"It's a ride like we haven't seen in a long time, if ever," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. "We haven't seen a large brewer post percentage gains like that since at least the 1970s."
Indeed, in the past year Coors' brands on the top, middle and bottom shelves have dramatically outperformed their competitors, in some cases by exponential margins -- and it's all credited to a single-minded, if mind-numbing, obsession with brand attributes.
The roots of that astounding beer run -- according to distributors, analysts and Coors' own executives -- were formed after it ditched the "Rock On" campaign in 2004, the T&A-driven effort that starred the "Coors Twins" and saw Coors fall far behind its still-larger rivals, Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing.
With those efforts, Coors abandoned its long-held, attribute-driven brand positioning. And while the strategy did generate unprecedented talk value and buzz by shocking drinkers who previously associated Coors brands with pristine images of the Rocky Mountains, it also generated poor sales that taught it a painful lesson.
Jokes don't sell
"There was a collective decision that it was time to start selling beer again as opposed to lifestyles and jokes," recalled one veteran Coors ad executive.
The approach that followed, the relentless and redundant pounding of simple brand attributes, is not one that wins many creative accolades for its agencies -- DraftFCB, Chicago, Avenue A and Integer -- but Coors has proved that it sells. "Brand managers tend to get bored long before the target audience does," said Andy England, Coors' chief marketing officer. "But we understand we need to have a relentless focus in order to succeed."
Nowhere is that focus clearer than on Coors Light, which posted 5.4% growth over the 52 weeks ending April 19, compared with 1.5% and 1.2% gains by Bud Light and Miller Lite, according to AC Nielsen.
Coors' consistent messaging borders on maddening: Every ad harps on cold refreshment, invoking the brand's cold-filtered origins (they call it "sterile filtered") and Rocky Mountain roots. Beyond the ads, a constant stream of innovations touts special tap handles that pour beer below freezing temperatures; labels that turn blue when the beer is cold enough to drink; frost-lined cans; and a lined 12-pack case that holds ice. It's hard to miss the point.
Meanwhile, said veteran beverage marketing consultant Tom Pirko, its two major competitors have tended to talk about their own brands in a less focused way. Bud Light's long-running sophomoric-humor-driven campaign has lately veered toward a drink-ability pitch, and Miller Lite has touted itself as the "Ultimate Light Beer," a status that incorporates a number of different attributes. The fact that many of Miller's recent ads have focused on tweaking Bud's Dalmatian and Clydesdale icons hasn't hurt, either.
"They've defined themselves as a clear alternative to St. Louis and Milwaukee," said Mr. Pirko. "Their competitors haven't been as consistent or as credible in how they talk about their brands."
That alternative status is also a factor in what most observers consider the brewer's most startling achievement: the return of Coors Banquet to growth after 21 years of decline. Most domestic macro-brewed, full-calorie premium beers -- a space defined by its two largest players, Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft -- have been content at attempting to slow their long declines.
But Banquet, helped in part by minuscule sales volume that stands at about a tenth of its peak, has been able to position itself as something more like a craft beer than a Budweiser clone, a position hammered home by an ad campaign launched last year that featured gravelly voiced Sam Elliott regaling the brand's Rocky Mountain ingredients and heritage.
"In a way, they've taken what was a competitive disadvantage -- being No. 3 -- and turned it into an advantage," said Mr. Steinman. "It's the most craft-like beer in the category."
Coors also has evoked the era when it was a regional phenomenon by reverting to the yellow cans enthusiastic drinkers from east of the Mississippi used to smuggle back home in their airplane luggage. "We managed to regain our authenticity," said Mr. England. "This is an authentic beer with a story to tell, and we'd rather draw comparisons to other brands like that, like Heineken and Corona, and try to distance it from Budweiser and Pabst."
Easy on the Blue Moon
Coors has thus far resisted putting a campaign behind Blue Moon, which has grown in the mid- to high-double digits in recent years, driven primarily by consumer discovery. Most of the brewer's investment there has emphasized glassware, garnishes, coasters -- and, increasingly, a limited amount of outdoor and print advertising featuring a mural of the glassware and garnish under the tagline "Artfully crafted."
The result has been consumers embracing a brand brewed by a global brewing conglomerate in Canada as a Colorado-based microbrew. "It's a bit like selling wine," said Mr. England. "People want it treated with tender loving care."
On the low end, too, its Keystone has gained at double-digit rates while larger rivals such as A-B's Busch and Natural Light have eked out gains and Miller's Milwaukee's Best franchise is in freefall. As with its trademark brands, the brewer took an insight from testing -- its smooth taste -- and wrapped its strategy around a message that young guys who buy cheap beer aren't as smooth as Keystone. It then combined that with unusually slick packaging for the category and a concerted push to increase shelf space at retailers.
To hear Mr. England tell it, the growth across Coors' portfolio is a result of its entire organization clicking. But that organization will soon face radical change, as the Justice Department is expected to approve a U.S. joint venture between Miller and Coors this summer.