Meet Steam Whistle’s social media “Fairy Beer Mother”

How the independent beer brand’s community manager Kendra Nicholson collects fans—sorry, “brand advocates”—one Tweet at a time



Sure, Community Manager at Steam Whistle Brewing company sounds like a good job, but how many people get to introduce themselves as a brand’s “Fairy Beer Mother”? For Kendra Nicholson, the affectionate nickname is a tribute to a masterfully managed social media portfolio, in which fans can usually expect a response to their online queries within the hour. Nicholson is also in charge of managing the company’s “brand advocates”—diehard fans who love their beer so much, they create knick-knacks and cuisine, and even entire Facebook pages to show their appreciation. It’s Nicholson’s job to make sure each and every one feels heard and attended to—and to use their dedication as the kind of effective marketing money can’t buy. She talked with us about how to engage with your biggest fans, the problems with “influencer marketing” and why you should never be the parent crashing the slumber party.

Last summer was Steam Whistle’s 15th anniversary—when did social first come onto the company’s radar?

They were very much early adopters. I definitely can’t take credit for where we’re at today, because they were one of the first Canadian beer brands on Instagram. They’ve been one of the first companies to adopt that, from a marketing perspective. They’ve very much been in it since the beginning.

What about the brand appealed to you, from a social media perspective?

One thing that I really was attracted to about working with a brand like Steam Whistle, is the insane devotion people have towards their beer. When you think about the types of beer that your father or grandfather drinks, it doesn’t change. People have that diehard loyalty for a long time. Learning how to cultivate those relationships was really interesting to me.

How would you describe the Steam Whistle brand?

I would say friendly and approachable. We’re kind of an everyman. But, at the same time, we’re trying to use our industry and our following to lead a great example. Whether it’s using public bike repair stations as our branding opportunities, or converting to Bullfrog Power—these are things that were important to the brand from day one. It was never really a big decision to take these things onboard, because they’ve always been etched into the brand ethos from the beginning.

You’ve said that at Steam Whistle you cultivate “brand advocates”—customers who love your brand so much that they promote it on their own social media for free. Why is it important for you to encourage those kinds of fans?

Because they are so genuine—they’re not trying to get anything from us by showing how much they love our product. These are real people, and loving our beer is a part of who they are. Consumers can get what I call “endorsement fatigue” when they see too much product promotion from a company—I don’t think that brand advocacy can cause that fatigue, because when people see it it feels natural and authentic.

Can you give me an example of a brand advocate?

For sure—we have our greatest brand advocate, Chuck. He defends our brand online, provides feedback and converts other fans into advocates. Chuck has taken it upon himself to create a highly engaged community of Steam Whistle collectors. Created in 2012, The Steam Whistle Retro Opener page is a place where highly engaged fans gather to buy, trade and share their collections of Steam Whistle branded merchandise. Chuck created this page with our blessing but it’s important to note this is their community not ours. The fact that this page is run by a fan rather then a brand is a part of it’s appeal. If we were to pop in occasionally with a marketing message it would be the equivalent of a parent crashing a slumber party. The holy grail of online relationship building is when you aren’t needed to keep the conversation going. When you have a captive audience participating in a topic they care about, take a step back and listen to what your fans are telling you.

How do you handle a situation where someone loves your product, and is active on social media, but isn’t necessarily posting in a way that you consider appropriate?

We’ve had those before. Anything involving smoking, or anything like that that we view as non-responsible, we typically have to step away from. We’ll typically tell them the truth—we’ll engage with them privately and explain why we can’t be involved. People will send us pictures of their babies holding beer bottles, and associating children and drinking is something we can’t touch. We’ll send them a private message saying, “Your baby is adorable, thank you so much for sending; unfortunately we can’t share it, and this is why.”

For a lot of brands, the idea of influencer marketing if very appealing—getting a celebrity to endorse your product, trying to see if their fans will come onboard as well. Why is that something you guys never considered?

Because authenticity is so important to who we are. Anything that comes across as an obvious ad is not our style. It’s also the same considerations that we take when it comes to digital. You’ll never see a Steam Whistle catfishing ad online, because we respect the relationship that we’ve built with our followers. To invite ourselves into their feed is the kind of presumption that we would never take.

You mentioned “endorsement fatigue”—I think everyone has a few people on their social media who just post way too much, to the point where you tune it out or turn away. How do you avoid that as a brand?

We take advantage of different time zones—our tweets aren’t playing 9 to 5, when Canada is awake, we are tweeting. We make sure to always hashtag location specific tweets, so that fans from Regina aren’t bummed out if we’re talking about a promotion that they can’t access. And we harness our brand advocates, and our employees, to spread the message for us. We make sure our fans know what they need to know, but we don’t overwhelm them.