In one of Mad Men's final episodes this week, anti-hero Don Draper finds himself in a boardroom at McCann Erickson. It is 1970, the Goliath ad agency has swallowed up Draper's little firm, and the brooding creative is part of a meeting to discuss what would be a legendary campaign for McCann: the launch of Miller Lite.
For the executives at SABMiller PLC's brand-new Canadian offices, the timing is fortuitous: On Monday, the company will mark Miller Lite's first nationwide launch in Canada with an ad campaign will use the beer's history to promote it.
"Mad Men correctly recounts Miller Lite as the pioneer of the light-beer segment," said Stewart Cowan, vice-president of marketing at SABMiller Canada.
The ads, which will be in heavy rotation on television throughout the summer, tout the brand as "the light beer that invented light beer," and will refer to its brewing heritage dating back to 1973.
Canadian consumers have high brand awareness of Miller Lite, SABMiller said, thanks to our proximity to the United States, where it has been sold for years. The beer was only available with limited marketing in Ontario and Newfoundland, and has not been sold at all here since 2010.
Until now, SABMiller's products were sold through a partnership with Molson Coors Canada. That partnership ended last October after a lengthy legal dispute and SABMiller opened its own Canadian offices this year.
"Canadian consumers are world-renowned beer lovers," said Paul Verdu, managing director for Canada.
That may be true, but it's an awkward time for SABMiller to break into the Canadian market. While Canadians still drink more beer than anything else, its share of the overall alcoholic beverage market is slipping, according to a Statistics Canada report released this week. Beer's share of alcoholic beverage sales has slipped from 49 per cent in 2004-2005 to 42 per cent in 2013-2014. By volume, beer sales fell nearly 9 per cent in that 9-year period.
According to SABMiller's research, however, the light-beer segment grew by more than 2 per cent in 2013 – the most recent year for which it has data. It's a modest growth rate, but one that the company believes is an indicator of an opportunity.
The new ad campaign seeks to appeal to drinkers by borrowing a strategy from the small but growing craft-beer industry. This is not entirely new for big brewers: Brands such as Alexander Keith's have advertised the origin of their hops, and plenty of bigger beer companies have bought up craft breweries to get into the market. But the marketing language is still relatively unusual for light beers.
At sampling events, which will be rolling out aggressively through the summer, SABMiller is instructing samplers to use language such as "mouthfeel," "aroma" and "finish" to describe the beer's taste profile.
And the ads will push the message that the brand is "purpose brewed" as a light beer, as opposed to some light beers that are simply brewed as usual and then diluted with water.
Reminding people, through its ads, that Miller's was the first widely sold light beer is part of that messaging.
Technically speaking, Miller Lite did not "invent" light beer. That (some would say dubious) honour belonged to Joseph Owades, a biochemist who figured out how to strip out starch from beer while working at Rheingold Breweries in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the sixties. His low-calorie Gablinger's Diet Beer was a flop. When he shared the technique with a friend at a brewery in Chicago, they used it to launch Meister Brau Lite in 1967. Miller Brewing got its hands on the technique when it acquired Meister Brau in 1972.
Miller launched its light beer in just a few markets in 1973 and Miller Lite's U.S.-wide launch came in 1975. Just like in the episode of Mad Men, the creatives at McCann had to figure out how to advertise a diet beer without making it seem too feminine for male drinkers – by taking the emphasis off the "diet."
The ads employed sporting legends such as Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and George Steinbrenner to provide masculine bona fides, and sold it to guys as having "everything you always wanted in a beer. And less." Soon, "great taste, less filling" became one of the most memorable advertising slogans of its time.
Now, health-conscious consumers are open to the idea of lower-calorie options. It can be a complement even for picky drinkers of craft beer, which boasts more complex flavours but can often be too heavy and hoppy to drink multiple pints of in a sitting.
According to SABMiller's own research, the light-beer segment accounts for just over a quarter of the beer market in Canada – largely dominated by Molson Coors Brewing Co.'s Coors Light, and Bud Light, sold here by Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. (Statistics Canada has only just started breaking out light-beer sales, and does not have data for all of Canada, but this proportion seems roughly correct. In Ontario, for example, the light segment was about 20 per cent of sales in 2013-14.) The company's research also suggest that a third of those consumers in Canada are "at risk," in other words, not brand-loyal.
It is hoping to convert them by departing from the advertising that is most common in the category, which focuses on lifestyle, and instead talking about taste. There are brief shots of hops, and of a brewer holding a glass of golden liquid up to the light.
"It comes back to authenticity and the heritage of the brand," Mr. Cowen said.
It's a strategy Miller Lite has already used in the United States. In 2013, to combat declining sales, the company brought back its original 1975 packaging, with the traditional white can. It co-promoted the redesign with the movie Anchorman 2, which was set in 1979. It tapped into younger drinkers' desire for authenticity and retro cool, and roped in older drinkers with a bit of nostalgia. Its ads there also focused more on its brewing process and heritage.
Since the change in marketing strategy, in the past year the brand reversed sales declines. But it's still an uphill battle: on Thursday, Molson Coors Brewing Co. (which has a joint venture with SABMiller in the U.S. called MillerCoors) reported that sales for both Coors Light and Miller Lite fell slightly in the first quarter, compared with the same period last year. Over all, Molson Coors's profits fell 50 per cent compared with last year, as volumes of beer sold declined 3.5 per cent. A particular challenge has been the U.S. market, where craft beers have been gaining in popularity and stealing customers from the big brands.
The company is hoping the strategy can have a similar impact with Canadians – a tough sell at a time when people are drinking less beer.
"We're not just out to take market share," Mr. Verdu said. "We want to grow the size of the pie."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said SABMiller products Peroni, Pilsner Urquell and Grolsch were previously sold through a partnership with Molson Coors Canada. In fact, these products have been handled in Canada by Mark Anthony Brands and are now being handled by SABMiller Canada.