Tim McLaughlin, Steam Whistle Brand Manager Interviewed

Aug. 1 2013 – Canadians love their beer and why wouldn’t we given that the oldest brewery in North America is Molson Breweries in Montreal  which has been brewing on-site since 1786. Since then, a kaleidoscope of seismic shifts in Canadian culture, consciousness and consumption  have seeped into all facets of society including the beer industry. Gone are the days when the two party system, Labatt Brewing and Molson Canada were the only game in town. Today, a flourish of micro-breweries dotting the Canadian landscape have introduced a sophistication and gravitas to an industry with organic lagers, re-engineered pilsners, GMO-free offerings and much much more.

“Do One Thing And Do it Well” is Steam Whistle’s motto. And nowhere was this best exemplified than winning the 2012 GOLD MEDAL at the Canadian Brewing Awards, in the European Style Lager (Pilsner) category. The ability to maintain situational awareness of your industry and your brand is comfortably in the capable hands of Tim McLaughlin, Brand Manager of Steam Whistle BrewingTMAK World sits down for a Q+A with this busy Brand Manager and festival organizer in the run up to the Second Annual Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival.

Tim, thank you for making time to talk shop.

Steam Whistle  (SW) is well into the summer beer season and the Second Annual Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival is coming up fast.  With so many beer festivals in Ontario what was the rationale for Steam Whistle to throw their hat into this ring, and from a Brand Manager perspective, how do you view this in the ongoing evolution of the  brand ?   

The Roundhouse Craft  Beer Festival is something we have wanted to get off the ground for a very long time. We are so lucky to be located in the heart of a fantastic park in downtown Toronto, it was always our dream to invite our fellow craft breweries down for a festival celebrating all of the great beers this province has to offer. Although there are many craft beer festivals in Ontario, there was a bit of a void in the market for a weekend long craft beer focused festival, we saw this as a great opportunity. We have always felt the more we can do to promote the craft beer segment in general, the better off Steam Whistle will be.

With the Ontario craft beers industry now comfortably established, what is Steam Whistle’s current brand saturation point in Ontario, and as the Brand Manager what are your next steps in growing the brand ?

Tim McLaughlin: Although we aren’t the biggest craft brewery in Ontario we are the largest single craft brewery craft brand in the province. Our share still represents less than 1% of the market, but we continue to see good growth. We certainly see ourselves as champions of the craft beer industry, we feel the more we can educate consumers about great beer the more they will turn to Steam Whistle. Continuing to draw consumers at large into the craft segment that still only represents about 3% of all the beer sold in this province is a huge opportunity for Steam Whistle. 

Looking farther afield, Tim, are you able to discuss your national strategy on growing the brand ?

TM: We are not in a huge rush to expand geographically. There are breweries out there that are smaller than us that are national in scope, but our strategy is to only enter a new market when we feel that demand is there and that we can service it with the resources we feel it deserves. Ideally that means transplanting someone who has worked here in Toronto at the Roundhouse and knows our brand intimately. The converse strategy would be to work with an agent that represents a portfolio of brands, we believe having one of our own staff with feet on the ground in the market helps build our brand for long term success. Steam Whistle has been in Alberta for around 7 years, BC for 4 and we entered Manitoba and Saskatchewan last year. We will continue to look at expanding into other provinces, but have no firm plans. 

SW has done a remarkable job since its inception in 1998 of tapping into the nostalgia around craft beer culture that threads right through your branding which has resonated with consumers.  What was the rationale behind this messaging  from a branding perspective and how do you evolve the messages in light of a world that is rapidly increasing in technology ?     

TM: At Steam Whistle, we love taking the best of the past and making it current. We love honoring an era of honesty, integrity and a time when things were built to last. There is definitely a retro element to our brand, but it is framed in the context of our current times. Take our brewing process, we use a time honored traditional method for producing our pilsner but we commissioned a state of the art brew house from the Czech Republic to help us do this. So for us we love incorporating retro charm into our brand but doing it in a way that makes it feel contemporary.

Part of your messaging revolves around SW’s Green Initiative. Would you consider this one of the corner stones of the brand, and if so why ? 

TM: Our Green Initiatives are definitely a Corner Stone of our brand. We are 100% committed to being stewards of the environment and reducing our footprint in every aspect of our operations. I think it is something our consumers expect of us at this point, and we are always striving to be better at. Not only do we focus on sustainability from an internal perspective it is also something we focus on from a sponsorship standpoint. We are always looking to support similarly minded organizations that have a sustainable philosophy.

Tim, one key differentiator is the unique packaging which stands in stark contrast to your competitors.  Why the neon green ?

TM: We chose green because it is highly recognizable and it was a colour we felt we could differentiate ourselves from our competition.

In the pantheon of beer types, why did SW decide to craft a Pilsner style beer as their signature offering ?

TM: When Steam Whistle opened imported pilsners like Heineken, Becks, Stella Artois were really doing good things in the marketplace, and we realized that there was no quality local alternative. Even now when you look at the craft beer landscape pilsners are still fairly underrepresented, with IPAs, Pale Ale’s and other high hopped styles accounting for most of the offerings. We thought making a crisp clean Pilsner that was easy drinking was a good choice.

With the established success of your signature all-natural Steam Whistle beer, can consumers expect to see the introduction of a new SW beer(s) on the horizon?

TM: Never. We truly take our slogan “Do one thing really, really well” to heart

Canadians can be a fickle lot when it comes to their beer preferences, and the wealth of artisan, national and international offerings makes it increasingly difficult as a Brand Manager to trumpet your brand. How is SW cutting through the  noise and getting their message across in such a competitive market place ?

TM: We have always tried to chart our own path and come up with unique and innovative ways to promote our brand. Whether that is our vintage vehicles or our independent concert series Steam Whistle Unsigned we try and work on marketing initiatives that set us apart. We are also fortunate to have great marketing tools like our brewery which we affectionately call “The Cathedral of Beer” that we can use to help share our story with consumers. We are  also very active in grassroots sponsorship which we feel provides a great opportunity to give potential customers a great experience with our product.  

The utterly savvy SW Brewing TV Commercial (Preview) makes a great play on the train whistle metaphor.  Why have I not seen more commercials like this to help drive the brand ?

TM: The truth is we can’t take a lot of credit for that ad as it was made on spec for us by Sharpe Blackmore. They asked us to run a small campaign with it so that they could submit it for some awards, so we obliged. We do love that ad, but we don’t have any concrete plans to become very active in television advertising. We also were very lucky to be featured in a CGA ad that had significant air time on some major networks.

Lately, there have been a series of high profile miss-steps by professional athletes who have run afoul within their respective sports tarnishing their team and by extension their sport. As a Brand Manager, how will SW try to alleviate these concerns if and when you partner with a sports team?

TM: We actually aren’t that active in terms of sports sponsorships, we have always focused more on the arts community when identifying partnership opportunities. We love supporting artists and I think we have carved ourselves out a niche as the beer of the arts. When we do get involved in sports sponsorships it is typically at the amateur level where those problems are less of an issue.  

To close, where do you see the future of the micro-brewery industry in Canada and how will SW position itself to be at the forefront of this industry?

TM: The craft beer industry is on fire right now and we hope to continue to benefit from consumers increasingly choosing great craft beers. Overall we will continue doing what we do, having fun making great craft beer and I think that will position us well in consumers minds.

Thanks to Tim McLaughlin for the interview.

The Second Annual Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival takes place August 10th  + 11th  from Noon to 7pm @ Roundhouse Park.

Interview by John Dash.

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