For the Love of Lager: Loyalty to an Old Law & Savvy Marketing Make Okanagan Spring Brewery #1

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For natives of Germany, a country where open land and big sky are at a premium, western Canada is the Land of Opportunity. In the early ‘80s, pub owner Jakob Tobler, and real estate developer Buko von Krosigk immigrated to Canada and settled in BC’s Okanagan Valley, specifically Vernon.

Their goal was to address one glaring problem with their new home: the beer was no good. The offerings of Canada’s major breweries fell short of the quality to which they were accustomed. Meanwhile, Jakob’s son Stefan had earned a degree in beer-making at a German university, and that made him one of only two certified brew-masters in western Canada. It was logical to establish a brewery and sell true German beer—but just within the valley, they thought. The partners bought a 10,000 square-foot fruit-packing house, invested in the finest equipment available, put the neighbourhood name together with that of a brewery that had operated in Vernon in the 1800s (the Vernon Spring Brewery), and Okanagan Spring Brewery was born.

There are three types of breweries. A ‘microbrewery’ produces less than 15,000 hectolitres per year (a hectolitre is 1000 litres). Okanagan Spring Brewery (OSB) is an example of a ‘regional brewery’. Then there are the mainstream, or commercial, breweries such as Labatt and Molson.

Almost all microbreweries and regional breweries are ‘craft’ breweries. Craft-brewed beer is made in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516. This law, which is still followed by all German breweries and is the core of OSB’s operations, states that there can only be four natural ingredients in beer: hops, malted barley, yeast and purified water. (A non-craft brewery may add adjuncts or preservatives; things like rice, cornmeal, corn syrup and chemicals.)

OSB brings barley from the Canadian prairies and has it malted in the Okanagan. Hops are imported from Germany (the hop is a plant and there are two types: aromatic and bitter). The X Factor is the yeast, which is prepared to OSB’s secret recipe by an outside supplier. The already high-quality Okanagan water is purified, and that’s it.

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There are two processes which craft breweries do not use. In ‘high-gravity brewing’, water is added back to a sort of beer concentrate. It’s more efficient, and more profitable, but it makes beer taste diluted (as in American beer). The other process is pasteurization, which is when beer is heated or boiled to kill germs. Pasteurization extends shelf life, but it makes for common ‘Wonder Bread’ beer. In craft brewing, everything is ‘sterile-brewed’, so pasteurization isn’t necessary, although the shelf life of craft beer is reduced to about three months. After that, the beer is still drinkable, but may have the ‘skunky’ smell that German imports often acquire by the time they reach us.

It should be noted, however, that it is a misconception that a small brewery produces a higher-quality product. The opposite is true. A regional or mainstream brewery has employees devoted to quality control. And if a batch falls short of its standards, it’s thrown out. A microbrewery can’t afford to toss imperfect inventory.

While there are many beer brands, beer (‘baere’ is German for ‘barley’) is broken down into two categories: lager and ale. The beer-drinking population is split in half—half prefers lager, half ale. The English are the ale masters; Germans are best known for lager. So Buko and Jakob started with lager. On December 31, 1985, the first pint of Okanagan Spring Premium Lager was poured.

While Jakob and Stefan managed operations, Buko started traveling through the Okanagan Valley, selling draft beer to pubs and restaurants. Sales took off and, after a little lobbying, he was able to get the lager onto liquor store shelves. Then Expo ’86 came up and the BC government extended sales licenses to smaller provincial beverage manufacturers. Demand surged. Buko moved to Vancouver and started selling on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Today, Okanagan Spring Brewery is BC’s #1 craft brewery.

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“There are a couple of reasons why Buko did so well,” says Steve Pelkey, OSB’s Director of Marketing. “He promised, and delivered, consistently fantastic products, and he service customers better than the major breweries did. The key to this was having his own distribution network. The beer has always been brewed in the Okanagan, shipped to Vancouver and delivered to customers—all by OSB employees. That allows them to provide great service, including next-day delivery, rush delivery, Saturday delivery—OSB drivers even rotate kegs. Large breweries won’t do any of that.”

And how do you convince a publican to make room for your beer? “We sell premium beer,” continues Pelkey. “So licensees can charge more for it. Also, you say to the owner ‘You have all the mainstream brands. Why not give your patrons a chance to try something different?’”

Pelkey notes that, by the time Buko started selling his lager, astute pub owners already were already seeing the need for an alternative. “In the last 15 years, there has been a dramatic shift in consumer buying behaviour. As people get older, they drink less, but they drink better. Then there’s the fact that British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular, are the most knowledgeable, educated and discerning alcohol consumers in North America. The market was there. Look at Victoria—30% of beer sold there is craft beer.”

