Miller Lite Sticks With Taste Despite Sales Fall

Hemmed in by Sibling Brands' Positionings, Light Beer Stays Ad Course

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- When MillerCoors announced its third-quarter results last week, most of the attention focused on a dip in sales for the marketer's biggest brand, Coors Light, which saw its streak of 16 consecutive quarters of growth snapped.

MillerCoors CMO Andy England
MillerCoors CMO Andy England
But the marketer's co-flagship, Miller Lite, has been working on a streak of its own: The brand has fallen by at least mid-single digits in all five quarters since MillerCoors took it over and set its marketing behind a single-minded focus on "great taste."

The idea was simple enough: Talking about cold refreshment and nothing but cold refreshment set Coors Light on its remarkable run, so doing the same with Miller Lite -- which in recent years had touted taste, calories, carbohydrates, masculinity and nonconformity, among other things -- was a natural way to differentiate the two longtime rival brews while pulling from the same successful playbook.

But thus far, at least, it hasn't worked. "Miller Lite has been a major drag on our performance as a brewery in 2009," CMO Andy England told wholesalers at a meeting in Chicago last week. That was hardly news to the wholesalers, several of whom had wondered out loud whether such an extensive focus on taste was the right strategy for a light beer at a time when so many fuller-flavored crafts and imports were available to consumers.

But in an interview following his speech, Mr. England made it clear that he was not among the doubters. "I strongly believe we have the right positioning,' he said. "I believe we're already starting to see a momentum shift."

Asked what he's seeing that the sales figures don't show, Mr. England cites the brand's "base velocity," a measure that excludes discounted packages to track how full-priced sales are faring, which he said are improving. He also noted that the brand quit its former policy of cutting pricing when sales slacked last winter, and that this quarter will provide the first comparisons against the higher-priced periods.

While seeing those green shoots requires some squinting at this point, Mr. England is putting his budget where his boast is, unveiling a barrage of new ads for the fourth quarter and lining up new packaging gimmicks meant to make the point further for next year.

A series of new spots introduced at the wholesaler meeting mocked ads for dating sites like eHarmony by talking about how Miller Lite drinkers love their beer's taste. (For a contrast, he showed videos of interviews with Bud Light drinkers who said they thought their preferred brand was "OK.") The ads drew hearty laughs and loud applause from wholesalers, who reacted more coolly to the football-themed Lite ads that are currently airing. (Those spots show beer being poured in bars to the soundtrack of famous football play-by-play calls.)

Miller Lite typically spends more than $100 million on measured media each year, and it shelled out $62 million during the first half of 2009, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Both Miller Lite and Coors Light are handled by DraftFCB, Chicago.

Of course, it's not as if Mr. England has the option of hawking Miller Lite on refreshment -- which is Coors Light's territory -- or even on calories and carbs, a former selling point it ceded to fast-growing MGD 64 within the MillerCoors portfolio. (Mr. England says MGD 64 sources about 25% of its drinkers from Miller Lite.)

"I don't feel boxed in ... I don't feel it's a default position," he said. "If you look at the studies of mainstream light-beer drinkers, taste and refreshment are the driving attributes."

In addition, he also unveiled new packaging innovations meant to hammer home the taste theme. Just as Coors Light had played the refreshment card with its "Cold Activated Bottle" and "Cooler Box," Miller Lite, having already introduced a "Taste-Protector Cap" this year, is rolling out a "Taste Activating Bottle." The new bottle has a grooved neck that's intended to aerate the beer as it's poured, which, in theory, unlocks its aromas and flavors.

"We have a bottle that we believe really brings out the taste and aroma of Miller Lite," said Mr. England. "We're looking to accentuate a product benefit."

Of course, many drinkers will find the idea of aerating a domestic light beer as if it were a fine wine to be a little silly. After all, light beers are light-tasting by definition, right?

"Look, there were light beers before Miller Lite," said Mr. England, referring to the brand's reputation as the original, "but they all tasted horrible," he said. "Miller Lite proved light beer could taste great."

What else is brewing

In addition to new creative for Miller Lite, MillerCoors made several other significant announcements concerning its brands at its meeting with wholesalers last week:

  • Faux-microbrew Blue Moon -- now the biggest craft beer in the U.S. -- will get national TV support, although on a relatively small scale. CMO Andy England said that while Blue Moon Belgian White is bigger than Sam Adams Boston Lager, it lags in consumer awareness. TV is being wielded to close the gap. That's a reversal for a brand that has long leaned on word-of-mouth and consumer discovery to drive sales for the brand, handled by Integer, Denver.
  • Anheuser-Busch's launch of Budweiser Select 55 has trumped MGD 64's claim as the lightest beer in the world, rendering its tagline, from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, outdated. "'As light as it gets' doesn't really work in this new competitive environment," Mr. England told distributors. The new tag is: "A tasty contradiction."
  • The fastest-growing brand in MillerCoors' portfolio remains Keystone Light, and Mr. England announced plans for a national ad push focused on doubling the size of the brand in five years. The creative, also from Saatchi, features a new spokesman named "Keith Stone" whose lack of smoothness is supposed to highlight the beer's abundance of it. (Keystone has long leaned on the insight that sub-premium beer drinkers are often less than suave.)
  • While MillerCoors doesn't jab publicly at Anheuser-Busch nearly as much as the old Miller Brewing Co. used to, this meeting featured an abundance of jabs. Mr. England took a few shots at A-B's "drinkability" push for Bud Light. And Chief Commercial Officer Tom Long, in describing the opportunity for challenger brands in a "consumer reset" like the current recession, got downright Biblical: "I feel ... the Walls of Jericho trembling down in St. Louis."
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