On Wal-Mart, Toxic Cotton & The Green Thing

Blitz Magazine, September 2007

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Sam Hill, CEO of MegaCorp, calls in his PR guy.

Sam: “This environmental thing is really catching on. We need to do something green. Well, green-ish.”

PR Guy: “Actually, you only have to create the appearance of doing something, say, tinged with green.”

Sam Hill: “But look at the nature of our business. How on earth can we do that?”

This is a conversation that many corporate types have been having for a while. Thanks to Al Gore, ‘The Green Issue’ is now top-of-mind for many companies and a lot of big corporations are looking for ways to inject some sense of environmental awareness into their operations. But some of the results are more amusing than anything.

Wal-Mart would, of course, be my favourite example. The world’s Premier Purveyor of Pointless Purchases now says that it will spend money to preserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre it develops and that it will keep ‘scorecards’ relating to the sustainability of the electronics it sells. No word about Wal-Mart operating its own electronics-recycling program. No mention of what land the company will preserve. So, maybe it will pave over wildlife habitat or farmland in the US, and ‘spend money’ to save one acre in, say, Outer Mongolia?

On its website, Wal-Mart crows about its ‘experimental store’ in Colorado, where “…more than 500 tons of Denver Stapleton Airport’s runway, crushed up and recycled, have been used in the store’s foundation. And the used vegetable oil from the store’s deli and used motor oil from the store’s Tire and Lube Express will be burned to help heat the store.” Yay.

Last June, Wal-Mart issued ‘A Challenge’ to the packaging community, hosting a Sustainable Packaging Exposition with the theme ‘Cradle to Cradle Life Cycle’ (the lack of hyphenation is theirs). Then there’s the scorecard thing: “Wal-Mart has begun measuring 60,000 worldwide suppliers on their ability to develop packaging and conserve natural resources. Our objective is to reduce packaging across our global supply chain by 5% by 2013.”

walmart1The Wal-Mart Packaging Scorecard is to be used “as a measurement tool to allow suppliers to evaluate themselves…based on specific metrics [that] evolved from a list of favourite attributes…known as the 7 Rs of Packaging.” They are: Remove, Reduce, Re-Use, Renew, Recycle, Revenue (economic benefit) and Read (education).

Well Wal-Mart’s sure not doing much to educate anyone in the Vancouver area—nor is any retailer. We’re now in our third month of a garbage strike. Responsible (and PR-savvy) retailers should be buying airtime to ask consumers to hang onto non-food garbage until the strike is over. They’re not. And all of their well-designed, colourful, paper- and plastic-intensive packaging is now flowing out of bins all over the city. This editorial was inspired when a great chunk of Styrofoam became stuck to my windshield.

Meanwhile, the Forest Stewardship Council is making very little headway with the packaging industry—only the higher-end frozen food manufacturers are starting to incorporate FSC-certified paper. And given the value of packaging as a sales tool, the amount of information required on packaging, and the engineering requirements of packaging design, I’m not optimistic.

walmart2The other day, I bought a bottle of room spray, which promised ‘all-natural ingredients’. I do pay attention to packaging and won’t buy something that’s over-packaged. This product appeared to be in a light box. When I opened that box, there was another box. And a silk ribbon. The ‘all-natural’ thing should have also meant that all members of the company’s delivery change were on the same Eco page. The second box was not required for product safety; the ribbon was just a waste. Its packaging designer, therefore, created unnecessary waste, and expense, for all concerned.

As for Wal-Mart, if it started supporting the economies of the communities in which it operates and selling things manufactured in North America, perhaps it could do away with over-packaged lead-laced toys.

Another one of my favourites is that endlessly-troubled retailer, Cotton Ginny. In a mall last week, I noticed that one of its stores is being re-designed with decidedly earthy colours and an eco-sensitive feel. Which is endlessly amusing, given that cotton growing is one of the most chemically-intensive of all farming operations. According to Earthshine, 10% of agricultural pesticides produced worldwide (including 25% of insecticides) are used in cotton production. The Sustainable Cotton Project says that five ounces of chemicals go into the production of a single t-shirt. These chemicals include neurotoxins, developmental disruptors, carcinogens and reproductive toxins. And cotton accounts for about half of all textiles produced. Drag.

walmart4If you go to cottonginny.ca, you’ll first see its new positioning statement: “Cotton Ginny, Sustainable Style.” Then, on its ‘About Us’ page, you get this (again, the lack of hyphenation is theirs): “Cotton Ginny’s journey plant the seed The earth is not a lifeless planet but a living being Time stands still for no one live together, live slowly respect our planet let your heart lead the way.”

