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A still from Labatt commercial shows big brewers are changing their approach to marketing to female drinkers.

It looks like any other commercial for Bud Light – which is to say, a pageant of the young, smug and nubile, having more fun than you – but there is a subtle difference.

A woman is in the centre of the frame, beer in hand, sensible sneakers on feet, striding into a music festival. The live-your-best-life voice-over also belongs to a woman. The ad, which launched last summer in Canada, is not meant to be noticeably female-driven: there are no pink accents, no odes to women’s empowerment, and it includes plenty of male characters.

But it represents a shift from past ad practices at parent company Labatt Breweries of Canada, which is owned by beer giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev.

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Previously, that ad would have defaulted to a male narrator and male characters at the heart of the action – with some females cheering on the men jumping into the ocean, kissing the men, or dancing in slow motion. (These are all scenes in the previous summer’s campaign for Bud Light.)

If this doesn’t exactly sound like a revolution, that’s because it isn’t: Labatt is in the midst of a “mind shift,” said its head of insight, Alyssa Rodrigo. It’s part of an effort that began more than a year ago to bring women into a category that has often neglected or outright insulted them in the past. That means advertising in a more “co-ed” way while avoiding pandering to women with a beer-for-ladies message.

Labatt is not alone in this endeavour.

“The category has underserved the female consumer. We want to do more going forward,” said Martin Coyle, chief marketing officer for Molson Coors Canada. The company has established a working group on women’s representation that has spent the past three months conducting research.

One finding of that research: Three-quarters of women surveyed in Canada are alcohol consumers, but only 14 per cent feel they are portrayed realistically by the industry.

“They want us to speak to them as people, not as women specifically,” Mr. Coyle said.

The female customer is just one of the targets of the beer business in its attempt to boost sales. Beer is the biggest-selling alcoholic beverage in Canada – a $9.1-billion market – but sales growth is relatively flat. And the overall volume of beer consumption has been declining for the past decade, according to Statistics Canada.

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“Traditionally, beer advertising was aimed at the beer-guzzling guy in the back of a pickup,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consultancy Metaforce. “That market is still there, but it’s not where the growth is."

The female customer is just one of the targets of the beer business in its attempt to boost sales.

Labatt’s own research found that 89 per cent of men reported that they had purchased beer in the past four weeks, while only 72 per cent of women did. The company sees sales potential in the remaining 28 per cent.

“That’s 130,000 hectolitres of opportunity for the category,” said Todd Allen, vice-president of marketing. “This is going to be a journey of the next three to five years for us.”

So far, Labatt’s efforts have included sunset events at music festivals to promote its “most co-ed” brand, Corona. It is hoping to appeal to people interested in “health and wellness” by partnering with The Running Room on a series of nighttime 10K runs ending at a beer garden where the lower-calorie Michelob Ultra is served. It has also collaborated with restaurants for events this summer in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal to promote Bud Light Radler as a brunch drink for both men and women.

And there are plans to go beyond brunch: wine is top of mind for many people looking for food pairings, and for more complex flavours. Craft beers have done well in addressing that need for complexity – and the multinational beer companies have bought up craft brewers in an attempt to keep up with the market. But big brands have not.

“Some of those longstanding, widely available brands almost become invisible to people because they’re so familiar,” said Ginger Johnson, a marketing consultant with a focus on the beer industry. “It’s not about gender; it’s about appealing to our taste buds and our brain.”

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In 2009, Molson Coors attempted to “remove the gender imbalance that exists around beer consumption” with a project called the BitterSweet Partnership. It subsequently launched a line of “bloat-resistant” beers in Britain and Ireland called Animée. It didn’t last long.

Mr. Coyle worked for Molson in Britain at the time, and said that while BitterSweet had some success, it was also a learning experience for the company.

“That has helped inform what our approach is in Canada,” he said. “We probably reached our conclusions a little too quickly. We want to be much more gender-neutral and much more people-based than just about marketing to women."

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