John Labatt Jr. took over the family business when his father died in 1866. To promote the quality of its products, Labatt devoted its marketing efforts to international expositions and fairs. In 1876, Labatt won the silver medal at the Dominion of Canada Exposition in Ottawa, Ontario, for its India Pale Ale. For the next 35 years, India Pale Ale claimed prizes at worldwide competitions and was the first of many Labatt beers to gain international recognition.
Early in its history, Labatt's advertising consisted of little more than posters for local bars. Bar advertising was important since home consumption of beer was not widespread in Canada in the late 19th century. Early newspaper ads touted the wholesome properties of Labatt's beer.
Although Labatt faced significant challenges in the U.S. from 1919 to 1933 under Prohibition, the brewery survived as one of only 15 in Canada. Since the advertising of alcoholic beverages was severely restricted during this period, Labatt looked for other ways to build ties with its markets. It supported community service programs such as the Labatt's Highway Courtesy Program as well as a number of social causes, allowing the brewer to strengthen its ties with the public and maintain healthy product sales.
During the 1920s and '30s, provincial liquor laws prevented companies from advertising specific brands. Labatt's communication strategy at this time focused on its community involvement; its ads highlighted ways in which it supported causes that helped the national welfare, such as its disaster relief efforts for flood victims.
In 1934, Hugh MacKenzie emerged as an important figure in the company's history—first as comptroller, then as sales manager and later as general manager.
Mr. MacKenzie led Labatt out of the Depression, through World War II and into a period of rapid expansion. Meanwhile, Labatt bolstered sales through sponsorship of popular radio shows in the province of Quebec and in Buffalo, N.Y. The marketer also founded its own advertising department and produced its first color magazine ads at that time.
In 1945, Labatt became publicly traded. Throughout the 1950s, the company acquired a number of other breweries and introduced two classic Canadian beers—Fiftieth Anniversary Ale, later named "50," and it's a pilsner lager, Blue.
During the 1950s and '60s, Labatt's ad strategy shifted to focus on the product and its taste. When the brewer hired J. Walter Thompson Co. and started advertising on TV in the late 1960s, it began to associate its product with the lifestyle images of its target audience.
Throughout its history, Labatt was an innovator in terms of both its products and its advertising. It was the first Canadian brewer to introduce a light beer and the first to form an international licensing agreement with a major U.S. brewery. Labatt also revolutionized beer packaging with the introduction of the first twist-off cap on a refillable bottle, and it created a whole new brewing technology with the introduction of its trademarked Ice Brewing process.
No. 1 in Canada: Blue
Labatt Blue was originally branded Pilsener lager, but consumers began calling it "Blue" because of the color of the label and Labatt's support of the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg franchise, the Blue Bombers. During the 1960s and '70s, Labatt concentrated on developing its Blue brand nationally and turned to TV to build its market share. In 1979, Blue became Canada's No. 1 beer brand.
Blue has been the focus of some of Labatt's most successful marketing campaigns. Labatt's use of memorable music became a hallmark of its advertising strategy in the 1960s. Many Canadians hummed the tune "When You're Smiling," which Labatt used as a theme in Blue spots.
Despite its long experience, Labatt made some mistakes. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, it tried a variety of positioning strategies for Blue; those constant changes in focus contributed to a muddled image for the brewer's flagship beer. After researching its young, primarily male target, Labatt repositioned the brand using its new theme "Out of the Blue," which captured the target market's desire for spontaneity while associating fun with the brand name. Blue's share rose from 10% to more than 12% in 1998.
Labatt began to use sports to promote its core brands in the 1950s. Its sponsorship efforts have ranged from support for the Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, in 1988 to support of such grassroots sports activities as local slo-pitch tournaments and curling and fishing derbies.
In 1997, it formed a partnership with the National Hockey League and began to sponsor Saturday night game telecasts. It also sponsors the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association. In addition, Labatt has been the sponsor of National Football League telecasts in Canada since 1986.
In 2003, Labatt brought media planning in-house; M2 Universal, an Interpublic unit, handled Labatt's media buying. Earlier, the brewery brought creative in-house.