Huh? Who came up with that? And what in Sam Hill is that supposed to mean?

I’m sure that one of the more successful ad campaigns in history was conducted by the International Cotton Association. Remember ‘The Look, the Feel, of Cotton?’ Everyone just felt great about buying cotton. With increased environmental awareness, I wonder if (hope) that will change. Cotton Ginny now has an ‘Organic Program’, and it is, believe it or not, offering a line called Eco-ganic Baby. It’ll probably do well. But maybe it will have to change its name, to something equally-inane, like Hemp Honey.

walmart3Marketers have to get with the eco program—their clients are lagging laughably far behind and it’s time to put an end to this head-in-the-sand situation. Increasing consumer awareness will create drastic changes in buying habits. Everyone’s bottom line depends on making adjustments so that consumers will want to buy their products and services. Production has to change. Packaging has to change. A sense of corporate responsibility has to come out of the closet. Green-ish ain’t good enough.

 

On Citizen Journalism

Blitz Magazine, January 2008

Late-night host Craig Ferguson regularly stabs at tabloid stories when he says (wink) “If it’s written down, it must be true.” Which is funny, until you realize that millions of people actually do think that everything they read—just because it has been published somewhere—must have some factual basis. That’s not at all funny.

citizenIn my particular pocket of the world, the majority of people are supposed to be well-educated. But at the check-out counter at the local grocery store, I notice that the racks for the National Enquirer and the News of the World are either depleted or empty. Publications such as these have long made millions by printing doctored images and ridiculous fiction about real people. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s always asked: ‘Who reads this stuff?’, ‘Why do people read this stuff?’ and ‘How is it that these publications haven’t been sued into bankruptcy?’

The answer to the first two questions are, in my mind, that those who buy tabloid junk are either intellectually-challenged or find some escapist value in reading dreck. The answer to the third question is unknowable—perhaps the victims think that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or they don’t want to give credence to junk by responding to it. The main reason could be that defamation suits are difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

All of this is now made much worse by the Internet, which has spawned blogs and vlogs and this new creature called ‘Citizen Journalism’. Now anyone, anywhere can say literally anything about anybody, with impunity. Anyone with an axe to grind can broadcast any fiction to millions of people, and the victims of any misinformation, slander or defamation will not be able to do anything about it—if they even know about it. Between language barriers and the vast size of the Web, it is impossible for corporations, governments and individuals to monitor what is being said about them.

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A recent example of the damage this can do popped up when a disgruntled ex-employee of Tommy Hilfiger used the Net to spread the notion that the company actively discourages black customers. By the time the company learned about it, millions of emails on the subject had been sent out—I got one from a friend, who believed it because she got it from her sister, who (egads) is in senior management at a Crown corporation, and she believed it because, it was ‘in print’. Hilfiger had the resources to fight back, and duly did the talk-show rounds to set the record straight. Only his accountants can say how much damage was caused by this particular lie.

The downside of Internet-based misinformation does not stop at celebrities and corporations. It is now creating massive problems in academia. Thanks, in part, to Wikipedia, the online volunteer encyclopedia that we now all use. In universities everywhere, students are regularly failing important exams because they’re taking their ‘facts’ from Wikipedia entries. Professors everywhere are now are forbidding students to use anything from Wikipedia.

According to Wired Campus, “Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says he wants to get the message out to students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research. Wales gets about 10 email messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. “They say, ‘Please help me, I got an ‘F’ on my paper because I cited something I found on Wikipedia and the information turned out to be wrong.”

Citizen Journalism is terrific for the exchange of opinion and ideas, and the concept is great for fostering freedom and democracy. It can help catch criminals, of all sorts. It can educate, inform and inspire. The up-side is definitely there.

