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How about a history lesson with that lager? (Molson)
How about a history lesson with that lager? (Molson)

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Is there any dead man more alive than the founder of a Canadian brewery?

The beer store shelves are littered with the names of the dearly departed: (John) Molson, (John) Sleeman, (John) Labatt, (Alexander) Keith. That in itself isn't unusual. Plenty of consumer brands bear the names of their founders, from Dell computers to Kellogg's and Post cereals, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Rogers Telecommunications, Wal-Mart Stores and Johnson & Johnson. But beer companies, especially Canadian ones, seem to stand alone in the frequency and consistency of how they use their heritage in marketing. It's so common that last year Sleeman ran a tongue-in-cheek campaign that sent up the approach - even as it celebrated its "five generations of infamous family brewing heritage in every case."

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Still, as brewers reach back to their early years in an attempt to differentiate themselves, could there be a danger of their similar origin stories - and therefore their brands - becoming blurred in the minds of drinkers?

Listen to brewery executives talk about their reasons for leaning on their history, and you'll hear the same key words over and over - words like simplicity, heart, authenticity. Those adjectives shimmer off the screen in the current TV campaign for Molson Export playing in Quebec, where the brand enjoys the bulk of its sales. Across three commercials, shot largely in black and white, viewers learn the inspiring story of John Molson, who came to Canada from England and started a brewery in the late 1700s at age 22 on the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

But it is also embedded in the marketing DNA of Molson itself. "We leverage heritage across many, if not all of our brands, and I think it's particularly important in beer and particularly important in beer in Canada," says Peter Nowlan, chief marketing officer of Molson Coors Canada. "I think there are a lot of product categories more associated with other countries, and beer really is part of our history.

"Molson is the oldest brewery in North America," he adds. "For a country that is so much younger than our neighbour, I think it just shows how much beer is part of our culture and our history."

At Molson's chief competitor Labatt, the brand that most consistently plays up heritage is Alexander Keith's, which was acquired by the company in 1971. Every October, the company holds birthday events to celebrate the way Mr. Keith, like Mr. Molson a recent immigrant (from Scotland), started his brewery in 1820 at age 25. Birthday celebrants hear tales of Mr. Keith's legendary hospitality, like the one about the tunnel he built between his house and his brewery to facilitate an unceasing flow of kegs whenever he was entertaining.

"Those are unique and different things that really make Alexander Keith this true man, as opposed to some history story you've read about him," suggests Dave Nicholls, the beer's brand manager.

Drinkers, he says, respond to, "the authenticity. We've talked to consumers and let them know there is a person behind the brand. Let them know this was a real brewery, a small brewery that started up in Halifax, that's grown up. They see it as this really authentic element, with a little bit of Canadiana."

But even breweries with histories that stretch back only as far as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of mullets are invoking their heritage. Last month, Saskatoon-based Great Western Brewery introduced Original 16, a premium ale that is serving double-duty - not just as a new drink, but as a marketing platform to tell the company's own back story. In the fall of 1989, about nine months after Molson merged with Carling O'Keefe, the new company announced it would close a number of plants across the country, including its base in Saskatoon. Rather than letting the local plant die, 16 employees united to buy the Saskatoon operation of Carling O'Keefe and start up what became Great Western Breweries.

"It's a made-for-TV movie," suggests David Walker, a partner in Vancouver's Saint Bernadine Mission Communications, which led the campaign introducing the beer.

With that in mind, Mr. Walker's company created a 16-part series of short films to tell the brewery's origin story, featuring interviews with many of the company's founders, archival footage and newspaper clippings. There's plenty of drama in the tale, which is housed on the website Original16.com - from the employees learning their O'Keefe jobs are doomed, to the near suffocation of their early success when a big competitor refuses to provide them with the bottles they'd promised, to the company's earning of awards over their bigger and deeper pocketed competitors.

The Original 16 positioning and back story also enables the brewery to pull the nifty trick of subtly reminding drinkers that the beer industry has long been a goliath with a laser eye on the bottom line.

"It definitely makes it human," Mr. Walker says. "It reminds people this isn't a mass production, international company, this is a very down-to-earth, genuine, authentic, local brewery that's doing okay, that's making a go of it."

Great Western president Michael Micovcin suggests the beer itself, suffused in history, could serve as a platform to launch the brewery outside of its home province. "Unless you're from Saskatoon and familiar with the history of the brewery, not a lot of people are going to know what this is about, from the outset. So I think it's going to evoke a curiosity factor, to say: What's an Original 16? And then we have the opportunity to tell the story.

"We're very much a Saskatoon-centric company, we want to be a Western Canadian company, and we felt the story would be a great way to introduce not just a new brand but really the company to people outside of Saskatchewan. That was really our strategic intent from the outset."

He adds: "People love a story about the brand. The liquid obviously has to meet their expectations, it's gotta' be a quality liquid, but if there's a story behind the brewery - whether it's Keith's heritage out of Nova Scotia; Stella [Artois]goes back to the 1600s - that really helps to create a connection to the brand."

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

 

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