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Beer next door heads west
Beer next door heads west

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If beer brands were people, James Ready would be the guy next door. That is, if the guy next door happens to be a fourth-year engineering student with six roommates, a wall built of beer cases and a ping-pong table in the yard. The kind of guy who doesn’t have a ton of cash, but likes to have the neighbours over for a cold one. The kind of guy with a nose for a decent, drinkable, discount beer brand.

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As it is, James Ready is quite possibly the beer the guy next door likes to drink.

After it launched in 2005, it cost around a dollar a bottle in a case of 24, and James Ready sold 100,000 cases a year. Director of marketing Chris Waldock took a modest marketing spend of half a million dollars and enlisted ad agency Leo Burnett to “Help Keep JR a Buck”—a clever, DIY premise that spawned a string of campaigns to get consumers involved.

“Cheap and cheerful DIY was a necessity with the budgets we’ve been working with,” says Leo Burnett Toronto CEO and chief creative officer Judy John. “It’s been really successful because we’ve made our drinkers part of the brand. We help them, they help us. We’re building a relationship through constant conversation and programs that encourage participation.”

Using simple on-pack messaging, JR taught you how to make your own beer coasters and dartboards. Later, he gave you space on a billboard to propose to your girlfriend. He left little messages under your bottle caps, offering to landscape your yard or lobby Ottawa for an extra stat holiday (James Ready Day, natch).

The brand’s innate approachability has earned it a howling loyal fan base, record sales—a million cases this year—and closetfuls of industry awards. The brand’s market share at the Beer Store currently hovers at 1.5, up a full point in five years.

At one point, a printing error left thousands of caps blank. The fans freaked.

“It reinforced how important the caps have become in the JR drinking ritual,” says Waldock. “We received a blank cap in the mail, taped to a piece of paper with "WTF?" written on it. The letter was signed off with a heart. Even though JR drinkers were upset, they were telling us because they cared.”

Then, last year, after Ontario legislation shrunk the gap between discount and mainstream beer pricing (a 24 of Labatt sold for under $30), sales slowed. And in a now-familiar story, the guy next door started thinking about moving out west.

“Therefore it’s important to make sure there’s appeal for your brand in addition to the price.”

This fall, the brand will expand into Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“We have always considered expansion based on our success in Ontario,” says Waldock. “We've also received numerous requests from beer drinkers across the country who experienced James Ready in Ontario.”

Waldock says that the strategy might shift a bit, but the brand personality will remain consistent as it expands.

“We believe that this is one of the reason's for James Ready's success,” he says. “We will continue to target the ‘guy next door,’ we're just going to knock on more doors… Our approach for Ontario this year will be less ‘inside joke’ to cast a larger net to get more drinkers on board.”

Some change is unavoidable. First, alcohol sales are privatized in Alberta, making for a more fragmented market. And the other thing: whither the bottle cap in a land where cans are king?

Waldock is undeterred. “Cans are definitely more common for value brands in Western Canada,” he says. “We will still launch our bottle pack so that our full brand experience is available in the market. When it comes to cans, we'll just have to be more creative and we welcome that challenge.

“The Western markets are very different from Ontario in the way they retail beer but there is a sizeable value category for James Ready to compete in. The target will remain the same, beer drinkers looking for the best quality beer at an affordable price.”

Back home in Ontario, there is more change afoot, as James Ready ventures out of the Beer Store and into restaurants and bars, expanding into draught this fall. The brand has dabbled in on-premise marketing in the past; in 2009 its campus-based JR Barter program traded university students’ beer caps for laundry detergent, cereal, and toilet paper.

The tap campaign is still being developed, but Waldock promises it’ll go beyond the traditional point-of-sale and swag of other brewers.

“We see this as an opportunity to have more conversations with our drinkers,” says John. “We’ll continue to look for surprising ways to reach and engage them.”

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