Twenty years after his badly accented French became a fixture on Quebec radio, John Sleeman is preparing a wince-inducing return to the province’s airwaves. This time though, he is promoting gin and vodka from his new company, Spring Mill Distillery.
Sleeman candidly admits his French hasn’t improved at all since the mid-1990s, when he first started voicing Quebec radio commercials for his namesake beer. Those spots made no attempt to conceal the fact that French wasn’t Sleeman’s first language, but the creative conceit—my French might be bad, but my beer is better—helped endear both the man and his beer to the province’s drinkers.
According to a 2001 article in Maclean’s, Sleeman’s gambit helped the brewery achieve annual sales of 1.4 million 24-bottle cases in Quebec in the early 2000s, accounting for roughly 2% of the province’s beer market and 25% of the brewer’s nationwide business.
Sleeman has been a pitchman ever since the early days of Sleeman Breweries—when market research suggested that consumers liked knowing there was an actual person behind the brand.
“I’ve always wondered why the Molson family is not more prominent, but to each their own,” he says. “As long as the guy from the family is comfortable speaking to his consumers and has an interesting story, why not use it?
“I was never particularly comfortable, certainly in the early days, having to give speeches and do radio and TV, but you do get a little bit used to it after 30 years,” he adds. “I still get butterflies in my stomach, but it’s become part of the DNA of the Sleeman beer company.”
When it came time to promote Spring Mill Distillery’s upcoming push into Quebec, Sleeman wanted radio at the heart of the brand’s strategy. The reason is two-fold: It provides reach and, most importantly for a start-up—albeit one bankrolled by one of Canada’s most successful beer barons, who was named to the Order of Canada in June—cost-effectiveness.
Breaking in mid-September, the campaign from Headspace Marketing will use drive-time radio across leading stations in Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke. “You kind of plant the message in people’s minds on their way to work, and you remind them on the way home so they stop at the SAQ when they’re picking up drinks for dinner,” says Sleeman of the marketing approach, which will be supported by social media.
Sleeman spent several hours cutting three French-language spots in a Montreal studio last month. “I needed to work pretty hard to get my French back up to par. I’m told that it’s still pretty rusty and hurtful to Quebeckers’ ears,” he says. “It’s not as easy to do the French language spots as the English, but after spending three to four hours in the studio it does come easier.”
All of the spots acknowledge Sleeman’s previous advertising history in the province, with lines like “Hello, I’m John Sleeman. Nope, my French hasn’t improved since the last time I spoke to you about beer” and “You have this feeling of a déjà vu? You’re right—I’ve once spoken to you about beer.” The spots feature the tagline “And give a Sleeman accent to your drinks.”
Sleeman is also voicing a pair of English-language radio spots, one tailored for the GTA market that will debut next month, and another for the rest of English Canada that will accompany the rollout of Spring Mill products across the country. The creative concept for the English-language spots is similar, with Sleeman noting that listeners may remember him from commercials for the family brewery, but that he’s discovered that his ancestors also had a distillery and he’s back in the spirits business with his children.
Spring Mill currently has a presence in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and Sleeman expects to begin shipping to Alberta early next month, followed by B.C. next spring and the rest of Canada to follow.
It’s been more than a quarter-century since Sleeman first started doing French radio, but Headspace Marketing president Éric Blais says that Anglophone business leaders appearing in French-language advertising is still virtually unheard of. Only Loblaw Companies Limited executive chair Galen Weston Jr. has done so with any regularity, he says.
“To us, the idea of an Anglophone that makes the effort to communicate in French with the market remains as relevant today as it did then,” says Blais of the creative approach. “It’s one thing to have someone related to the brand, a character or an actor, but this is the man behind the brand.
“There’s very little risk here,” he adds. “Why not repeat what was so successful for the brewery for the distillery?”
Blais says that name recognition is particularly important in the crowded spirits category, where an upstart like Spring Mill Distillery doesn’t possess the brand recognition of a Smirnoff or a Tanqueray.
“Our best way to have someone walk into one of those SAQ stores where it’s listed and seek out Spring Mill Distillery vodka or gin is to ask for it by name, and the name behind it is Sleeman,” he says. “In essence what we’re doing is asking people to walk into the SAQ and ask for Mr. Sleeman’s gin or vodka. Spring Mill Distillery will register over time, but our best shot at generating initial interest is to have people be curious about what John Sleeman is up to.”
Spring Mill Distillery marks the Sleeman family’s return to the spirits business after more than 160 years. While the Sleeman family’s brewery would become hugely successful (it was sold to Japan’s Sapporo Breweries for $400 million in 2006), a distillery opened in the Ontario community of St. David’s closed shortly after its 1836 opening.
Spring Mill’s products sell for just under $40 a bottle, a price-point that’s more suited to up-market alcohol brands. “By virtue of pricing we’re excluding some of the younger consumers who might not have the money or want to buy the cheapest vodka they can to mix with orange juice or make a Caesar,” he says. “You don’t need a high-end good-tasting vodka if you’re going to put it in a Caesar.”
Its products are aimed at professionals 25-45 who are seeking an alternative to the multinational brands. “They want to be able to try something new, say they’ve discovered it, take it to a friend’s party, know the story behind the product and the guy who makes it,” says Sleeman.
Gin and vodka sales are both on the rise in Canada, with vodka generating approximately $1.37 billion in sales last year. It’s nearly four times larger than the gin category, which will be worth an estimated US$369 million this year, growing by 2.3% a year through 2023.
But gin has been experiencing what Sleeman calls “a bit of a renaissance” in the past 12 months. Since launching, Spring Mill has been selling 1.5 bottles of gin for every bottle of vodka. “We expected to sell a fair amount of vodka and a little bit of gin, when in fact the reverse is happening,” says Sleeman.
As for advertising, Sleeman is convinced this is the start of an ongoing marketing approach for Spring Mill. “Once you start, I think people will expect that at least once a year there will a new John Sleeman commercial that brutalizes the French language.”