Business

Beer and bad French

How a very Anglo brewer has talked his way into the tough Quebec market

BENOIT AUBIN September 17 2001
Business

Beer and bad French

How a very Anglo brewer has talked his way into the tough Quebec market

BENOIT AUBIN September 17 2001

Beer and bad French

Business

How a very Anglo brewer has talked his way into the tough Quebec market

BENOIT AUBIN

Selling coolers in Nunavut would surely be easier than this: cracking the crowded, discriminating and fiercely chauvinistic Quebec market with a new beer, brewed in Ontario, and carrying a maple leaf and a beaver on its bottles. Yet the Sleeman Brewing & Malting Co. of Guelph, Ont., has done just that—with heady success.

Sleeman, already well-known to Ontarians and other Canadians for its traditional-style cream ale, tiptoed into the Quebec market seven years ago. In no time, the new beer—sold in distinctive, clear-glass bottles—pulled the rug out from under the local microbreweries. It has carved a niche for itself in the fastgrowing premium-beer market, and has forced the majors, Molson Canada and Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd., to declare war.

Today, company chairman and CEO John Sleeman is a household name and a minor media celebrity among francophone beer drinkers. And the Sleeman botdes can be seen dancing among the Coronas, Heinekens, Belle Gueules and Boréales on the tables of trendy restaurants and bars. Sleeman has cachet in Quebec: to be seen ordering one in the café-terraces of the Grande Allée in Quebec City is cool.

The Sleeman phenomenon flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about anti-Canadian or anti-English attitudes being rampant in Quebec. It also goes against the grain of the thinly veiled contempt many Quebecers like to entertain about the drinking, feeding or dressing habits of English-Canadians. “I guess it shows Quebecers just don’t mix their beer and their politics,” says John Sleeman.

For the Sleeman brewery, the foray into Quebec has translated into sales of 1.4 million 24-bottle cases annually. That represents a two-per-cent share of the Quebec market, Canada’s largest on a quaffs per

capita basis (excluding the Yukon), and 25 per cent of the brewery’s total business nationwide. “We had a choice to expand either into the U.S. or in Quebec,” says Peter Amirault, managing director at Sleeman in Guelph. “Quebec is a challenge, an interesting market. It is often ahead of the rest of the country in terms of fashion, of trying new things.”

So how did Sleeman overcome its maple-leaf-Canadian handicap, and break into the francophone market?

By having the company chairman learn to speak some French—badly.

Luck, good timing and hiring Diesel Marketing Inc., an up-and-coming Montreal advertising agency, to design an unconventional marketing strategy helped, too. The campaign shunned the usual party-animal TV beer commercials. It chose radio and billboards as its working vehicles instead. Diesel also established John Sleeman as the sole spokesman for the product. In atrocious French, bordering on caricature, the chairman says, in a nutshell: my beer is better than my French.

For the past five years, all radio messages have opened with the same line: “Bonn-joor, ee-see John Sleeman. ...” Lately, though, he has dropped his family name. John is now on a first-name basis with Quebec

beer drinkers, without having ever appeared on TV or billboards. “Humility was the key,” says François Lacoursière, who runs the Sleeman account at Diesel. “An anglophone who tries to speak French is instantly welcome as one of the folks, if only for trying.” Then you add in the latest slang among young beer drinkers. “If he can master a bit of the patois,” says Lacoursière, “the sympathy effect is multiplied exponentially.”

At first, John Sleeman was reading French scripts he did not understand. But he has been taking private, weekly French lessons for some time, and his handlers now say he might have to unlearn some of the language to preserve his initial ineptness. Sleeman demurs: “I don’t think I’ll ever get that good.”

So, John, the funny Anglo who says drinking his beer can make you feel “gorlot” (tipsy), is moving product faster, he maintains, than Unibroue and Les Brasseurs du Nord, whose Blanche de Chambly, Maudite and Boréale brands were launched wrapped in a thick blanket of Québécois folkloric heritage. Go figure.

As might be expected, the Quebec beer market is quite distinct from that of the rest of the country—technically as well as culturally. “Quebec drinkers have long

favoured ales over lagers, contrary to everywhere else in Canada,” says Louis Fortier, a former executive with Labatt and now a marketing specialist in Montreal. And in Quebec, the retail beer business is mosdy private. There are close to 10,000 retail oudets, compared with some 700 government liquor stores and 433 brewer-owned Beer Stores in Ontario. Quebec convenience stores are allowed to sell beer up to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Such an open market favours the majors, who have the muscle and the manpower in their mar-

keting and distribution departments to wage the batde of the trenches, vying for exclusivity in bars and for shelf space in groceries and convenience stores. “The market here is saturated and aging rapidly,” says Fortier. “Any growth will come at the expense of the other guy, not thanks to expansion. That creates tremendous competitive pressures. It is very rough playing out there.”

Add to that the minefield of cultural and political sensitivities, and its a very complex game. “Brand names seldom get

translated to sell in Quebec,” Fortier says. “Breeze did not become La Brise, and Tide did not become La Marée to sell here.” But Labatt’s Blue brand became La Labatt Bleue in Quebec. It also lost its red maple leaf, replaced by a stack of wheat shoots— and became a best-seller.

The microbreweries, which blossomed in Quebec in the early ’90s, unwittingly created the opportunity for Sleeman to move in and steal some of their customers. “The micros created a strong polarization between the old and the new beer experience,” says Diesel’s Lacoursière. “Sleeman moved right in between the two.” Eric Vincent, a Sleeman brand manager in Montreal, says the brand took off “amazingly fast in 1996 and the following years. Our growth rate was in the three figures.”

Then, the big players moved into the new, upmarket niche that Sleeman had created. Molson started distributing Corona, the Mexican beer also sold in a clear bottle, and Holland’s Heineken. Labatt brought in its Belgian sister label, Stella Artois, and Alexander Keith’s, brewed in the Maritimes. The premiumbeer market expanded rapidly—to 10 per cent of the total sales of 70 million cases annually in the province. But Sleemans fast expansion was slowed with proportional brutality.

Sleeman has replied with a major advertising campaign that is currently running —on television, this time, as well as on billboards. John Sleeman is still unseen— only his voice is heard. “We switched to TV because that is how you reach the mainstream market,” says Lacoursière. “Showing your beer on TV suggests your product is available everywhere, that it is not just a specialty product anymore.” Sleeman has acquired a small brewery near Montreal, and has 100 employees in Quebec. The next step, John Sleeman says, will be to build a bigger brewery in the province in the near future.

Watching Sleeman attack the mainstream beer market in Quebec, Louis Fortier says: “They are not the first small brewery from Ontario to pull it off. Labatt moved in from Ontario a mere 50 years ago. What is a major? It is a successful former microbrewery.” As they say in Quebec taverns: Cheers. CS