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But the down-side is more pronounced. Any charlatan can file ‘reports’ on ‘new’ medications, treatments, cures. Any idiot can say “a clinical study has proven that drinking water is bad for you,” or that “the government of Somewhere is poisoning its citizens’. Lots and lots of people are not very bright; millions will send money to support the citizens of Somewhere, believe that they should stop drinking water, and buy those concoctions.

In every corner of the globe, there are people who go on-line, see tons of fascinating information, all dressed up with pretty pictures, ‘quotes’, charts and graphs. It doesn’t occur to these people to check the sources of the information; to find out who the authors are, check their credentials. They may not understand the concept of advertorial; it may not even occur to them that the guy in the white coat is an actor. They just assume that, because it has been ‘published’, it must be true.

In the civilized world, it is still only the masthead, station call letters, or network logo that allows us to believe and trust in the information that it being given to us. When we see a reporter at the site of an incident, we can trust that that reporter has done the work and is telling what he or she believes to be the truth. When it comes to political reportage, most of us know enough to read between the lines, to recognize that a columnist or talking head has a particular political bent.

We also trust that dishonest journalists will be exposed, as they have famously been at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, and that the penalty for their deception is banishment from their profession and new careers as cab drivers or gas station attendants. The fact that we will never hear from them again is proof that mainstream journalistic entities are committed to providing accurate information, and the educated, fact-based insight that people need in order to properly understand their world. The measures taken to guarantee credibility are, of course, to safeguard corporate survival, but they are also taken in support of ethical positions and a professional dedication to protection of the public trust through the dissemination of fact and truth. Like it or not, professional journalistic entities are still the gate-keepers.

The trick is to define ‘professional’. An awful lot of Americans, on the under-educated side, think that the information they get from Fox News is true, thanks to the insane persuasiveness of the odious Bill O’Reilly and the network’s not-so-merry bank of bobbing vitriol-spewing heads. With the pervasiveness of religious fanaticism in the southern states, you have to wonder at how much of their local information is controlled by heavy-hitters with decidedly off-kilter agendas. (This is becoming an issue in Canada, as well.)

The one which could have the most negative effect on future societies—is with the under-30s, who are now used to getting all of their information from the ‘Net. Canadian children may be some of the world’s best-educated, but you can see them in the malls and internet cafes, surfing, reading and passing on information that, they assume, must be true. Because it’s ‘in print’. Then they get to university and discover, the hard way, that this is not at all the case.

citizen1They don’t think about where their information comes from. What the motivation was behind its collection and dissemination. Whether or not the people who created it had any journalistic training—what questions were asked, how they were asked, if facts were checked and images authenticated.

If Citizen Journalism is meant to be good for freedom and democracy, those involved in it may have to think about the larger ramifications. Because the fact that so many people will believe anything they read, without thinking about its genesis is, ultimately, seriously detrimental to everyone.

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

On Toronto Not Being the Centre of the Universe

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

torontoWhen I started this magazine five years ago, I got a lot of comments and advice from people, but one particular set of comments still sticks in my mind. It came from an agency guy in Toronto, who said: “What? You’re going to start a national B2B magazine from Vancouver? Are you nuts? Even with national distribution, you’ll have a helluva time getting the national advertisers in. Nobody wants to advertise B2B to western Canada. No one in Toronto gives a shit about western Canada.”

Blitz doesn’t just go to western Canada, of course. It goes to 5,000 in the east, 5,000 in the west. This guy’s point, though, was that, to national advertisers, the latter 5,000 doesn’t matter.

I thought he was being silly—just another sufferer of Toronto-is-the-Centre-of-the-Universe Syndrome. The spread of the disease, however, continues apace. Just the other day, a national publisher told me that he had met a young man who was an excellent writer, but whose career was certainly going to go nowhere because he’d never been anywhere but Toronto—and, worse, had no interest in leaving Toronto, or in anything not related to Toronto.

I recently spoke with the creative director of a Toronto advertising agency who said that he was having difficulty figuring out how to tweak his client’s creative for a particular BC demographic. When I suggested that he consult with a Vancouver agency (duh), the line went quiet—I think he may have temporarily blacked out. (Then he asked me to send him a list of agencies.)

