full steam ahead: Steam Whistle’s Sybil Taylor

Sybil Taylor brings Steam Whistle to women, sheds light on its green initiatives and tries TV advertising on for size

When Sybil Taylor first started at Steam Whistle in August 1999, the company’s now-iconic brewery across from the CN Tower in Toronto was nothing more than four walls, a roof and a dirt floor. It would be another six months before the brewery officially opened for business, and Taylor, who came on board as director of marketing and the company’s first employee, sat in the kitchen with her sister and her husband Greg and sketched the original Steam Whistle icon – the 1950s-style whistle that now adorns the company logo.

Taylor and her husband worked together at Upper Canada Brewing, and when it was bought out by Sleeman’s in 1998 and the operation was moved to Guelph, ON., over 100 employees lost their jobs including the Taylors. Greg Taylor, along with two other former Upper Canada employees, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell, talked about starting up their own microbrewery, which eventually became Steam Whistle. The company has since grown to 126 employees and distributes its beer across Ontario, Alberta and most recently B.C.

‘I was always looking over their shoulder and putting my two cents in, and I didn’t think initially that I was going to work in the business,’ says Taylor, ‘but once they got this building and it started becoming a reality, I couldn’t stay away.’ Taylor started out doing everything from writing copy for bottles to picking signs for the front of the building.

In 2003, Taylor hired someone to replace her as director of marketing so that she could take care of her two small children, but she stayed on at Steam Whistle part-time, performing various tasks such as handling PR, writing ad copy and developing the website. This past March, she returned to the helm, leading a marketing team of 15 (including an in-house creative department) and embarking on uncharted territory for the brewery.

Steam Whistle turned heads in June when it debuted its very first television ad, having previously focused marketing efforts primarily on PR, event sponsorship and radio. The spot was featured on CBC’s The Hour, as well as during the Ontario broadcast of the Stanley Cup Finals. ‘There we were alongside Heineken and Keith’s and Moosehead,’ says Taylor. ‘A lot of people were surprised, I think, to see such a small brewery there.’

Steam Whistle has always focused on more grassroots marketing efforts which include hosting events, such as those at its Toronto brewery, and sponsoring community programs. The company typically produces all creative in-house. So how did the microbrewery turn up on TV next to the big boys?

Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG created an ad on spec that featured bottles of Steam Whistle being opened. As the ad speeds up, the bottles create the sound of a train. ‘They nailed it,’ says Taylor, ‘and I think it’s because we’ve been giving a consistent brand message, and I’m proud of that.’ The spot-on creative, combined with ad rates this year that were ‘surprisingly affordable’ (media buy was handled by MPG) made it the perfect time to enter into TV.

And the results were significant.

Year-over-year sales for June rose 22% and market share increased from 0.573% the previous month to 0.652%. ‘We’re still less than 1% of the Ontario market, but that’s about $20 million in beer sales, so you can see it’s a vast market,’ Taylor says. While there are no immediate plans to do more TV, she says it’s a possibility for the future.

Television isn’t the only brave new advertising frontier that Steam Whistle has crossed into recently. Readers of Glow, the Canadian health and beauty women’s magazine may have been surprised to see an ad for Steam Whistle among the many cosmetic ads in the September issue.

‘Women, although they purchase about 55% of the beer in Ontario, only consume about 20%,’ Taylor explains. ‘So they’re helping make decisions about what they’re bringing home but they’re not drinking. As a woman in the beer industry, that’s so puzzling – why aren’t they consuming?’ Taylor believes it’s a lack of education or exposure, noting that some women may have only had cheaper canned beer which can be gassy, and some think beer is highly caloric when on an ounce-per-ounce basis it’s about half the calories of wine, she notes.

Taylor knew that to get women’s attention, the ad had to speak to their particular interests. ‘I think women are a little more thoughtful in their purchases – that reasons aside from taste engage them, whether it’s the healthfulness of a product or the social consciousness or the brand appeal.’

The ad, created in-house, focused on the fact that Steam Whistle is made from all natural ingredients. It also highlighted the green nature of the company, noting a Green Toronto Award that it received from the city.

