Coastal beer wars: Keith’s vs. Kokanee

23, Jul. 2009

As seen in Strategy Magazine, July 2009, by Jonathon Paul.

Summer’s back and so is our annual edition of beer wars. Reminiscent of the hip hop wars between Tupac and Biggie, this year’s matchup has the East Coast throwin’ down against the West Coast. It’s Keith’s versus Kokanee and here to break down this battle of the nationally-available brews is Justin Kingsley, VP special operations at Montreal-based Bleublancrouge and Sharon MacLeod, brand building director, Dove and skin care at Toronto-based Unilever Canada.

From the Westside: Kokanee

Ding dong, the Ranger’s dead. That’s the reality Kokanee had to face when it was developing a response to last year’s “Ranger Live or Die” effort. How fitting that the new positioning focuses on living in the moment and enjoying life to the fullest – an attitude that consumer insight told the brand was a key component to the active western Canadian lifestyle.

“We developed it absolutely with our target consumer in mind,” explains Richard Fortin, national marketing manager for Kokanee. “Kokanee’s a brand that’s adventurous, lively, youthful, exciting, from B.C.’s mountains, and ‘It’s all About Now,’ brings that to life.”

The new push is delivered with a 30-second TV spot (airing only in Western Canada) also appearing in cinemas, online ads including 15-second video pre-roll and a redesigned website, The creative by Toronto-based Grip is an idealized, visceral depiction of the western Canadian lifestyle, shot from the viewer’s POV.

Kokanee also updated its packaging with help from Kokanee drinkers and beer enthusiasts who had their say via Facebook. Three shortlisted options were put up on the brand’s fan page and elements from the resulting fan feedback were incorporated into the final design.

From the Eastside: Alexander Keith’s

Keith’s newest campaign has the brand doing something different, leaving behind the Maritime Man and the talking bust, to get back to consumer insight basics. Determining that authenticity is what’s relevant to consumers these days, and borrowing from the idea that Alexander Keith held true to his beliefs when it came to brewing beer, Keith’s came up with its new “Hold True” positioning.

“We’re not so focused on getting the laughs as we are with generating the emotional bond with the consumer,” explains Jamie Humphries, marketing director for Alexander Keith’s. “And I think on that level this campaign is working the hardest.”

The creative, which was developed by Toronto-based Publicis, is centred on two 15-second TV spots that focus on gents who’d rather stay true to themselves through simple choices like refusing to pop their collar in an attempt to look cool or acting like “Mr. Popular” by talking on their cell phones at the pub.

On top of online video, static ads and cinema spots, this new Keith’s effort includes a refreshed, more contemporary look to its packaging that still holds true to the brand’s heritage. was also redesigned to reflect the new packaging and positioning while focusing more on the story of Alexander Keith and the variety of Keith’s beers.

OVERALL STRATEGY – Keith’s vs. Kokanee

Kingsley: The problem is that these campaigns are less Biggie Smalls against Tupac and rather MC Hammer going up against Young MC. Kokanee, for example, doesn’t give the West Coast feel it promises. It delivers party, bikini and extreme sports for a very, very, very cooooold beer, which makes it very Coors Light. Keith’s on the other hand, while not introducing anything earth shattering with its work, stays true to, well, staying true.

MacLeod: There is nothing more authentic than the Maritimes – the Keith’s strategy fits for this down home beer. And if the target gets even an inauthentic whiff from a friend, he calls BS on him. Kokanee’s gets to the core of what is the “desired state” for this guy: adventure, living in extremes and doing it now. A very motivating strategy.


Kingsley: The packaging looks refreshing and coooold, but the ad has bedrooms, bike trails and hot tubs. Where is “glacier fresh” in the ad? It does make me thirsty; they get a thumbs up for trying to get the people involved using social media, but again, where’s the glacier?

MacLeod: The packaging definitely owns its space of “extreme mountain adventure.” The case design looks like a cold beer in the mountains. How much more perfect could it be?


Kingsley: They missed the bus. They missed the bus. Get it? Okay then… The fast-paced Kokanee lifestyle doesn’t come across legitimately. It feels like it’s trying too hard. Watching the spot made us feel like Tupac is kicking eight balls instead of taking hits from the bong. Very Vanilla Ice.

MacLeod: Any guy who has been as far west as Blue Mountain will love the ad. He experiences his ideal weekend boiled down. It’s incredibly exciting to watch.


Kingsley: It’s the best part of the campaign. It’s packaged rather slickly, definitely reflects the ad, there’s lots happening and it allows the surfer to witness the brand promise. A nice job. And aside: lots of girls in bikinis, which both Tupac and Biggie liked, but [didn’t] respect. So maybe one day, beer brands will showcase some Missy and Mary J. kind of women instead of big booty hoes.

MacLeod: You feel like you are there, literally waking up for a wild adventure. The Mountain Bashes featured on the site tell it all.


Kingsley: They did a nice job differentiating between the three brands. In addition, the old-school look is consistent with the rest of the campaign; the blanche looks very drinkable and, as DJ Nico here said, “looks like it tastes good, which is good.”

MacLeod: The packaging has a retro feel. It is a great accessory in the hand of a guy who values authenticity, and most do.


Kingsley: The spots trigger a reaction from the consumer right off the bat. The characters are clear, the spots are well written and curiosity gets the better of you. In addition, there is a consistent beat from spot to spot. Definitely East Coast.

MacLeod: The advertising isn’t particularly funny and is very passive, particularly for the target. Says more about what Keith’s isn’t than what it is.


Kingsley: There’s lots of info, as promised, on Keith’s website. There’s background, a brewmaster and a connection to the core Keith’s drinker. What’s missing is a connection to the TV spots. No bridge, which is unfortunate. Makes the strategy kinda Swayze.

MacLeod: The website screams authenticity and heritage, giving the brand real credibility. The only trouble is, not many people are likely to see it based on the other elements.


They missed the bus = A reference to the track “I Missed the Bus” (1992), performed by the rap group Kris Kross.

Swayze = A reference to actor Patrick Swayze in Ghost, a metaphor for invisible, or, to leave or disappear.

Big booty hoes = The scantily-clad women typically seen gyrating in rap videos, that also happen to have large derrières.