Magazine editors aren’t supposed to sell advertising. But I’m also the publisher and have to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that I’m likely to write about what I hear and learn, so they drop things into conversations which they may not otherwise say to a journalist. Things that make me feel a little sick.

The media buyer for Microsoft actually silenced me with the idiocy of this remark: “Microsoft doesn’t advertise in business publications which have a large BC circulation. At the B2B level, Microsoft is only interested in advertising to companies with more than 400 employees. BC doesn’t have any companies that large.”

This comment: “We’re not interested in Blitz because it has editorial relating to western Canada,” came from the marketing director of the Canadian Press.

The media buyers—indeed, the marketing people, for ‘Canada’s national newspaper’, the Globe & Mail, don’t bother returning calls. How often does the National Post advertise to western media buyers and marketers? What about the CBC? Never and never.

I could go on for an hour, naming company after company which, rather than advertising to the media communications community in all of the Canada, prefer to spend large sums of money on advertising to the same people in Toronto, over and over, year after year.  Reminder advertising is necessary but, in this case, it’s at the expense of untold amounts of potential new business.

While it’s true that the size of this country has always made it hard for Canadians to achieve the sense of ‘oneness’ which binds other nations, none of this makes any sense. Vancouver is Canada’s second-largest market. ‘Neglect of the West’ has been a political/economic complaint since Confederation, but it never occurred to me that corporate Canada could be so incredibly short-sighted as to think that businesses in BC (and Alberta) don’t need to be advertised to—that they somehow suffer from inferior spending habits, or aren’t savvy marketers, or don’t know how to compete.

It is a conundrum. A psychological puzzle that needs to be solved. If anyone out there has any solutions, ideas, explanations, I’m sure that all of those Canadians who live outside of Ontario’s borders would love to hear them.

On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

Communication Gone Wrong

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

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Direct marketers always talk about how precise their methods are. About how, when they send out promotional mail, they know exactly who’s getting it. They say they can target by income level, age, children’s ages. That they know that their clients’advertising pieces are being received by potential buyers.

In the mail, I receive an expensive package from a purveyor of yacht accessories. I don’t have a yacht. I receive an elegant package from a private school, asking me to consider sending my child there. I have a poodle. Now that I’ve announced that, I’ll start receiving samples of cat food.

Trade magazines also claim to be precisely targeted. (I’m one of the few publishers who can truthfully say that, as I up-date the Blitz mailing list every day and know exactly who’s getting it.) But my mechanic receives Strategy and Reel West. He doesn’t know why, he just does. I know this because I found them on the floor of his waiting room.

Technology has allowed for marvelous developments in magazine design. With the wrong result, I believe. I glance at Maclean’s and Vancouver. Both are so over-designed as to be unreadable.

Companies that can afford to commission good creative are airing TV commercials that are cloying (Toyota), nonsensical (Suzuki, Microsoft), badly written (Nestle) and annoying (Mott’s, All Bran). Even if people can stand to watch them, or make sense of them, the ads are bad enough to turn people away from the products they’re pitching. (And how about that McDonald’s slogan: ‘There’s a Little McDonald’s In Everyone’. Think about it. Ew.)

The Internet Advertising Bureau claims that an increasing share of marketing dollars is being committed to Internet marketing. Internet marketing firms say that advertisers can be confident about spending thousands of dollars in this fashion because web advertising is now so targeted—so precise.

I am a single, heterosexual female. When I open my email, I’m offered discounts on Viagra, potions to increase the size of my husband’s penis (by 3”!!!), potions to remove the hair on my chest, and something about a virtual experience wherein I can have sex with an Asian girl.

On a per-capita basis, Canada is the world’s most wired nation. Yet 1,000,000 Canadians have closed their Internet access accounts. It was recently reported that the editor of a popular e-zine has disconnected his incoming email address. His receipts were too time-consuming, too stressful.

Broadcasters are making TV unwatchable. We have an endless stream of propaganda pieces for the US military. Laughably bad sci-fi series. Shamefully stupid sit-coms. A special on the most passionate movies in history. Anniversary specials of once-popular TV shows. Weakest Link. Reality shows. Crap.

