Throwback Thursday: strategy in 1991

For our 25th anniversary, we're travelling through time. In '91, hot topics were the recession and cross-border agency wars.

For strategy’s 25th anniversary, we’re travelling back in time, flipping through the pages of old issues to highlight some big news you may have forgotten, trends you wish you’d had a crystal ball to predict and marketing issues that never seem to change. Check back next Thursday to pick up some valuable insights into Canadian marketing history. This week, we tackle 1991. 

 TT Strategy name(Fun fact: 1991 was the year strategy decided to leave its parent’s nest, dropping Playback from the publication’s word mark in the July 29 issue)

The issue on everyone’s lips 

The recession

If the beginning of the Gulf War in 1990 and a massive spike in oil prices wasn’t enough to kill the world’s financial buzz, a tumble in the economy sure did the trick. Plenty of bad news was reported over the year as the recession hit, with agencies splitting, retail plummeting and mergers stalling.

TT recession 3Gallop, Omni merger stalled Feb. 11, 1991

“A planned merger which would have created the largest national outdoor advertising company in Canada has been stalled by the recession, the head of one of the firms says.”

Gee & Gee ‘victim’ of recession March 25, 1991

“Canada’s suffering economy has claimed another victim. On March 13, Gee & Gee Advertising of Toronto, which has been in business for 15 years, voluntarily went into receivership.”

Economist predicts tough times ahead March 25, 1991

“If I could characterize 1991, it’s going to be a cat-fight over market share,” James Frank, VP and chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, was reported telling the audience at the organization’s annual marketing conference. He added, “You’re going to have to work particularly hard to get people to buy.”

TT Recession 4

Fast food feels economy’s bite April 22, 1991

“Throughout the recession, the fast-food industry has presented a friendly and collected demeanour to the public eye. But the strain is evident behind the scenes, particularly in the offices of the corporate marketing departments where executives are scrambling to hold onto market share and reverse slipping profit margins.”

Agency border wars

Pepsi Canada remains at JWT Feb. 11, 1991

“J. Walter Thompson of Toronto has survived the first official test of its hold on Pepsi-Cola Canada’s estimated $25 million account in the past 23 years.”

The account was in contention with the industry expecting Toronto’s Baker Lovick (an agency that was 49% owned by New York-based BBDO Worldwide) to take over. The news of JWT retaining the account caused such a stir in the industry at the time, causing then-strategy editor Mark Smyka to write in his “Made in Canada” editorial: “It is fair to say that Pepsi’s decision to stay with JWT has caught many Canadian agency execs off-guard. Most seem to have taken it for granted that Pepsi would align its international agency…Thus the surprise, and the excitement, among many Canadian agency people. Surprise because it bucks the trend. Excitement becuase it is an encouraging sign that globalism or free trade with the U.S. are not always one-way streets.”

U.S. agencies set sights on Canada May 20, 1991

“A Top-50 agency from the U.S. could be eyeing your account list. Late last month, New York-based Griffin Bacal…announced plans to establish a Toronto office in order to service Toronto-based Hasbro Canada.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same: the beer edition

TT Heineken

Sometimes, beer brands behave like sheep in a herd. If they’re not all launching fruity ciders, they’re borrowing techniques from the vineyard. It seems this “follow suit” philosophy was a marketer favourite even back then, with Molson Breweries, Heineken, Labatt and Anheuser-Busch each launching a de-alcoholized beer (meaning it contained only 0.5% alcohol by volume) in the first half of 1991. For Molson Breweries, it was Excel, while Heineken’s new low-alcohol brew was called Buckler (launched in May), and for Labatt, its beer was simply called .5 (which was test-marketed at the SkyDome in June). And lastly, in July, Anheuser-Busch brought its non-alcoholic beer brand O’Doul’s to Canadian grocery stores, restaurants and bars.

An interesting choice in product line, considering the tough economy the country was experiencing at the time…

TT comic book

Perhaps they had a crystal ball?

Promo comic book a hit with consumers June 17, 1991

“A comic book designed as a direct marketing vehicle to promote interactive entertainment systems with theme park operators is proving popular at the retail level.”

The 14,000 comic books created that year were sold in 30 tourist attractions around the world, and later circulated by two of the U.S.’s largest retail comic book distributors. The 32-page book was meant to promote Toronto-based InterActive Entertainment theme park systems and sold for $3 in Canada.

Advertising masquerading as products? Sound familiar? Just look at Boston Pizza and its Taxi-created Rib Stain Camo, which was such a hit with consumers (and at industry awards shows), the restaurant launched the “Pizza Game Changers” campaign with more revenue-generating product ideas.

The start of the rewards craze

Cash card scores points June 3, 1991

“Club Multi-points, a wholly owned subsidiary of Groupe Videotron, has introduced what the head of the company calls a totally new marketing concept…based on an electronic card technology that ‘puts bargains at the Quebec consumers’ fingertips’…he says the concept reinforces customer ‘fidelity.’”

‘Air Miles’ program prepares for takeoff Aug. 12, 1991

“A new program to reward consumers with ‘Air Miles’ for their loyalty to certain businesses should be off and running by the first quarter of 1991, an executive of the company introducing it says.”

AmEx dangles rewards Oct. 21, 1991

“The advertising plans are not yet finalized, but that has not prevented American Express from announcing one of the most ambitious cardholder schemes ever.” The program was reported as being ambitious for its exchange of dollars for membership rewards points.

Headlines worth noting

TT design firmDesign firm opens doors Jan 28. 1991

“A new firm [called Shikatani Lacroix] offering services in consumer packaging, store design and planning and such corporate communications as logo development and branding strategies, has set up shop in Toronto.”

 Air Canada up for grabs Oct. 7, 1991

“Air Canada has put its account, currently handled by three ad agencies, up for review with the winner to take all.”

Fast forward two weeks later to Oct. 21, 1991, and the decision is made to keep the account split, with Marketel/Foster/McCann-Erickson winning the entire $25 to $30-million-dollar account, which it held until last year when JWT picked it up.

Creative report card

Finally, because everyone loves lists, take a gander at the top creative agencies, brands and creatives who graced strategy’s annual Creative Report Card. See if you can spot any names still playing big today.

Missed a Throwback Thursday? Check out the top headlines from 1989 and 1990.