How to turn 195, the Alexander Keith’s way

For the last two centuries, the Labatt-owned beer brand has been reflecting Maritime values back to its fanatical drinkers.

Alexander Keiths - Mobile Brewery  (10)

This story appears in the December/January 2016 issue of strategy.

For years, in bars across Nova Scotia, clocks on the walls have been counting down. Not to New Year’s, or the start of patio season, but to Oct. 5, Alexander Keith’s birthday. It’s the Nova Scotian equivalent to St. Patrick’s Day. People drink from sun-up to sun-down wearing foam antler hats, while listening to big Canadian bands play across the province. Loyal fans don’t miss it. Even diehard Moosehead drinkers (Keith’s Maritime competitor), don’t miss it. More than 1,500 people showed up to the official Keith’s party at the famous Halifax bar The Lower Deck (the only attendance the brand tracks of its annual bacchanalia) in 2015. This year, Keith himself turned 220, while the brand turned 195.

In two centuries, Keith’s has grown from a small beer only available in Halifax, to the most popular brew in the province, then the Maritimes, and now it’s the top-selling domestic specialty across Canada.

While the category itself is suffering from increased competition from craft beers and a changing consumer palate, causing a stagnation in sales, big beer brands could take a lesson from Keith’s rich history, which seems to have been a half-step ahead of the trends for most of its existence.

The man who built the Keith’s brand

But first, a history lesson: Alexander Keith, the man, founded Alexander Keith’s, the beer, when he first arrived in the port-city of Halifax. Keith was only 25 when he took over a brewery.
Keith’s beer quickly grew in popularity for two reasons, and neither had to do with marketing or taste.

In the 1800s, when Canada was still a British settlement, beer was mostly consumed in pubs, which, by and large, brewed their own beers. In bigger cities, like Halifax, it was easier to distribute beer, thus maintain a centralized brewery that distributed to multiple pubs. This paved the way for mass production of beer, like Molson, Keith’s and Dawes, says Ian Coutts in his book, Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada. While ads in newspapers were common, they often only listed the price and availability of the beer at local pubs.

The success of Keith’s in the early years was also tied to the popularity of the brand’s namesake. Keith, who immigrated to Canada in 1817, would go on to be a three-time mayor of Halifax, IMG_7118head of the Nova Scotia Legislature, as well as a Grand Master of the Freemasons. Upon his death in 1873, “every dignitary of note” attended his funeral, and the flags flew at half mast, writes Peter McCreath, author of The Life and Times of Alexander Keith, Nova Scotia’s Brewmaster. One reporter wrote “Mr. Keith’s name has become almost a household word in Halifax and beyond,” which only helped grow the ubiquity of the beer brand.

When brewers started bottling their products, allowing people to drink at home, the need for better branding arose, writes Coutts. Beer labels started being slapped onto bottles, and by the 1870s, thanks to four-colour printing technology, the labels became more elaborate.

A dry country shapes a beer brand

Interestingly, you can blame a lack of alcohol for the unique position Keith’s ended up taking. As a result of Prohibition around the time of the First World War, provinces (albeit temporarily) started to ban alcohol, and by 1919, Canada was dry. While it was legal to brew beer, breweries couldn’t sell their products locally.

When the temperance movement ended in 1921, focus was on limiting drinking, rather than banning it outright, Coutts says. Following Prohibition, the only place you could drink alcohol was within your own home.

While this regulation loosened in the rest of the country, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick maintained the rule until 1941 and 1961, respectively.

This helped spur the kitchen party phenomenon in the Maritimes. And much like kitchen parties – which were friendly social gatherings – Keith’s developed into a social, friendly beer, drank in good company. Consumed in the home, rather than in the pubs, the Keith’s brand developed around the people.

In 1928, Keith’s was sold to Oland Breweries, makers of its direct competitors, which opted to maintain the branding. And while many of the beers across the country were being consolidated under the Molson, Labatt and Carling banners, Keith’s held out on its sale to Labatt until 1971, by which time it had become a regional specialty.

There’s little marketing material available from this time – it was neither written about, nor religiously catalogued.

Keith’s makes its mark

By the ’90s, despite its unmemorable marketing efforts (with a lot of focus on the brand’s heritage), Keith’s was the most popular beer in Nova Scotia in particular, and the Maritimes more generally. By 1990, one in three beers drank in the province was a Keith’s.

It wasn’t until that decade when the Keith’s brand started coming into its own from a marketing perspective, says Bill Scollard, key accounts manager in the Atlantic provinces, who joined Keith’s in 1990.

By this point, the brand became synonymous with the Maritimes (“It’s like when you go to Niagara, you see the Falls, when you come to Halifax, you try a Keith’s,” says Scollard). The brand reinforced this with a new campaign from agency Corporate Communication Limited (CCL), which was brought on board to handle its more traditional marketing efforts. In 1993, the brand launched one of its most popular and longest-running TV ads, featuring three characters – the Admiral, Roger and Broderick – hunting for “Her majesty’s supplies and provisions.”

admiralThe launch ad featured a British admiral getting the bad news that yet another ship had been lost in Halifax, bringing the total to 43. Of course, they hadn’t perished in the ocean, but were simply enjoying a couple of pints.