I now use the Internet only for addresses. If an email message doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to me, it’s gone. My recycle bin runneth over. Friends report that they own TVs for the sole purpose of watching rented movies—they now refuse to watch television.

So this is The Great Age of Communication. Communication is so easy, so quick, so efficient. Marketers are spending untold sums to communicate, and they think that their messages are reaching the right people. Methinks they’re wrong.

Worse, where the correct people are reached, they’re turned off messages by their quality. Because, more often than not, that quality is so mind-numbingly bad, so insultingly inferior, that people are rejecting both the message, and now, the medium.

All Aboard: Tourists Flock to BC for Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

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British Columbians are spoiled. Most of us live with mountains, spend our days unavoidably looking at mountains. Mountains and lakes, mountains and rivers, mountains and mountains. We’re used to seeing wildlife, and a trip to Calgary is no big deal.

But for people from Kansas City or Manhattan, Liverpool or Cairo, a trip through the Canadian Rockies is an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is why Rocky Mountaineer Railtours is one of the world’s most coveted of train trips.

The Rocky Mountaineer story goes back to 1988, when VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger train, started running a service called ‘Canadian Rockies by Daylight’. The service was heavily subsidized and, after two years without profit, the federal government put it up for auction. Twenty bids were received; the rights were awarded to Vancouver’s Great Canadian Railtour Company (GCRC), a team of former railroad executives led by one-time Gray Line Tours president Peter Armstrong. Rail is no longer a cheap, efficient way of transporting people over long distances, but the GCRC people knew that if the trip became an experience, it could be successfully marketed.

They were right. This was long before terrorism hit the travel industry but, even then, North Americans were looking for different types of vacations, especially those that didn’t involve leaving the continent. And tourists from all points of the globe want experiences—not just a couple of weeks sitting on a beach. They want an understanding of the places they visit; to experience the culture, history and geography of unique places.

GCRC purchased the VIA routes and equipment, bought and refurbished the old VIA coaches and, in April 1990, began operating a 500-passenger train service between Vancouver and Jasper, and Vancouver and Banff/Calgary. By the following May, capacity had increased to 600 passengers and departures were up by 50%. GCRC employed 50 people and received 11,000 guests.

Today, Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (RMR) is the largest private passenger rail operator in North America. It employs 350 people, owns 65 pieces of rolling stock and, in 2001, welcomed 73,000 guests. And the whole success story boils down to terrific service, excellent guest relations and targeted marketing.

rocky8The Rocky Mountaineer experience is a two-day, all-daylight journey that follows the historic train route constructed over 100 years ago through BC and the Canadian Rockies. (The high season is April to October, but there are also winter tours.) It’s not just a trip from Vancouver to Calgary; from Calgary, guests can do the return trip, drive out of Calgary, fly out of Calgary, or keep heading east on VIA. If they return to Vancouver, they can hook up with a cruise to Alaska, head to Whistler, Seattle, home, whatever. There’s a Calgary Stampede Tour, a Christmas in Victoria tour, various wildlife tours, skiing tours—RMR markets 40 different packages.

For the rail portion, guests choose from two levels of service: Gold Leaf, which is first class, and Red Leaf, which is first class-ish. Red Leaf is classic rail travel on 50 year-old reconditioned Pullman coaches. There are reclining seats, large picture windows, open-air vestibules and in-seat dining. Gold Leaf coaches are $3.5 million, state-of-the-art, two-tier cars with glass ceilings, observation platforms and dining rooms.

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Either way, guests are wined and dined with BC Salmon, Alberta beef and BC wines accompanied by white linen and fresh flowers. On-board attendants speak English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin, and give passengers plenty of notice when the train is about to slow for key photo ops. Guests carry detailed maps and follow the line’s history with the Rocky Mountaineer newspaper.

The two-day journey travels 918 miles through the UNESCO Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site, which is Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, then Banff and Jasper. The average pace is 75 k/hr and passengers do not disembark, but they can gape away at bears, bighorn sheep, moose, deer and elk. Along the way, they take in seven mountain ranges, plus tons of bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, canyons, lakes and rivers. And in the middle, they spend the night in Kamloops, where they have the option of attending the RMR-owned Two River Junction Dinner & Musical Review.

