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Labatt plays the patriot card by backing Balsillie's Coyotes bid

Question for Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd.: Should Jim Balsillie prove successful in moving the Phoenix Coyotes to Southern Ontario, will the beer company put the Blue name behind hockey?

It's a reasonable enough query: The Canadian brewing arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev has brazenly positioned Blue as an anchor sponsor of Mr. Balsillie's "Make it Seven" campaign, with the beer brand joining the online rallying cry to bring the team "home," while running national television spots as well as radio and print ads in some Ontario markets.

Yet sister brand Bud Light is the official National Hockey League sponsor, a party beer aimed squarely at the LDA (that's legal drinking age) to 24 entry-level drinker. If a beer company can woo those drinkers, so marketing theory goes, they can at least hope to create brand loyalty.

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Blue? Blue skews older.

So what gives?

In the absence of a response from Labatt, let's posit a theory. That Labatt has spied a marketing opportunity the likes of which have not been realized since that guy name Joe went on his "I am Canadian" rant for Molson back in the spring of 2000.

That campaign, created by a fellow named Glen Hunt when he was creative director at ad agency Bensimon Byrne, riffed off Mr. Hunt's personal experience.

"I had spent four years in New York having every type of stereotype slung at me," Mr. Hunt recalls. "Asking me where my dog sled was. And my igloo." Joe Canadian was his way of giving back, supported by on-the-street research that unearthed what he says was a "patriotic fervour we hadn't seen in a while."

Here's the kicker: Molson Canadian's market share rose to 2.5 per cent from 1.8 per cent, a whopping jump in a market where a point swing is worth between $60-million and $70-million at retail.

Mr. Balsillie has reignited that fervour at a time when the beer market is flat and grabbing market share is a rough, expensive game won only at the expense of beating back the competition. As a bonus, Labatt gets to pitch this as a community play and a goodwill play, spurred by the force of digital media unknown in Joe Canadian's heyday. Marketing gold, in other words. Need we mention that beer is to hockey as popcorn is to the movies? Hockey is an "activator," as they say in marketing circles, that speaks to the hearts and minds of all Canadian beer drinkers. Better than golf. Better than music.

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Why Blue?

Well they couldn't very well hitch the patriotic marketing line, "Help bring home Canada's seventh hockey team" to a beer called Bud, could they? Despite its foreign ownership, Blue is still seen as a Canadian brand.

So here's a thought: Labatt gets to play the patriot card in building Blue fandom behind Mr. Balsillie. Should he be successful, watch for the old bait and switch, where all the advertising is lined up behind Bud Light.

A spokesperson at Labatt declines to speculate on such an outcome.

Mr. Hunt recalls what the patriotic groundswell felt like. "I remember going to a playoff game with the Maple Leafs and we had Joe do a live rant inside the arena. It blew me away. Twenty-five thousand people cheering. … It was this amazing roar of cheers."

As to whether this could be a risky move on the brewer's part, Mr. Hunt replies: "Every good move that's ever made is a little bit risky. If you just play in the middle, you never do anything."

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