Harvey Carroll, CEO, Canada, at IPG Mediabrand, who worked on the Keith’s brand while at Labatt in various roles on and off between the late ’90s and the mid-2000s, remembers the campaign as one of Keith’s most successful pieces of marketing. It was everything Keith’s was: social, shareable (people became invested in the love affair between the admiral’s daughter Elizabeth and privateer Roger), and charming in a down-home kind of way, he says. The campaign also introduced the iconic “Those who like it, like it a lot” tagline, which carried Keith’s through the new millennium.

Queen’s University marketing professor Ken Wong says it was a brilliant move on the part of the brand. It recognized that the beer wasn’t for everybody, but if you were someone who did like it, you were among the special few. While the ads received little play outside Atlantic Canada, there is still high recall of the campaign by consumers from the Maritimes.

“There was an understanding with Labatt, while there were some wonderful brands [such as Keith's and Stella Artois], they would never be the top focus of the company,” says Carroll. “The company was (rightly so) focused on the other 95% of the business – the Bud, Blue, Blue Light, etc.”

One of the first things Scollard remembers about the brand was the decision to launch the Keith’s annual birthday bash. While the community remembered Alexander Keith, the man, by placing beer caps on his grave, no formal celebration had been planned before 1995.

But, seeing as it was the 200th birthday of Keith (and the 175th birthday of the brand), hosting a party seemed like the right thing to do, he says.

“The spirit of the birthday has always been a Nova Scotia kitchen party,” Scollard says. “It’s an upscale, toe-tapping, raise your glass, the-entire-team-in-period-costumes celebration [complete] with Maritime music. We bring the 1800s back to life again.”

While the official celebration would take place at the old brewery, usually drawing a crowd of 300, bars in the province started getting outfitted to host their own Keith’s bashes in the late ’90s, which helped draw crowds from the neighbouring provinces.

Going national

In the late ’90s, Labatt decided to take Keith’s national. Alongside plans to nationalize Stella Artois, Keith’s would grow into Ontario, then the rest of the provinces. “With its wonderful heritage, we really believed we could take that brand across the country,” Carroll says.

So in 1997, Labatt re-introduced the Oland Specialty Brewing Company name to operate as a sales and marketing division with emphasis placed on Keith’s and other specialty brand Stella Artois.

The specialty category was fledgling, but Carroll says the company felt it could make a dent. “We thought that maybe the little fish could be a bigger fish in a bigger pond.”

The decision was made to position the Keith’s brand not as an Atlantic Canada drink (though the Maritime values of social, shareable and approachable were maintained), but as a good ol’ beer to enjoy. This was a stark difference from the other beer brands, which focused heavily on buxom babes and being ice-cold.

Under Oland, Keith’s focus outside the East was on educating consumers, introducing them to the specific glassware required for the beer (a trend that would go on to be mainstream a few years later), as well as the tasting notes for the brand. The on-premise experience was also a key battleground for the marketing team, Carroll says, so plenty of effort was placed into signage, posters and cards that told the Keith’s story. But it didn’t want to hammer the “East Coast” historical angle. Rather, it emphasized sampling and tried to win people on taste.

To launch the brand in Ontario, graduates from Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s universities were invited to a party on Toronto’s waterfront, where the brand tapped the inaugural keg and an Alexander Keith lookalike wandered the crowd. “People were hugging Mr. Keith, hugging the keg, and good times were had by all,” says Scollard. “We didn’t need more convincing – but that party reinforced that there could be a market outside the Maritimes.”

“Consumers were looking for something that wasn’t radically different from what they knew,” says Carroll. “They still wanted a drinkable beer. Something that wasn’t so micro, so niche-y that it wasn’t approachable. And [Keith's] made it easy for consumers who were a bit adventurous – but not as adventurous as some – to step out of the norm and try something a little bit different.”

People outside the eastern provinces gravitated towards the brand for its embodiment of the “down-home” lifestyle, Scollard adds. They were attracted to the brand because it spoke of “a slower pace, where people had more time to enjoy themselves,” he says.

This was one of the smartest things the brand has done, notes Wong. Take Moosehead – by many accounts, a similar beer story. The brand, which is popular in its home province of New Brunswick, plays up its independence, heritage and cult status. And while it’s a popular beer (and definitely doesn’t have the same marketing might as the Labatt-backed Keith’s), it hasn’t seen the same success as Keith’s has.