The cost of the trip depends on passenger choices. The minimum is $499 for Red Leaf, $999 for Gold Leaf (the split of choice is 50/50). When people order and book directly from the RMR brochure, they can spend up to $6000 per person; the average is $1300. But if they want to rent a car and drive back from Calgary, or head back to Vancouver via limousine, then stay at the Four Seasons before spending a week at Whistler, it can all be booked as an RMR custom tour and the sky’s the limit.

rocky6RMR houses a group travel department that arranges customized itineraries for groups—in the incentive and leisure travel sectors, plus the pre- and post-conference sector (many companies have their conferences right on the train).

Outside North America, RMR has sales reps in 18 countries, plus five sales managers who work out of the Vancouver office but travel the world making sure that tour operators, travel wholesalers and travel agencies are aware of the company’s offerings. The company supports the European market through a London office, PR firms are active in Los Angeles and London, and the company works very hard at maintaining a positive relationship with the international media.

As RMR’s VP Marketing, Graham Gilley, explains: “Our PR people pitch the international media with many different editorial angles. In 2001, we hosted 75 groups of media—we want those photographers and cameramen on board. We’ve been on Chef at Large, on the BCC, on CNN’s Hot Spots. And we work very closely with Tourism BC, Tourism Vancouver and Travel Alberta to get the most out of the media and make sure that Rocky Mountaineer is part of the story.”

This coverage not only helps sales, but it has helped the company build an excellent reputation. Its trade-marked slogan ‘The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World’ was actually a comment made by former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark. Rocky Mountaineer is only one of seven rail journeys to twice make the 20 Best Rail Experiences list issued by the prestigious International Railway Traveler magazine. In 1998, it was voted Best Attraction by the North American Association of Travel Writers. Fodor’s listed RMR’s winter tours on its list of Top-Ten Most Overlooked & Under-Rated Winter Tours.

This sort of thing goes over very well with the RMR market, which is people 55+, mostly couples and empty-nesters who can afford to be discriminating. About 40% come from the US; 25% from Britain, 20% from other parts of Canada, the rest from Europe, Asia and Australia.

rocky1“People come to Canada because they want to see its natural beauty,” says Gilley. “We’re the centrepiece of that Canadian vacation and a big draw to Western Canada. For train buffs, the fact that passengers have their own train [no cargo attached] is a big deal, but only about 15% of our guests have a real interest in trains.”

There are two groups of customers: tour operators and FITs, or Fully Independent Travelers, who either call to book directly, or ask their travel agents to book.

The Internet is a big part of the marketing effort. RMR has three sites: rockymountaineer.com, which has been up for four years; winterrailtours.com and spectacularmeetings.com have been up for two years. Gilley notes that rockymountaineer.com receives 2,500 unique visits every day, making it one of the most visited of Canadian travel sites. The sites are extremely thorough, offering detailed information packages, streamed video and 360-degree Ipix tours, plus scheduling and pricing information. But you can’t book on-line. You have to call.

When someone has chosen his trip from the website, he calls the 800 number; in Vancouver, there there’s a 24/7, 24-operator call centre that fields 1000 calls a day. The call is answered by a well-trained RMR salesperson, who starts with the caller’s immediate choice, then helps with the ‘vacation design’, then books it all. RMR has strategic alliances with Hertz, Laidlaw Motor Coaches and Fairmont Hotels, so the up-sell angle is very important. But it’s a win-win situation. With one phone call, RMR makes a profit, the consumer gets a fabulous, custom-designed vacation. And the one-stop-shop approach makes life easier, and costs lower, for travel agents.

There’s another, equally important kind of caller. Those are people who want the all-important, 56-page RMR brochure, 800,000 of which are distributed every year. The brochure is an even more important planning tool than the Internet information and is most likely to lead to the booking.

