Riding high on retro buzz, Canadian Club teams with Mad Men

The Mad Men effect is rippling through the alcohol industry just as it has through the fashion and publishing scenes. One brand in particular is leveraging this trend with a new formal partnership with the show. One of the prime beneficiaries of this interest in retro style has been Canadian Club whisky, the alcohol of […]

The Mad Men effect is rippling through the alcohol industry just as it has through the fashion and publishing scenes. One brand in particular is leveraging this trend with a new formal partnership with the show.

One of the prime beneficiaries of this interest in retro style has been Canadian Club whisky, the alcohol of choice for real life “mad men” – and women – during its 1960s heyday.

“When you think about that era and what the corporate American executive looked like, he or she was sitting at a desk with a cigarette and a glass of Canadian Club,” said Tish Harcus, brand ambassador and historian at Canadian Club’s Walkerville, Ont. –based headquarters.

Canadian Club sold approximately 4 million cases a year in the U.S. alone at the height of the Mad Men era. The brand was literally impossible-to-ignore in New York, its giant neon sign towering over Times Square for 25 years.

Owned by the global spirits company Beam Inc. since 2006, Canadian Club now ships about 2.5 million cases annually in North America with approximately 65% of all the alcohol produced in Walkerville going to the U.S. The brand boasts global reach however, enjoying popularity in countries such as Japan and Australia.

“Some of this TV presence and the popularity of Mad Men definitely has added to the coolness of the brand,” Harcus told Marketing. “It could be 3 million cases before you know it.”

While sales of Canadian whisky and Canadian Club products have been relatively flat in previous years, sales have taken off in 2012. According to the Association of Canadian Distillers’ February 2012 Moving Annual Total (MAT), sales of Canadian Club Reserve were up 23.2% in February over the corresponding year-earlier period, while sales of Canadian Club Classic were up 7.9% and Sherry Cask sales were up 142.6%.

“We are seeing quite a resurgence in interest in Canadian whisky, and many of the distillers are responding with lots of innovation in the category,” said Jan Westcott, president and CEO of Spirits Canada, a national trade association based in Toronto that represents the interests of the Canadian spirits industry.

“Canadian Club has been one of the more aggressive brands. They’ve been quite innovative in trying different things to interest consumers.”

Westcott likens the resurgence in Canadian whisky to the impact on martinis and cosmopolitans by Sex and the City, noting that the category is finding traction with female drinkers because it is both lighter tasting and more “mixable” than other brown spirits. “It will probably do a lot to expand the category among females,” he said.

While changing consumer tastes play a role, Canadian Club is currently riding a surge of popularity fueled by its appearance in shows like Mad Men (for which it supplied a mocked-up case of 1960s-era bottles) and Boardwalk Empire. It is capitalizing on the former association by partnering with Alliance Films on the release of season five of Mad Men on DVD.

The partnership includes a national retail promotion featuring shelf-talkers and neck tags promoting a contest for a trip for two to New York, digital integration and Mad Men season five launch events in Vancouver and Toronto that featured era-appropriate cocktails. The promotion will also be amplified through the brand’s social media channels, said Harcus.

Canadian Club has also introduced a new label and bottle intended to reflect the Mad Men era. The revamped labels include the addition of signifiers such as “small batch” and “triple aged” that contribute what Harcus called a “premium element” to the product. This overhaul encompasses the entire Canadian Club roster, marking the first time in the brand’s 154-year history the full portfolio has been revamped.

Focus group testing conducted by Canadian Club discovered that it is a brand that can’t withstand too much tinkering without alienating its core audience, primarily males 25-39.

“We’ve tweaked it, put a little more etching on the bottle, and I think it’s the sharpest I’ve even seen it,” said Harcus. “I’ve seen the bottles going right back to day one, and I think this really enhances it.”

Earlier this year, Beam proclaimed 2012 as the “beginning of a renaissance” for the 154-year-old brand, claiming that investing in the Canadian Club brand through a combination of innovation and marketing was a top priority.

“We’re committed to evolving this brand just as spirits drinkers are evolving,” said Canadian Club marketing manager Cheryl Hudson.

Canadian Club has been also been featured extensively on HBOs Boardwalk Empire (those are authentic Canadian Club bottles washing up around Nucky Thompson during the opening credits).

It’s an association the brand has been eager to exploit, and was formalized earlier this year when it launched a new spiced whisky product called “Dock No. 57” (the name is an homage to the dock number where Canadian Club was distributed to bootleggers during prohibition).

“For 17 long years we quenched the thirst of thirsty Americans,” said Harcus. “And we’re still riding the prohibition wave.

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