Back when I was a kid, my father's beer of choice was Miller. Well, the full name of the product was actually Miller High Life, but my father did not call it that, and neither did anyone else-it was just Miller. The "High Life" tag was a throw-in, a nicety. Anyone could see that by looking at the label, where the "Miller" logo was printed in big letters and "High Life" was in small letters. When you wanted a beer, it was Miller Time, not High Life Time.
Admittedly I am something of a sentimentalist, so I've been watching with interest as a new campaign by the Miller Brewing Company for Miller High Life, aimed directly at me and my fellow demographic cohorts (guys in their 20s and 30s), has been unfolding. If I seem to be obsessing a bit about nomenclature, it's because the brand has been suffering through an identity crisis in recent years. Although Miller High Life remained synonymous with Miller, even as the brewer dabbled in a variety of new brand and line extensions (Miller Lite in 1975; Miller Sharp's, a low-alcohol beer, in 1985; Miller Genuine Draft in 1986; the ill-fated Miller Clear Beer in 1993), things got considerably more muddled in January 1996, when the company announced a new spin-off called...Miller Beer.
This new Miller has been a major flop and it's not hard to understand why. For one thing, the brewer had an established product already known as Miller, so why confuse matters by introducing another one? Worse, the beer's marketing team tried to differentiate between the two brews essentially by redesigning the older one: a garish repackaging attempt that greatly reduced the size of the Miller logotype while bumping up the size of "High Life," even though that's never where the brand's equity had been. As if to confirm the product's mismanagement, its long-time tag line, "The Champagne of Beers," was replaced with the yawn-inducing "America's Quality Beer," which sounded like a third-rate factory slogan from the old Soviet bloc.
My sentimental streak notwithstanding, I know most people don't want to drink the beer their fathers drank (most, in fact, would probably rather drink anything but), and I also know that even the most venerable brand identities need to evolve to appeal to younger demographics. But Miller's moves were ill-conceived: They tried to update the product's appeal but didn't honor its heritage.
The new campaign for Miller High Life, however, does both. Yet another repackaging has restored the proper hierarchy between "Miller" and "High Life," and the old "Champagne of Beers" slogan is back. But the beer also now comes in a gorgeous bottle that feels both retro and modern, the necker label updates several graphic icons from the brewer's distant past, and some nice metallic-ink touches make the whole thing pop in a decidedly contemporary fashion. This isn't my father's beer-it's better.
Four new TV commercials (the brand's first in years) use this updated-classic approach as part of a clever retro pitch that's clearly aimed at me , not my old man-these ads are miles away from the days of "If you've got the time, we've got the beer." At first glance, the commercials salute old-school, blue-collar, masculine values and icons (duct tape, auto mechanics, tape measures), complete with basso profundo voice-overs that solemnly declare, "There's only one beer that can stand up to a man's meal" and "Time was when a man knew how to command his vehicle" without hinting at so much as an ironically raised eyebrow. Even the old bow tie-shaped Miller High Life logo, which was mothballed years ago, has been resurrected for the ads, providing an imprimatur of Eisenhower-era class.
But despite the seemingly straight-faced delivery of these spots, each one throws in a subtle wink: The auto mechanic gets a bit of axle grease on the donut he's eating, but "That's just flavor to a High Life man"; the narrator on the duct tape ad deadpans, "If the pharaohs had duct tape, the Sphinx would still have a nose"; and the "man's meal" referred to above is a burger with a big smear of butter-a cholesterol-congested nightmare virtually unheard of these days (except, tellingly, in Milwaukee, Miller Brewing Co.'s corporate headquarters, where it's a local staple).
The overall effect is much like the beer's new package: evocative of the past, but not worshipful of it. (Okay, it's the oldest nostalgia trick in the book: selling the Eisenhower era to a crowd that probably couldn't pick Eisenhower out of a police lineup.) It's a subtle approach, sidestepping both the heavy kitsch factor inherent in the current spate of retro appeals and the bop-on-the-head ironies of postmodern ads. Of course, subtlety has its risks, especially in a product category where the advertising landscape is dominated by talking lizards and moronic tag lines like "I love you, man!" But I'm not the only guy of my generation whose dad drank this beer and, based on that model, some admittedly unscientific research indicates that Miller has a good chance of reaching the younger demographic: I love the new ads and my father doesn't get them at all.