Publicis, Corona Light Part Ways Over Potential Conflict of Interest

Talks With A-B InBev End Agency's Relationship With Import-Beer Marketer After Only One Month

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Publicis and Corona Light are splitting up over a potential conflict of interest only one month after getting together.

Corona Light

Corona parent Crown Imports handed Publicis the brand last month without a review, a decision based in part on the former Heineken shop's extensive experience in the import-beer category. It turned out, however, that Publicis' experience in the category was a little too current: The agency is in advanced discussions with Anheuser-Busch InBev about a global assignment for its Becks brand, according to people familiar with the matter.

Those talks predated Crown Imports' decision to award the agency the Corona Light account, and both the agency and the client said in statements that the new relationship would make continuing their partnership untenable.

"Publicis, New York, and Corona Light have jointly decided not to engage in a relationship at this time due to other conversations Publicis is having in this category that would have an impact on any long-term relationship with Corona," said a Publicis USA spokesperson, who declined to confirm that the would-be client in question was Becks. "Although we were excited about our opportunity with Corona Light, we are equally excited about an opportunity that we hope to be able to announce soon."

Crown said in its statement: "We have already identified our next steps for this project and are on track to deliver against our original goal -- to deliver new breakthrough creative to support this important and growing brand in 2010 and beyond."

Crown moved Corona Light to Publicis from longtime agency Cramer-Krasselt because, it said, it wanted to build a new identity for the brand independent from its larger sibling Corona Extra. Corona Light has not historically enjoyed an independent marketing focus, and most ads merely place it side by side with Extra.

That approach has helped Corona Light gain momentum in recent years, as it has grown into the No. 6 U.S. import brand, but it may have reached the point where acquiring more scale requires more marketing investment. After all, all five of the import brands it trails -- Corona Extra, Heineken, Modelo Especial, Tecate and Guinness -- enjoy substantial marketing support and independent positioning. The No. 8 import, Dos Equis, is also growing at double-digit rates in a down market on the strength of a national advertising campaign.

The split leaves Crown Imports in an awkward situation. It needs to invest in an independent positioning for the brand, but it doesn't have an agency to do it. Under normal circumstances, the easiest tack would be to take the brand back into C-K, which still handles Corona Extra and Modelo Especial for Crown. But Chief Marketing Officer Jim Sabia appeared to rule that out when he explained why the brand was shifting to Publicis in the first place.

"We feel that Corona Extra and Corona Light represent two large brands and two distinct pieces of business that can be best maximized via two separate agencies," Mr. Sabia said last month.

The only other Crown roster shop is the Seattle boutique Creature, which handles the much smaller Pacifico brand. If Mr. Sabia doesn't want to shift Corona Light to Creature or C-K, he might have to run a creative-agency review for Corona Light at the same time Crown is preparing to conduct a pitch for a new general-market media-buying and -planning agency.

Crown announced plans for a media review earlier this month, saying it wanted a media-only shop to handle buying and planning duties that had been with C-K and Creature. A Crown spokesman declined to comment on how the marketer would go about finding a new agency for the brand.

Crown also recently shifted Hispanic creative duties on its two largest brands, Corona Extra and Modelo Especial, to La Comunidad. The business had been at Casanova Pendril.

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Rupal Parekh contributed to this report.

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