In fact, thanks in large part to Taylor, the beer co’s green initiatives – such as using Bullfrog Power, biodiesel vehicles and deep lake water cooling – have been recently brought to the forefront.

Three years ago, Taylor started Steam Whistle’s environmental committee to examine what the company could be doing better and how to bring awareness to the public. They found they could improve in two major areas, energy reduction and waste diversion, through things like conserving electricity, implementing additional recycling programs and organic composting. In 2007, the brewery was chosen by Doors Open Toronto as one of 21 green buildings in the city, and communication efforts have been ramped up to keep the media and consumers more informed (through PR and signage in the brewery, for example).

‘We’ve [always] been an environmental company, which [Taylor's] been a big part of, but she was the one who said ‘guys, you don’t tell anyone,” says Steam Whistle co-founder Cam Heaps. ‘So she put together our green initiative communications package, and since then it’s gotten a ton of PR and it’s really resonated with our existing and new consumers.’

Having an environmental and social conscience is a big part of Steam Whistle’s moniker, ‘The Good Beer Folks’ (the other components are being a good employer and providing good beer, of course), so when renowned Toronto-based chef Jamie Kennedy met with Taylor to discuss a potential partnership, and he said he wanted to know about the moral fibre of the company before talking about marketing opportunities, she knew it was the start of something good.

The idea of working with Kennedy came to Taylor a year ago when she went to a dinner party at his Gilead Café. She was impressed with his private food-prep demonstration and thought it would be interesting to do a contest offering a similar experience to Steam Whistle drinkers. In July and August, consumers filled out ballots at LCBO stores, as well as at the brewery and at Steamwhistle.ca to win a private dinner for 20 featuring foods prepared with – or that complement – beer. Kennedy also provided recipes featured on the Steam Whistle website, and the beer became the only one on the menu at Kennedy’s three restaurants.

‘He was interested in our beer because he’s a local food advocate, and he liked the fact that we are local and fresh and use only natural ingredients,’ says Taylor, ‘so there was a good fit.’

Steam Whistle’s current advertising slogan is ‘Do one thing really, really well’ – a concept that could easily apply to Olympic athletes, who, as Taylor points out, are the living embodiment of that slogan. This is why the company is jumping on the Olympic bandwagon by supporting the Canadian Athletes Now (CAN) Fund, a non-profit that raises money and awareness for Canadian athletes. Later in the year, consumers can expect to see inserts in beer cases about the CAN Fund, and during the Olympics, the brewery will host fundraising events where people will be able to come and meet the athletes.

Over the course of an hour discussing her time at Steam Whistle, Taylor uses the word ‘proud’ 12 times – referring to her team’s accomplishments but also to what the company has become. From four walls and a dirt floor, Steam Whistle is now a thriving little brewery with a distinct identity and a loyal following.

Having been there from the beginning, Taylor says she has a sense of ownership ‘not just in terms of my mark on the brand, but in terms of [the fact that] we have a family culture here; there is ownership by all of us. We allow staff to buy shares, and many of them do. And we have profit sharing, so there’s a great sense of ownership for everyone. Yeah, I feel pretty proud to have been here right at the beginning.’ There’s that word again.


Born: Thunder Bay, ON., July 6, 1964

Education: honours bachelor of business admin from Wilfrid Laurier University

Family: Husband Greg Taylor (Steam Whistle co-founder) and two boys, 10 and 13

Hobbies: dining out, cooking, travelling, gardening, running and cycling

Career: While in school, she switched her focus from finance to marketing (graduating with a double major), and for her third work term took a position at Upper Canada Brewing. She started there full-time after graduation in 1988 and stayed for almost a decade, working her way up to VP of development and distribution until 1998. She then worked in travel marketing at Just Vacations for two years before officially joining the Steam Whistle team as director of marketing

3 Questions:

1. Favourite food with beer?

I love sushi, I love Chinese food, and beer of course is the beverage typically consumed in countries where they have spicy food.

2. If you could trade places with anyone for a day, who would it be?

Jacques Cousteau. I just love under the sea, I love snorkeling and scuba.

3. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Not taking your customer for granted. We have a policy here, regardless of who writes or phones or emails, they’ll get a personal response. And I think that level of engagement is really important.