While the sales managers and overseas agents take care of their areas, in North America, advertising encourages people to make that call. A print campaign targets the FITs from January to June, with ads in Readers Digest, Canadian Living, Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian and regional lifestyle magazines. Gilley says that newspaper and radio ads do not work for RMR. “We’ve tested radio; we went heavily into newspaper three years ago, but we weren’t pleased about getting stuck in the clutter of seat-sale ads. We don’t sell on price point—we’re an experience and that’s difficult to communicate with newspaper and radio. We’re a very visual product and need to be seen in full-colour.”

rocky4Gilley’s print advertising budget is around $850,000. Aside from bringing in those phone calls, the advertising provides very strong brand awareness. The ads tell people to call their travel agents, or the 800 number. This helps to drive business to the travel agents, who are also very important to RMR’s success.

“We support travel agents very strongly,” says Gilley. “It’s important that people deal with travel specialists. We’re happy to take bookings over the phone, but we don’t want to cut off the travel companies—about 60% of our business comes from travel agents. And unlike other travel-industry companies, we have not cut or capped commission rates.

“This business is similar to any manufacturing business. We design and manufacture the product. We sell it to the wholesaler, who sells to the retailer, who sells to the consumer. And then we have to secure distribution to get our product on the shelf. We have to build relationships, maintain them, and build new ones.

rocky7“That’s how we get listings and co-op deals for promotions and marketing. We forge relationships by having a unique product which complements what those in the travel business are trying to do with their companies. It has to be worth their while. We’ve made it worth their while by gaining the reputation of providing a superior product—whether it’s the end product or part of a package. We have excellent worldwide distribution—since September, we’ve gained 10 new American tour operators who previously weren’t selling Canada. We already deal with most of the large operators, but we like to have distributors of all sizes.”

Gilley joined RMR in 1997. At that time, the company’s marketing was very much grass-roots. There was no database, no print advertising. And the marketing budget was only 2%.Well, now the marketing budget is only 4%.

“It’s not a large budget, but that’s the nature of this business,” explains Gilley. This is a very labour- and capital-intensive business. To make a train move 10 feet, it takes literally every employee we have—350 people in sales, operations, reservations, guest services, maintenance. That’s why there’s a tremendous reliance on the travel and tourism network.”

RMR has come a long way, however. Its marketing strategy was set up in four stages, with each stage taking one year to implement and all four eventually running concurrently. The four stages are Response, Anticipation, Experience and Referral.

Gilley explains: “Response involved retaining an advertising agency [Vancouver’s Bryant Fulton & Shee], then ensuring that our brand was in place, and that our ads were ready to go, so we had a way of generating response from potential guests. And we provided our PR people with the messages required to generate exposure for the brand.

“Phase two was Anticipation. The best part of any trip is the anticipation of it—the ability to say ‘I’m going on this vacation and this is what I’m going to do’. If we wanted people to say ‘I’m going on an incredible rail tour in an awesome part of the world’, we needed to capture those elements in our materials. So we re-did our letterhead, our corporate identity, our brochures, vouchers, itineraries, travel guides—everything down to the travel wallets. We built a presence in the hotels and started to get into response marketing.

“The Experience component begins when you arrive at the train station to board. We created a product department which is a group of people dedicated to designing itineraries and improving the on-board experience. We own 28 motor coaches, so we branded those and changed the colour of our trains—to red, white, blue and gold. And we looked at all our souvenirs, to make sure that there was consistent branding and delivery throughout.

rocky3“That leads to the Referral stage. This is very important, as 26% of our guests are referred by friends and relatives. This is why service is such an important element in the branding of Rocky Mountaineer. It has always worked without prompting, but we decided to formalize that relationship and make our clients our ambassadors. So if they want to refer a friend or relative, we’ll send personalized referral materials. And this year, we gave all of our guests a three-minute commemorative video to take home and show their friends and relatives.”

RMR also sells full-length souvenir videos for $18.95. Gilley wouldn’t give any precise figures relating to profits, but did note that annual souvenir sales are well over $1 million.

In 1999, RMR started conducting direct response campaigns, all of which have been very successful. Last fall, it spent $37,000 on mailing a win-a-trip package to 20,000 people who had previously requested brochures. The result was 203 bookings, 511 guests and $1 million in sales. Another campaign was simply a questionnaire sent to 20,000 US households; it received 13% response.

The company does some market research, though not much. Focus groups are the communication check for creative and there has been telephone research. But the best research is done on the trains. Four hours before the end of each trip, guests are given reply cards. They have the time and the motivation to fill them out, and about 32,000 cards are received each year. The cards are checked every two weeks; if adjustments are indicated, they are immediately made.

