Part 3: The Push (AKA the part with David Fincher and a load of alcohol)
Labatt had big plans. The mighty US brewers had noticed the uptick in sales, and so Labatt wanted distribution routes throughout North America, and something else too.
Cavanagh: “We had actually gone through the process of patenting and trademarking the name.”
Brent: “Initial Labatt Ice packages included a diagram earnestly explaining Labatt’s patented process. Labatt didn’t want to educate beer drinkers; it just wanted to convince them it had something the other guys didn’t. Molson did acknowledge using a much simpler process to make ice beer. While Labatt partly froze the beer and ‘gently removed’ the resulting ice, Molson claimed its process started to freeze the beer then thawed it without doing anything else to it.
“Hugo [Powell, Labatt’s president] took the luxury of promoting Labatt’s new technology and brewing process around the world in hopes of licensing it."
Cavanagh: “We met with Anheuser-Busch and told them about our idea in the hopes that we could license the brewing process.”
Martin: “A-B was treated to a deluxe sales pitch and given a detailed description of the process.”
Meanwhile, the race was on to find US distribution channels. But the strength of Labatt’s position -- its capital expenditures and patented processes -- now weakened it, as the company waited for its new technology to be brought to all its plants for a big US rollout.
Brent: “Just one of four ice plants was in operation after engineers installed the pilot brewing system in the Montreal factory.”
Cavanagh: “We’d invested a lot of money in this. And because of that and waiting for those capacities to be brought to scale, that’s what allowed Molson at that time to launch their iced beer into the United States before us.”
The New York Times, August 3rd, 1993: “Banking on the strong performance in Canada of a new product called "ice beer," Molson Breweries U.S.A. plans to introduce Molson Ice in the United States next week with trial runs in Atlanta and Michigan.
“Brewed and filtered at subfreezing temperatures to produce ice crystals in the beer, Molson Ice's alcohol content is raised to 4.4 percent by weight from the average 3.6 percent.”
Cardella, the Molson US VP of sales: “In general, not many beer drinkers could sit with three iced beers and tell you which iced beer was from which brewery. So we moved on it quickly.”
Cavanagh: “That was a fairly crippling blow in terms of the business.”
The Miller Brewing Company had just acquired the United States marketing and distribution rights to Molson products, and soon the US market saw a lot of Molson Ice and the company’s line extension, Black Ice, but also Miller’s own foray into the market, Miller Lite Ice.
Cardella: “I mean, the business skyrocketed. In the core territories of the Great Lakes and in upstate New York and New England, Molson Ice became very rapidly the largest in the portfolio. Sales blew off the charts and it invigorated the business.”
With Molson doing brisk US business, with Miller and then Coors introducing their own ice beers, and with Anheuser-Busch -- Labatt’s brewing partner -- strangely silent, Labatt president Hugo Powell decided to double down on Labatt Ice, and take the category where no one else considered going.
Martin: “Labatt already is thinking line extension, and Labatt Ice came onto the market at 5.6% alcohol. The market was kind of 5%. Labatt was planning on doing a super-high version, 7.1%.”
Cavanagh: “I think [Powell] felt like we were dealing from strength-to-strength, no pun intended. Ice was doing so well that a line extension was the logical place to go.”
Martin: “Did you hear about David Fincher and Sharon Stone? No? I’ll give you précis to this. [Labatt] was planning on going out with a high-test version of this beer, but they did not want to have the same situation where Molson or any competitor gets wind of this. So in classic cloak-and-dagger style, we decided to create a diversion.
“We were going to go out with a highest version of beer regardless. And we had to have [competitors] thinking we weren’t doing that, so they would go down another road. So we decided to come up with a campaign, based on a light version of iced beer. So call it a 4% version. And if Labatt Ice was dark, black, silver, male, edgy, then Labatt -- and I think the working title was Crystal Ice -- was white-on-white and silver. And while we had a dark and cranky guy over here called Alexander Godunov, our Crystal Ice character for this was going to be Sharon Stone. It was not too far after Basic Instinct. White apartment, white this and that. Not philosophical lines but lines in her character. We actually wrote a series of campaigns. We actually designed a label. We built storyboards. Then we talked to Sharon Stone’s agents about this! We sent her the boards.”
All for a project that Labatt had no intention of launching.
Martin: “And we then decided we needed a director for this thing. The director we wanted was David Fincher. And Fincher had just come off doing Alien . He’d done a lot of commercial work, regardless. So we sent the boards down to his producer and his producer called us back and was like, ‘Yeah, David will take a phone call.’ And he was on set doing Seven most likely.
“And Fincher goes: ‘First of all I wanted to tell you: great boards. I really love the idea.’ He wanted to have her as kind of Grace Kelly, Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock-y sort of thing. And I’m going back and forth and we’re bouncing ideas back and forth, super excited about it. Fincher: ‘Getting off the phone now. I’m totally psyched. Call my producer about it.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is just a ruse. This whole thing is a smoke screen intended to get out there into the marketplace. We don’t have any intention of moving forward with this.’
“So, one night, we had a focus group and we ‘accidentally’ left the storyboards behind, so that they’d get found by people who would then leak them to Molson and stuff. Because everybody uses the same focus groups. We knew that Molson or another agency would find them. We knew that somebody would find out that we’d been talking to David Fincher about something. And that was exactly what happened. ‘Oh, were you talking to Sharon Stone?’ ‘Oh, no, no nothing, nothing at all.’ And so the rumor mill started, which was exactly what we wanted.
Martin: “We launched Maximum Ice about three months later.”
Cavanagh: “Maximum Ice didn't taste like your malt liquors or whatever, which technically it was. It did taste like beer. It tasted very good.”
The industry was caught unaware, and reacted quickly to the brew that had 40% more alcohol than the already potent Labatt Ice.
Brent: “Molson began to lobby government officials and alcohol-abuse lobby groups.”
John Bates, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Canada, as quoted in Strategy, an advertising trade publication, on October 3rd, 1993: “It’s absolutely appalling Labatt is doing this.”
Robert Solomon, who crafted MAAD memos that year in response to Labatt: “I was not concerned with the fact that it’s iced. I was concerned with the fact that it was 40% stronger beer. And the advertisement, the strong -- you’re talking about something that’s clearly being marketed to young males.
“We know that young men are binge drinkers. We know that the majority of alcohol consumed is in high-risk circumstances, where people are drinking five or more beers in a sitting. A very small percentage of people consume a very large percentage of all of the alcohol that is consumed. So if you look at the highest rates of daily, weekly, monthly binge drinking -- drinking five or more drinks in one occasion -- it’s all young males.”
Cavanagh: “I mean, Maximum Ice tasted very good. Which I felt was a very dangerous thing. You know, young people drink beer and they tend to drink in large quantity. And I thought that if they were consuming this like they consumed regular beer, that it was just not the right thing."
Martin: “The ad had Michael Ironside, a Canadian actor. He was the bad guy in RoboCop. I think all we did was just go down movie aisles, I swear to God. I actually didn’t work on that campaign -- and I’m going to be perfectly honest. I pulled myself off that project. Labatt was definitely targeting a much younger audience with a high-test beer. And I had a conscience issue on it. I went to my boss. I went in and I said, ‘I can’t actually in good conscience work on this project any more.’
The trade newspaper Strategy, November 29th, 1993: “Labatt Breweries of Canada has bowed to concerns of special interest groups and pulled its ads for 7.1% alcohol Maximum Ice.
“The commercial, which was created by Scali McCabe Sloves of Toronto, was taken off the air last week in Ontario and will be pulled in other provinces over the next few weeks."