Once customers had tried OSB lager, they asked for porter. Stefan responded by creating Okanagan Spring Old English Porter, which quickly earned a loyal following. Also in response to demand, in 1988, Stefan created Extra Special Pale Ale. Now it’s winning gold medals at international beer competitions and is the most successful craft-brewed brand in BC.

Breweries are secretive—they don’t discuss sales or profits. We know that British Columbians buy 25 million cases of beer annually, and that that translates to $425 million. The government takes 60% of that in taxes. A 12-pack of an OSB product is $17.45. Pelkey estimates that the industry average profit on a 12-pack is $1.70. He will also say that, in 1986, OSB sold 3,700 hectolitres, or 20,000 cases. In 1990, it was 25,000 hectolitres and, in 1995, 75,000.

In its first years, Jakob and Buko put all OSB profits back into the company. In 1988, the brewery was revamped to increase production. A few sales people were hired. The brewery was expanded to 50,000 square feet. The focus remained on the three brands, while production increased and the company grew (it now has 150 employees, including a sales force of five retail reps and 11 licensee reps).

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The trade continued to ask for products. In 1995, to meet demand for an easy-to-drink dark ale, OSB released Cottage Nut Brown Ale. In 1997, in response to the success of the ‘honey’ category, which is lighter and more thirst-quenching, Honey Blonde Ale was launched. (There’s a direct correlation between colour, bitterness, weight and low sales, with lighter beers garnering higher sales.) In 1999, after market research showed that there was room for a different style of lager, there came Traditional Pilsner, modeled after the classic Czech Pilsen recipe. There has been just one failure—Autumn Red Ale.

Not surprisingly, after years of increased success, a suitor came calling in the form of Ontario’s Sleeman Brewing & Malting Company. Although you’ll find no mention of it on either company’s website, Sleeman now owns OSB. Buko has retired; Jakob’s two sons still work at the brewery. With that change came a marketing person—Pelkey was hired in 1997. The first thing he did was conduct an agency review and appoint Grey Advertising (Vancouver) as OSB’s Agency of Record. Ipsos-Reid handles market research; point-of-sale and packaging is managed by dossiercreative.

Last year, OSB’s packaging was up-graded, to the tune of $1.5 million, but it’s still notable for its conservative look. Just as the product names are plain and direct, there is a distinctly elegant tone to the packaging. You won’t find any zany graphics or wild colours—its labels are metallic, but that’s it for flash.

(OSB was, however, the first beverage company to use the stamped MettleTab. Now, when anyone opens an OSB can, they are reminded of the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, and the purity of OSB beers.)

“Our customers are age 25-44,” explains Pelkey. “We’re not going after the teen crowd. So our branding is more refined and traditional.”

The same is true for all OSB point-of-sale materials, which is just as well, given Liquor Control Board restrictions. There are three sales channels for a BC brewery: trade (pubs, bars, restaurants), consumer-direct through LRS (Liquor Retailer Sales; the pub-attached cold beer and wine stores), and the LDB (the government’s Liquor Distribution Branch). A brewery cannot conduct any marketing programs in the LRS trade channel unless the programs have been approved in the LDB channel. At the moment, in-store draws, contests or promotions are verboten. Danglers and shelf-talkers have to fit within strict size restrictions, and the largest allowed size was just reduced to 18” x 24”. OSB reps conduct hundreds of trade promotions every year—mostly instant gratification things like getting to keep your mug. All other promotions have to be in-case.

With in-case promotions, you open your case of beer and find a card offering a chance to win ski passes, a fishing trip, golfing trip etc. OSB consumers are off-the-couch types, so promotions are related to outdoor activities. OSB works with Golf BC and its courses, with the Oak Bay Marine Group and its fishing resorts, and with ski resorts and tour groups. But LDB regulations make for amusing situations. A brewery isn’t allowed to connect any physical activity with beer consumption. So in a recent white-water rafting promotion, the brewery was allowed to show the river, but not a raft, or anyone in a raft.

There’s another wrinkle with the LDB that may surprise some. Since all LDB stores are government stores, you would think that, once an alcohol producer has a license to sell its products in BC, its products would automatically go onto liquor store shelves. ‘Not so. When a new product is launched, it has to be approved by the LDB’s Listing Policy Committee. After that, there’s still no guaranteed distribution. Every liquor store in the province has to be sold individually. OSB’s reps have to sell and service each government liquor store manager, just as if he were a hotelier or restaurateur. And there’s hot competition for that shelf and floor space.