“This is the best way to know how we’re doing,” continues Gilley. “But it also allows us to build relationships with our customers. We employ three people who do nothing but look after responses to guest comments. If someone says his coffee was cold, we send him a letter. If someone says that he wanted to buy a sweatshirt and they were all gone, we’ll send him a letter. If there’s something a little more serious, we’ll send an appropriate refund. We send out 10,000 personal letters annually in response to comments. rocky2

“Our market is people who are older—they love to be communicated with. They’re not used to getting acknowledgements of their comments from travel companies. So this practice, in addition to creating referrals, creates lots of goodwill and improves their overall experience. We aim to please and the follow-up makes the entire Rocky Mountaineer experience that much more satisfying.”

 

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Cross-Burning, Cross-Border Oil & Celebrating Cruelty: A Bad Week for PR

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

In the last week, not once but three times, I’ve been gob-smacked. Dumbstruck. By PR disasters that leave me wondering what, if anything, public relations professionals are being taught. And, if they have any brains at all, why they’re not using them.

The first time was when I heard/watched BC Member of Parliament Hedy Fry tell fellow MPs, and the nation, that the practice of cross-burning was prevalent in Prince George, BC. (We now know that Fry invented the story and has trashed her career. Only her psychiatrist knows why.)

bush2The baffled Prince George mayor speculated that Fry might be thinking of another city (there’s a Prince George in Virginia). The region’s bemused RCMP boss suggested that, if someone was burning crosses, he would probably have heard about it.

The next instance of gob-smacking was care of George Bush. We know the guy’s an idiot, but I think everyone was kind of hoping that he could maybe tiptoe through the next four years with minimal damage and embarrassment. Alas…

Just after the Fry outburst, Dubya declared that a) he’s not interested in environmental protection and b) to solve the problem arising from the fact that America’s population has overwhelmed its resources, he’ll tap into the Northwest Territories’ oil and gas reserves. Oh?

It would be career suicide for any Canadian politician to agree to such a thing. So the issue will drag out for many years. By then, cars will run on electricity or compressed air (if there’s any air left) and Dubya will be a  bad memory. Still, the oil companies could send him up to negotiate with environmental groups and Canada’s aboriginal peoples. That would keep him busy, in a nice cool climate, for, oh, ten years or so.

bush1Not one day after Dubya left me speechless, I was gob-smacked again, when a local announcement had me, once again, saying ‘What the…?’ to my television.

The Vancouver Aquarium is no longer allowed to take whales from the wild. It can, however, capture dolphins. While this issue is being debated, the facility evidently though it needed some light-hearted PR. It launched a campaign celebrating its ‘Golden Girls’. In particular, one whale that has been in captivity for 30 years. Yippee.

Picture a baby girl. Your daughter, niece, sister. Snatched from her cradle and family. Caged. Taught to perform ridiculous tricks to amuse paying tourists. She matures in public, mates in public. When she produces a child, the birth is televised, people cheer, ‘Baby dies, but never mind. On her 30th birthday, her captors call her a Golden Girl and urge everyone to celebrate—and people teach their children that all of this is a good thing.

 

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(And no, the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is not important for education—it’s a cruel hold-over from the Victorian Era. National Geographic videos, which can be bought, rented or borrowed, are way more educational.)

Massive PR gaffs, yes. But it must be remembered that, behind these gaffs, are people who are paid rather a lot of money to make sure that PR gaffs don’t happen. Public relations professionals are supposed to ‘control the message’, guide their clients, tell them what to say and, especially, what not to say. If they can’t control their clients, they’re at least supposed to make an effort. They don’t appear to be making much of an effort, not lately anyway.

bush4Whoever handles Hedy Fry should change careers. Whoever handles Bush should tighten his grip. And the aquarium’s PR people should focus on repositioning it as a strictly heal-and-release facility.

PR and publicity advisors should stop assuming that audiences are stupid. Some people may be too stunned to response immediately. Words and actions, little blurbs read, may not be reacted to, but they are stored away, perhaps sub-consciously. Eventually—often at election time, those memories will surface.