How beer brands are keeping people connected

Steam Whistle, Muskoka and Labatt have been adapting to the shutdown of bars, restaurants, sports and social gatherings.


At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Michael Wexler went live on Steam Whistle’s Instagram feed.

The Montreal artist was originally scheduled to perform an album release show that night, but those plans – like so many others – have been upended by COVID-19. So, instead, Wexler sang a few debut tunes from the comfort of his living room, using Steam Whistle’s platform to get to a bigger audience.

IMG-3337For Steam Whistle, the impromptu show was a way of celebrating “#HomeOfficeHappyHour,” an attempt to bring people together for a virtual pint at a time when in-person contact is being discouraged, says Tim McLaughlin, VP of marketing at Steam Whistle. “Rewarding yourself with a great pure beer at the end of the day is something that can bring a moment of normalcy to Canadians in these extraordinary times.”

The Toronto-based brewer anticipates hosting similar shows every day at 5 p.m. as long as it can, or is necessary. Steam Whistle began the series with a trial show featuring a few staff on Friday. On Tuesday, it hosted its first live stream with non-affiliated artists, prompting others to reach out. Interest appears to be growing: next week’s lineup is already fully booked.

“#HomeOfficeHappyHour” is a small illustration of the way beer brands are pivoting to meet the ever-changing reality of COVID-19. The idea for the social campaign grew out of wanting to get people to share photos of themselves cracking a cold one during a typical Happy Hour, according to McLaughlin, something it continues to encourage, though watching a musical performance gives them an extra reason to gather together.

Steam Whistle was planning to be in production right now for a broadcast spot that would have kicked off its summer marketing efforts for the May long weekend. Now, it must figure out how to run a beer ad without the typical tropes – large groups in intimate spaces, probably in the context of some sporting event or summer social gathering. “Luckily,” McLaughlin says, “we still have time to be nimble and responsive to what’s going on.”

Sarah Au, director of marketing at Muskoka Brewery, also says the Ontario-based brewer has revisited its messaging as it prepares to roll-out the majority of its 2020 product innovations. “Our priority remains taking care of our employees and beer drinkers as best we can and offering them services to adapt to this current climate and do our part to flatten the curve.”

MuskokaMuskoka has launched a drive-thru service and free beer delivery in Ontario, something many other craft breweries have elected to do in recent weeks. It has postponed the majority of its OOH ads and experiential activations, but is staying the course on its digital and social investments to “ensure consumers are still hearing from us and hopefully providing some positivity and normalcy amidst all the doom and gloom content out there,” according to Au.

On Thursday morning, the company announced on Instagram that it will donate $1 from every online pick-up order (including past orders) to the South Muskoka Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. It’s also offering free beer to health care workers, who are being asked to call when they arrive and provide a hospital ID.

“This situation has reinforced the importance of authenticity,” she says. “It’s as important right now during these uncertain times to be a kind brand as it is to be a kind human. And we are trying our best to do both.”

“People are uncertain. Skittish. They sense the low thrum of menace of the calm before the storm. So switch gears,” advises marketing expert Karen Howe. “Encourage all the things we should be doing, but in the language of beer: social distancing, self-isolation, not hoarding, watching out for others. Do it in ‘beer talk,’ but do it, just without the beer, babes and bars imagery.”

LabattHowe says that brands that fail to capture the zeitgeist “will be eviscerated in social media. Deservedly so.” She says Labatt’s decision to retool some production facilities in order to make 50,000 bottles of hand sanitizer is an example of a company getting it right. On Thursday, Steam Whistle announced it will work with Toronto-based distillery Spirit of York in its efforts to use its facilities to produce hand sanitizer as well.

Outside of Canada, Labatt parent company AB InBev has said it will donate the $5 million USD it typically spends on sports and entertainment advertising to the American Red Cross. The company’s Budweiser brand teamed up with the Red Cross on an ad called “One Team” that features workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Most provincial beer and alcohol retailers remain open, though on limited hours, and it has yet to be seen how uncertainty in individual income may impact the beer category.

The shuttering of restaurants and bars in many provinces has removed a significant revenue generator for breweries large and local, including their on-site brewpubs and tours. In Steam Whistle’s case, McLaughlin notes it also means not being able to operate an events business through its Biergärten and Roundhouse location in Toronto.

Labatt-owned Mill St. launched its first ecommerce store this week, making delivery free on orders over $50. Steam Whistle has been offering free delivery in Toronto and Mississauga, expanding the service to Kingston in recent days. Previously, that part of the business came mostly from delivering kegs for parties and large events, McLaughlin says. “We’ve really changed the offering to make it accessible to somebody who’s just at home with the family.”

Though the upheaval has obvious down-sides, it has also uncovered a brand differentiator for Steam Whistle: in 2018, it became the only North American beer brand to offer a “purity seal” made of foil on its beer cans. The company has been mentioning that fact on its social feeds, but McLaughlin says the idea isn’t to profit from people’s fears. Rather, it simply wants to remind beer drinkers of a “pure pilsner” positioning that has existed all along.

Steam WhistleThe uncertainty that lies ahead has not stopped Steam Whistle from moving full-steam ahead on plans to continue expanding its business. In less than two weeks’ time, it will launch a new yet-to-be-disclosed label (in a silver can) in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

“Obviously our plans have changed greatly in terms of our launch activity. We want to be respectful of this challenging situation, so our plans will reflect that,” McLaughlin says.

A lot of the avenues it would typically use to drive trial and awareness, including events and sampling, are no longer available. “We are creating plans that will come to life in the digital space, including likely a virtual launch party,” he says. “We are also working on ways to thank front line staff who are working in challenging conditions going above and beyond so that Canadians can still have their favorite beverage.”