Fortunately, there is ‘beer category management’, which is the same sort of process used by grocery retailers. Liquor stores put premium products in the best locations, mainstream products in the intermediate locations, value products at the back.

“It’s trading people up, which is a good thing for retailers,” says Pelkey. “Putting premium products at the front lets them make more money. Our products sell very well. You multiply the margin by the volume and you get a good profit. That’s what it’s all about, particularly for the cold beer and wine stores, which don’t have to stay with the stated price—they can charge whatever they want, as can the trade establishments.”

And what accounts for high-volume sales? A combination of reputation and marketing.

“Our strategy is always to stay with the core attributes of the brand,” continues Pelkey. “The purity, the quality, the freshness, the BC-ness. The secret is to know your consumer. It sounds simple, but if you offer your consumer a great quality product, communicate the quality and don’t disappoint, that consumer will keep coming back.”

Compared to other craft breweries, OSB conducts a lot of focus-group research. There’s an annual tracking study to gauge what’s going on in the beer industry and new advertising is tested. Pelkey says there’s a lot of emphasis on brand perception.

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“The market’s always changing; consumers’ tastes and perceptions are always changing. We also need bench-marks to see how we’re doing over the long term. And research indicates how tastes will change in the future.”

In BC, 65% of liquor purchases are in the beer category. Beer, wine and spirits, however, do not compete. “We all have share of mouth,” continues Pelkey. “In the premium category, consumers leave the store with a bottle of wine and a case of our beer. At home, they’ll have spirits, wine and beer. The only real competition is with the spirit-based coolers. We haven’t addressed that, as a company or as an industry—we stay focused on communicating our attributes and keeping consumers happy.”

Grey Advertising doesn’t have a huge annual budget to work with—about $700,000. But it has used that money effectively. Most of OSB’s advertising spend is in radio, with print ads running in the summer months (there was some outdoor last year). Although some specific ads are produced for OSB’s two biggest brands—pale ale and lager, the budget doesn’t allow for each beer to be advertised separately, so the focus is always on the core brand attributes.

“We never walk away from the core values of the brand,” says Grey Creative Director Jeff Lewis. “We keep the message consistent. Okanagan Spring Beer is from the Okanagan—a region known for its purity. It’s all-natural, premium beer. More than anything else, when it comes to branding beer, consistency is key. Plus, what we say is true. And that’s one of the big reasons why OSB is so solid. When a consumer pops open a bottle, the quality is there. There’s a lot of crappy beer on the market, but consumers now know that. They’re no longer impressed by image.

“The beer business is a tough business. ‘Very competitive. And you see a lot of breweries whose advertising is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. Mainstream breweries promote their image outside the bottle. There’s not a lot of talk about the actual liquid—because it’s not that special. Other craft breweries focus on a goofy name, or the brewery’s size. But people want to hear about the liquid—about what they’re drinking. They want to know that it’s a quality product. Okanagan Spring always talks about what’s in the bottle.”

Lewis notes that the OSB strategy has lately become a little more fun. One recent ad (which received angry calls from ex-Torontonians) was ‘Still Not Available in Toronto’, which pointed out that Toronto enjoys black flies and one tower, while BC has towering mountains and bald eagles. Another ad noted that OSB beer is what Okanagan wine-makers drink after work. Lewis used the term for the Bavarian Purity Law—Reinheitsgebot, as an attention-getter in print ads. In radio ads, it is admitted that OSB does, in fact, use a preservative—the cap.

ok6“It is not easy to advertise beer,” continues Lewis. “You have to do work that cuts through all the other beer ads. For a brand with a more conservative stance, the ads with attitude accomplished that.

“One challenge we did have was that, as OSB became increasingly successful, people started to think that it had sold out—that the beer had somehow changed. So the marketing has always made it clear that OSB is the same company it always was. For ’98 and ’99, we used people from the brewery—truck drivers, people who work on the line, Stefan. We need to show that, even though it sells a lot more beer than it used to, Okanagan Spring Brewery is still the same group of people who are passionate about making premium beer. The Still Not Available in Toronto campaign was an interesting way of saying “We Are Not A Mega-Brewery.’

“That part of the strategy remains, along with the core values. It’s pure premium beer from a natural setting. Everything emanates from that. And when people walk into a liquor stores or see the taps at a bar, they see the different brands but they know that every beer is made to the same high standard. Okanagan Spring Brewery has a solid foundation and a very good name. That’s a great thing to work with.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2002

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