Howe Sound Brewery’s Clever Branding

Using clever and ever-changing packaging, Squamish beer-maker Howe Sound Brewery turns traditional branding on its ear.

Most packaged-goods producers spend much time, effort and money to establish brands that will deliver a consistent message. But in a speeded-up, rapidly changing world of social media and viral marketing, traditional brand messaging can be problematic for old-world manufacturers. A Squamish beer maker has adapted to the new reality with clever and ever-changing packaging that draws as much attention as its beer.

The Problem

A company has to be nimble if it wants to catch the wave of publicity around a very public event, and the challenge is especially daunting for manufacturers, who have to retool entire production lines and branding strategies. The challenge is compounded when that public event is the Olympics, with strict controls on related marketing. This was the situation faced by Howe Sound Brewing Co. Ltd. earlier this year.

The Solution

In just a few years, Howe Sound had grown from a small brew pub to a 70,000-unit-a-month bottler by promoting its specialty beers with a quirky sense of humour that included interesting names and in-your-face labels. Brother and sister operators David and Leslie Fenn had become well known for producing unique beers with “insider” names tied to events. These included Pothole Filler (to celebrate the new Sea-to-Sky Highway) and Devil’s Elbow (a reference to a favourite Squamish-area kayaking spot). 

When the Olympics hit Vancouver and Whistler – and therefore Squamish – the Fenns knew they had to recognize it with a new beer. But beer giant Molson Coors Canada was the official sponsor, and VANOC was strict about anyone else using an Olympic theme. Howe Sound used a variation of guerrilla marketing known as “ambush marketing,” in which a company rides some other organization’s coattails to draw attention. 

Howe Sound beers had previously won gold, silver and bronze medals in North American beer competitions. So CEO Leslie Fenn and her brother decided to combine that fact with something she refers to as “iconically Canadian.” Howe Sound created Three Beavers Imperial Red Ale, with bottle labels featuring three cuddly beavers displaying gold, silver and bronze medals. It didn’t contain one word about the Olympics – but everybody in Squamish and Vancouver got the drift. When the Fenns hired people to wear cheesy beaver costumes and show off the beer at Olympic venues, their product started flying off the shelves as fast as they could produce it.

The campaign was voted the most effective 2010 Olympic marketing campaign by the Texas-based online publication Global Language Monitor, which said Howe Sound generated more media and Internet buzz than huge companies such as Procter & Gamble, Visa, Scotiabank and Lululemon. Howe Sound now sells its beers throughout B.C. and in Alberta, and has jumped the border to sell in Oregon. It also recently won six medals at a North American beer competition. Three Beavers beer and its label will be retired soon, but it’s a sure bet the Fenns will dream up some other beer with a clever name to keep their fans happy. 


• Make the branding the brand. Most beer makers deliver very generic branding messages. Part of Howe Sound’s branding is that each new beer comes with an interesting name and label. Customers are as enthralled with the names as they are the beer. 

• Be inclusive. A sense of belonging trumps all other kinds of marketing, so the Fenns always try to make people feel like they’re part of a movement.

• Move fast. Like online marketers, Howe Sound can change its product and marketing very quickly to capitalize on a new buzz. n