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Ted Fleming, owner of Brampton, Ont.-based Premium Near Beer.

The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.

Visitors to the Baby Time show in Mississauga in April might well have been surprised to find an unusual sight among the bassinets and Jolly Jumpers: a booth where expectant mothers could try some non-alcoholic beer.

Although pregnant women who miss the occasional refreshing beer are obvious potential consumers of his products, "their first impression," said Ted Fleming, owner of Brampton, Ont.-based Premium Near Beer, "was, 'What are you doing here?' We really stood out and were very different from everyone else who was there."

That kind of marketing tactic is crucial, experts agreed, in educating likely consumers about the 16 brands of non-alcoholic beer Mr. Fleming imports from Germany, Britain and the Czech Republic. Access to information about the beers is through the Internet, where along with Mr. Fleming's site, various food and drink bloggers have talked up the beverages. However, said Steve Pulver, marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, "The key to any product like this is really getting it into people's hands so they can determine whether or not they like it."

Diagnosed with Crohn's disease several years ago, Mr. Fleming decided to eliminate alcohol as much as possible from his diet, and began a long and frequently disappointing search for an alcohol-free beer that tasted better than what he found to be the usually insipid offerings from North America's big breweries. He found a few bars in the Greater Toronto Area that sold premium imported non-alcoholic near beers that he liked, but they were few and far between, he said. Instead, he set up his own company a year ago, importing the brews himself, and delivering them to the various consumer segments which, for one reason or another, want the flavour of beer without the buzz.

"Most of our customers also drink alcohol products," said Mr. Fleming, "but they like having the non-alcohol product for if they're out doing yard work during the day, or at the cottage and they have to drive home, or take the kids out with a boat." A business lunch is another occasion, he added, when a near beer is an alternative to juice or a soft drink that won't affect a person's productivity later in the day.

Those kinds of examples make up the different communities a company such as Mr. Fleming's should target, said Ted Salter, PricewaterhouseCoopers partner for consulting and deals. The decision to purchase any product, he said, comes from "a process of three steps where consumers are being influenced, then actually transacting and then either consuming product or taking it home." The digital world, he said, gives an organization "the opportunity to really influence what people believe about that particular product."

Any marketing focused on the business person taking clients to lunch, for example, can't just be about taste, he said, but something else, such as an attitude to work. "So I am ordering it because I am all about performance," he said. "I am that kind of person. I don't want to be slowed down by alcohol for the rest of the day."

Currently selling about 40 cases of near beer a week, and hoping to triple that amount within a year, Mr. Fleming plans to roll out a larger presence this summer at street fairs and food trucks. He wants to position near beer "in places that challenge peoples' perceptions of where a beer can go," he said, "so being outside, selling to a line-up at a food truck out in the open is something that people will say, 'Hey, this is different.' And hopefully we'll get social media traction with it as well."

Sport stadiums are another venue where Premium Near Beer could set up a stand and encourage sampling of their best brands, suggested Sheila Wisniewski, a vice-president with public relations consultancy Hill and Knowlton Canada. "Is this something an athlete might like? And if so, they could focus on an event like the upcoming Pan American Games, and combine an interest in sports with the international appeal of their brands. That's bull's eye for them if they play that up."

While in Europe well-established brand-name brewers bring both variety and taste to the alcohol-free segment and enjoy between 3 and 10 per cent of the market in some countries, in North America, near beer accounts for less than half a per cent of market share, Mr. Fleming said. His is the only company in either Canada or the United States offering the product, "and I get about four calls every week from people in the U.S. who want non-alcohol beer," he said.

That puts his company into a niche that is small but has significant growth potential.

And because near beer is its only product, "they can create a market that doesn't exist today, around health or performance," said Mr. Salter. Unlike the non-alcohol segment of the big brewers, there is no conflict in their messaging, he added. "They own that market because nobody else can be in that space."

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