Miller Genuine Debacle: Brewer kills new ad push

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Miller Brewing Co. has tripped over yet another advertising campaign.

Following an overwhelmingly negative reaction by wholesalers, the No. 2 brewer killed off a new Miller Genuine Draft campaign before it even broke.

The effort for its second-largest brand, from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., was slated to break last week during the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. But the still-unfinished spots were previewed at a March 5 wholesalers meeting and roundly panned. The brewer now is going back to the drawing board just weeks before the beer industry's key spring/summer selling season.

"They're not going to show that crap I saw? I'm glad to hear that," said one West Coast wholesaler who saw the spots at the brewer's wholesaler meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

DELAYED TILL NBA PLAYOFFS

New MGD work now won't break until the National Basketball Association playoffs in May, a Miller spokeswoman said.

The ads emphasized the cold-filter brewing process for Genuine Draft and featured singing brewery workers. Wholesalers liked the message but thought the delivery was silly. The tag: "Put a keg in your hand."

"I guess the initial reaction was strong enough to save [Miller] from themselves," said a southeastern wholesaler who saw the spots at the Nashville meeting.

MORE CHANGES

"We're continuing to make changes" to the work, the Miller spokeswoman said, although she declined to say how extensively the eventual campaign will be changed.

According to several executives, Jerry Cronin, a Wieden creative director who worked on Genuine Draft, is leaving the agency. He couldn't be reached for comment at press time; Wieden didn't return phone calls.

Miller said it's holding off until the NBA playoffs because that's the next major property in which the ads could, according to the spokesman, "make a big splash."

Some interim and promotional work will run, mostly - if not exclusively -- in spot markets.

The flip-flop has shaken the confidence in Miller of some wholesalers, who were already leery of the brewer's advertising strategy in wake of the controversial "Miller Time" campaigns for Lite and Genuine Draft.

The quirky Lite effort, aimed at twentysomethings, backfired and Miller put the account in review. Incumbent Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, retained the business with a new, tamer approach featuring ex-jocks and celebrities.

While relieved that the Genuine Draft spots aren't going to run, wholesalers fear the brewery is now gun-shy after getting burned by the failed '96 launch of Miller Beer and the two "Miller Time" campaigns, which ultimately failed to boost the brands despite hundreds of millions of dollars of support.

Some wonder why the brewer let such flawed work progress to the point it did. Indeed, Miller was planning a public relations splash promoting the new, now-halted MGD campaign.

"It surprises me it got so far," said a Texas wholesaler. "Somebody said, `That will work,' and that's what confuses me."

Miller's response to wholesaler criticism marks a sharp contrast to its reaction to the same group's complaints about Lite and Genuine Draft in January 1997. Then wholesalers' complaints were met with this response: You're not the target.

Ultimately, the wholesalers were vindicated when Miller VP-Marketing Jack Rooney last fall announced the campaigns would be abandoned in favor of ads with broader appeal.

Most wholesalers have embraced the new, more broad-based Lite ads, which revive the celebrity and ex-jock theme that built the brand in the 1970s and '80s.

'HOPING FOR A MIRACLE'

But even those ads can't please all the wholesalers. One major distributor complained that the celebrities in the first round of spots are too old.

The ads "went over well with the wholesalers because they're no different from the people at Miller: They're hoping for a miracle," the major distributor said. "There's nothing in them for the minimum age to 30-year-old because everyone in [the ads] is 150 years old."

Miller plans to work into the campaign more celebrities who appeal to drinkers in their 20s.

Miller has a lot of work ahead of it to come up with Genuine Draft creative that works as well as the Lite work, wholesalers said.

"Jack Rooney had big bags under his eyes from working on Lite," said the West Coast wholesaler, "and I imagine he'll have double bags when he's done with Genuine Draft."

Copyright March 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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