By the early 2000s, Keith’s was the fastest-growing beer brand across the country, and soon shot up to be the top specialty beer in Canada.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses to the top, of course: in 2006, the Keith’s brand faced a huge challenge when the actor who portrayed its popular angry Scotsman character, who was introduced in ads in 2003, was sentenced on child pornography charges. Carroll says while the team discussed whether the over-the-top character could be portrayed by another actor, it was quickly dismissed and the decision was made to shelve the campaign.

Media followed the story closely – not really what you want your early national marketing efforts to be associated with – and the follow-up campaign, by Downtown Partners, was deemed not nearly as effective as the Scotsman character, according to major media outlets that wrote about it at the time.

Despite the controversy, the brand was still on the rise, and despite its massive size and national reach, the majority of media still referred to Keith’s as a micro-beer.

“The specialty segment really was responsible for advancing beer culture beyond just the ‘I have the beer I’m used to, that’s the one I always drink,” says Carroll.

A flavourful focus

Focus then shifted towards taste, says Becky Lindsey, senior brand manager, high-end domestic brands, at Labatt. The brand was one of the first to introduce wheat flavours in 2009 (which Alexander Keiths - Mobile Brewery  (5)Coutts says, with its massive national ad campaign, was partially responsible for the influx of wheat beers on the market a few years later), as well as alternatives like Cider, Hops and Red.
Keith’s put its brewing on display in 2013 to launch its Hops series, with a mass campaign from Red Urban. Working with Mosaic, the brand introduced a portable brewery that toured the country at Keith’s-sponsored events, which showed off the making of the brand, and educated consumers about the flavours, says Lindsey.

Last year, it introduced promotions like beer infusers, from its shopper marketing agency Hunter Straker, allowing people to customize their flavours.

Chefs have also become a focus for the brand, through a partnership with MasterChef Canada, organized by media agency UM, as well as a content play by online food video hub Tastemade, which challenged chefs across the country to come up with recipes that paired well with Keith’s. Video captured the chefs as they cooked at festivals across the country, as well as in their own kitchens, and are being posted online across the brand’s social channels. With three episodes out so far, the videos have averaged 200,000 views on YouTube alone, with minimal media support behind the campaign (it’s still a bit too early for other concrete results).

The focus of these campaigns, Lindsey says, is to get consumers talking about the beer in terms of taste, and the emphasis on beer pairings (which is something a number of brands, including Stella and competitor Rickard’s, have done). The brand recognized that beer drinkers might enjoy different flavours for different types of occasions, and the current push is around the idea that Keith’s has flavours for everyone, for all occasions.

Taste is a difficult proposition for beer companies, Wong says. In blind taste tests, participants can rarely identify their preferred brew. What’s more, beyond sampling, it’s hard to sell “tastes good” in a commercial. But Keith’s is doing a pretty good job at selling that angle, and it will help differentiate the brand, he adds. While many beer companies have started to put an emphasis on taste, the majority use “pretty standard language, like ‘smooth ale’ etc.” he says. “Whereas Keith’s is coming out and saying ‘Tell us what you want your beer to taste like.’”

“These [campaigns] are all designed to say that even if you’re not a big beer drinker, when you do drink beer, why not step up and have something that tastes a little better than the average swill?” he says.

Keith’s was well ahead of the current taste trend, and its competitors (and even sister beers) are racing to catch up, says Wong.

But it’s often been ahead of the trends. Keith’s was “approachable, friendly and social” long before it was important for a beer brand (or brands in general) to be so. It was built in the homes of Nova Scotians, and as a result, Alexander Keith’s is the embodiment of its consumers.

Is it any wonder that countdown clocks for Keith’s birthday bash have migrated out of Halifax and claimed wall space in the rest of the country?

A Keith’s mini-movie

ElizabethTalk about being ahead of its time: One of Keith’s most memorable campaigns also featured an early example of branded content. During a premiere broadcast of Austin Powers in 2001 the brand bought all the air time in the Halifax market and aired its own mini-movie, created by agency CCL. The story follows the admiral’s daughter, Elizabeth, on her first visit to Nova Scotia, where she’s pursued by the priggish Sir Stephen while falling head over heels for Roger. It aired only once in its 14-minute entirety, and was subsequently broken up into 30-second spots that ran over the next few years.

Fifty-seven percent of consumers who saw the movie liked it while another 88% called the ads “innovative.”

The Keith’s brewery

Think of it like Disney World, but for Keith’s, Scollard says. In 2000, alongside the decision to take the brand national, Labatt and Oland also decided to bring back the original Keith’s Brewery. Working with Shikatani Lacroix, the entire Halifax structure was revamped and turned into a working museum, complete with interactive displays and actors in period costumes.

People were visiting the city and wandering the streets looking for information on the old brewery buildings, and Scollard says Labatt didn’t want to be in a position where it had to turn people away if they wanted more information about Keith’s history.

With more than 500,000 visitors since it opened its doors in 2000, the museum is now one of the most popular attractions in Halifax (with a four-star rating on Trip Advisor), pulling in 35,000 visitors a year.