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Behind the Tourism Campaign Created For a Nation that Doesn’t Exist


Sid Lee’s art director Joshua Dornan speaks with LBB’s Ben Conway about creating a multi-platform tourism campaign for Old Style Pilsner’s ‘Pil Country’

Behind the Tourism Campaign Created For a Nation that Doesn’t Exist

Molson-Coors Canada brews ‘Old Style Pilsner’ -  a beer with iconic rabbit-themed branding, a satirical sense of humour and now… a nation? The beer brand, commonly referred to as ‘Pil’, partnered with creative agency Sid Lee to promote tourism for ‘Pil Country’ - producing its own tourism website, films, reviews from ‘visiting tourists’ and even a retro-style videogame for the non-existent nation.

On the Old Style Pilsner website, you can see what the weather is like in Pil Country today, view a ‘live feed’ of some local pilsner and play the retro video game, which was developed by Canadian studio Relish, and took inspiration from classic choose-your-own-adventure games and most notably in its style and gameplay, The Oregon Trail. The overall theming of the campaign stays very much within Pil’s identity as a somewhat niche beer with a quirky sense of self-aware humour and, of course, includes plenty of bunnies.

To discuss how Sid Lee created the ‘Welcome to Pil Country’ campaign and founded a ‘country’ with detailed world-building and audience engagement, LBB’s Ben Conway had a discussion with the project’s art director Joshua Dornan.    

LBB> Where did the initial creative spark for the campaign come from? Did you look at other tourism sites? What aspects did you decide were vital for the Pil Country website? 

Joshua> Molson came to us very excitedly saying they wanted to make a campaign for Pilsner. When we were first ideating, the world was still in no-travel lockdown mode. People were craving any kind of escape. We thought about the term “Pil Country” that is commonly used among Pil drinkers to describe the moment of cracking a Pilsner and knew we had to make Pil Country a “real” destination for Canadians. 

We looked at modern tourism websites for certain elements of things to include, like hosting our tourism video, landscape photography, local weather, live ticket booking, etc. We wanted the site to feel believable, but also wanted to stay away from the generic writing most tourism websites seem to have, in lieu of the self-aware and somewhat thrown together tone of the brand.

It was also important that whatever we made, we felt like the audience could participate in, instead of a passive experience. We created an actual hotline (1-877-PIL-TRIP) that got a lot of phone calls from Pil fans who left over 300 voicemails for us to listen to. Exploring the tourism website or playing a Pil Country video game. These are all examples of how the campaign executions invited people to get in on the joke. 

LBB> How did you decide to create a retro-style video game to accompany the campaign? It’s definitely got Oregon Trail vibes - where did you get inspiration for the game? What key game features did you want and how did you get the game developed? 

Joshua> After showing people tourism ads for the fictional nation, we were trying to find a way to get people into Pil Country. Obviously, with COVID, it was difficult to plan any sort of experiential extensions. When we were thinking about how to traverse a landscape digitally, the first thing that came to mind was Oregon Trail. It was a great fit for the audience because of its nostalgic vibe, and also a way to let us bring some character to Pil Country with funny writing and characters that bring the place from a state of mind to a digital destination. 

We knew we wanted to take a retro style but use our signature, updated packaging illustrations to create the art direction. We also wanted to include a form of random event screens found in Oregon Trail but also a choose-your-own-adventure flavour that makes the player feel like they can take multiple paths. We mixed all of those retro game feelings with more modern games controls/pacing to make sure the experience was interesting and engaging. We wanted the experience to still be exciting and challenging. 

We worked collaboratively with Relish, a game studio here in Toronto. They brought so much more than just game dev know-how. Our meetings were hilarious as both teams threw out suggestions for characters and events. They get full credit for the bunnies in the trench coat character. 

LBB> Why does the tourism website and theming of the campaign work so well with Old Style Pilsner’s brand? 

Joshua> Pil has always had a sense of humour about itself and its drinkers. We know the image well and we leaned into it. The idea of this very niche domestic beer planting its flag in the ground as a new nation is the kind of self-aware humour that drives the brand. The campaign’s elements all call back to the Pil enthusiasts’ sense of humour as well. Half-hearted reviews, a film made with obvious stock footage, and a sense that everything was just sort of cobbled together are the things we knew the audience would respond to. 

LBB> How was the process of creating the tourism films for the campaign? Was there a lot of stock footage searching? 

Joshua> Oooh yes, there was. But not in a negative way. Far from it. We had a great time with our production team here at Sid Lee getting the perfect shots that felt visually beautiful yet somewhat generic. Usually, when looking for stock, you want it to look like you weren’t looking for stock, and that’s tricky. But we wanted the campaign videos to feel like someone in Pil Country just learned how to edit on their old laptop and stole videos online for footage. That gave us some freedom to have fun with it. 

We continued to lean into the nostalgic brand tone and took inspiration from retro tourism ads. We found tourism videos for Yellowstone, Palm Springs, and Banff from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Our team did a great job treating the footage to make it feel like it was from that era. 

LBB> The campaign has a very distinct sense of humour - how was the process of copywriting all the little quips and jokes? And why was comedy the route to take? 

Joshua> Once we nailed down the nation’s tone, a lot of it was zoom calls just trying to make each other laugh. We knew we wanted to come up with ‘scientific’ facts about Pil Country that would bring people in. We started with the packaging art and would say things like: “I wonder if that big mountain in the background has a name…” and after about 10 minutes we had history and geological info for Mount Pil. We were constantly stopping and looking for opportunities to add a little joke and build on our narrative. 

You can only earn so much engagement and intrigue with slow-motion pours and footage of people watching sports, so we knew we had to do something different to turn heads if we wanted attention. 

Being a niche beer gave us a lot of freedom. This satirical comedy was great for exposing new beer drinkers to the brand. The majority of beer drinking Canadians could pick out Pilsner in a store thanks to the iconic artwork, but maybe making them laugh and sticking in their mind would push them to pick one up and escape to Pil Country. 


LBB>  Do you have any plans to expand the ‘Pil Country universe’ in subsequent campaigns? What’s in store for Sid Lee and Old Style Pilsner? 

Joshua> Oh, buddy. There were a handful of exciting ideas floating around for the next phase of Pil Country. 

LBB> Would you consider creating another video game for a different campaign? What does this element of the campaign add?

Joshua> Definitely! As long as the idea is right, we think games are a great way to get people to engage. Active participation, even for a couple of minutes, makes people feel a connection to your brand or message that is so much harder to earn with passive media. We won’t be pitching games for every project we have going forward, but it’s a piece of media we’ll be thinking about more seeing how successful this one was. Plus, working with game devs is great.   

LBB> What were the trickiest components of this campaign and how did you overcome them?

Joshua> Probably knowing when to stop. Once the idea of making a fictional country was cracked, the number of things you want to do with that are endless. Our producer absolutely crushed it on the campaign!  It's thanks to her we were able to produce everything we did. Shout out to Elana Olavesen, (executive producer at Sid Lee in Toronto), co-founder of Pil Country. 

Our client was also the best. Everyone was really excited to see this come to life. But knowing when to stop was probably the biggest challenge.

LBB> Do you have any other thoughts to share? 

Joshua> I’m from Saskatchewan (one could argue the original Pil Country) so I was honoured to be able to work on this project. A lot of people back home texted me when it came out saying how much they loved it, which was awesome. LB Cooper (copywriter) and I had the best time creating the work and coming up with the lore of Pil Country. It was a lesson on how if you get your clients excited about a vision, the work will be great, and the process will be fun.

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Sid Lee, Fri, 18 Feb 2022 17:07:00 GMT