History of Beer: The Rise of National Brands

Written by Matthew Bellamy

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of national brands, as the nation’s biggest brewers aggressively promoted their flagship beers from coast to coast. Across the nation, Canadians were drinking more beer than ever before. In part, the increase in consumption was due to the post-war economic boom and rising real incomes, which gave Canadians more disposable revenue to spend on things like beer.

For the first time in Canadian history, a large majority of the population had the disposable income necessary to participate in consumer pleasures, including consuming a lot more beer. More Canadians were able to afford better housing, sometimes in new suburbs, with more amenities like refrigerators, where the beer could be stored until it was time to share it with family and friends. As the eight-hour day, five-day week, and paid vacations were nailed down in union contracts, Canadians gained the leisure time that could be spent enjoying a drink.

Attitudes towards drinking were also changing. In 1948 the board of directors at Labatt received a ‘strictly confidential’ report on the ‘new trends’ in the dry campaigns. The report noted that prohibitionism was, by-and-large, a spent force.

The old-line professionals who have made a career of alcoholic crusading” the report noted, “will continue to be active and vocal – among the major reasons because only by such activity can they continue to raise the funds to pay their own salaries.” Nevertheless, the report confidently concluded the prohibitionists were now preaching to only a small congregation of the converted and, “their influence, even with church groups, has been lessening.

Always sensitive to the will of the people, the government made it easier for the people to drink. The number of places that one could grab a beer steadily increased as liquor licenses were granted to cocktail lounges, restaurants, and beverage rooms for men and women, railway club cars and dining cars as well as private clubs. But despite the somewhat more pleasant atmosphere of these post-war public drinking places, by the 1950s more drinking was taking place at home. It all added up to more beer being consumed in more places and by more people.

The nation’s biggest brewers were eager to make sure that it was their beer that Canadians were consuming. As a result, they dedicated more of their resources to promoting their products. It was not always easy to get their message out because all advertising had to conform to provincial liquor control board standards, which could range from controls on the size and content of the advertisement to outright bans.

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It was not always easy to get their message out because all advertising had to conform to provincial liquor control board standards, which could range from controls on the size and content of the advertisement to outright bans.

Gone were the old-style giveaways of calendars, beer trays, and other promotional items. In most provinces, brewers were not allowed to advertise their products on signs or billboards, and they also could not promote them on the radio. After television hit the Canadian scene in the late 1940s, the federal government, as well as each of the provinces, prohibited brewers from running TV commercials. And even after these regulations were relaxed in 1955, the commercials could not feature a person drinking, or a beer bottle, or a glass of beer. The ad could, however, feature a beer’s disembodied label, so long as it was entirely separate from the actions of the preceding commercial.

Despite the restrictive advertising environment, loopholes existed that were exploited by innovative brewers who had the capital. For instance, Labatt, Molson and Canadian Breweries Limited promoted their brands in magazines like Maclean’s and Saturday Night that were published in Quebec – where the restrictions on beer advertising were far more slack – but sold across the country.

As a result, Canadians came to know the brands of the ‘big three’ before a truly national market for those brands existed. Likewise, Canadian brewers ran ads in the United States, where brewers had freer range to advertise their products, knowing full well that the US magazines and television shows would be seen by a large Canadian audience. The actions of the ‘big three’ frustrated regulatory bodies, who complained that they could control only the forms and context of advertising generated within particular provinces while the newsstands and airwaves were full of material sent in from the United States.

The fact that the ‘big three’ were able to find ways around the restrictions on advertising led to the rise of national brands. In March of 1950, Labatt introduced a new lighter tasting India Pale Ale that was named Anniversary Ale, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of John and Hugh Labatt’s first formal association with the company in 1900.

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Labatt introduced a new lighter tasting India Pale Ale that was named Anniversary Ale, in recognition of the 50th anniversary…

The name was subsequently abbreviated to ‘Fifty’ in English Canada and ‘Cinquante’ in Quebec. In advertisements that appeared in the national press, ‘50’ was billed as “the lightest and smoothest of all ales.” It quickly became Labatt’s best selling beer in Quebec.

In Ontario, however, ‘50’ was less popular. In an effort to increase the public’s appetite for the brand, a young marketing mastermind by the name of Joe Varnell suggested running advertisements on the Buffalo television station WBEN. Varnell knew that Canadians living in Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara Falls would see the commercials. At a time when price competition was largely absent from the Canadian brewing industry, a brewer’s best weapon was often brand advertising.

Not to be outdone, in 1954 Molson introduced Golden Ale, which was marketed and distributed nationally. The new brew was designed to capitalize on the growing demand for lighter tasting beers. In advertisements, Molson’s mascot, Goldie the Lion, proclaimed that nothing had been “left to chance” in developing Molson Golden. Taste tests and market research had led Molson to make an ale that, “was as light as a feather, yet alive with all the zest of a traditional brew.

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Not to be outdone, in 1954 Molson introduced Golden Ale, which was marketed and distributed nationally.

Despite the growing popularity of lighter beers, the big three were not about to abandon traditional beer drinkers. Molson continued to manufacture Export, Canadian Breweries Limited continued to produce Dow Ale and Labatt continued to make its India Pale Ale.

These heavier brews were marketed as “real ales for real men.” The advertisements of the big three often tapped into post-war notions of masculinity. The ale drinker was portrayed as a rugged individual who knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was decidedly different than what a woman wanted.

What you like in an ale and what a woman likes are not necessarily the same,” a Labatt’s IPA ad proclaimed, “so if you are looking for a man’s drink with plenty of old-time flavour – hearty, zestful and satisfying – switch now to Labatt’s India Pale Ale.

Other ads portrayed beer drinking as a reward from some challenge that had been met and overcome — be it a hard day of work, or a tough game of sports.

Whatever the message, beer ads became ubiquitous during the 1950s. Beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers alike knew the catchphrases of the ads of the ‘big three’: “Get with a Golden Ale,” or, “Wouldn’t a Dow Go Good Now?” or, “Take Five for Fifty Ale.” As a result, national brands were born and beer ads became part of our popular culture.