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MILLER RESTAGES HIGH LIFE BRAND WITH NOD TO PAST: `CHAMPAGNE OF BEERS' TAG REVIVED AS $10 MIL AD EFFORT OFFERS NOSTALGIA

By Published on .

If you've got nostalgia, Miller Brewing Co. has got the beer.

Miller High Life, embarking on at least its fourth incarnation in 30 years, is rolling into stores repackaged as a retrobrew. The revival runs from its vintage elongated bottles to its old woman-in-the-moon logo and "Champagne of beers" slogan.

The bottles and the slogan disappeared in the 1980s; the woman was last seen in 1967.

"Miller High Life is one of the great beer brands and it has icons," said Bruce Winterton, brand manager for High Life and Miller Genuine Draft. "Why not use them?"

NATIONAL AD SUPPORT

High Life is getting its first national TV support in seven years, with a recently launched $10 million effort from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. (AA, Sept. 1)

Miller is hoping a play to nostalgic baby boomers will help boost sales of the faded-but-still-large brand, which once sold at a premium but now is priced below Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser.

The brewer also hopes to reach young adults looking for a beer with heritage.

Other beer marketers are playing the nostalgia card, too. Beverage Alliance has just relaunched classic New York-brew Rheingold and Seagram Americas has revived vintage Cuban brand Hatuey.

"These are prosperous times and when things are going well people turn to things that are familiar," said Tom Pirko, president of consultancy BevMark.

HIGH LIFE MADE OVER

High Life has gone through many makeovers in its 95 years.

When Philip Morris Cos. acquired the brewery in 1969, High Life was emphasizing the 63-year-old "Champagne of bottled beer" so much the brand had the image of being a rich man's brew, remote from Joe Six-Pack. Creative from then-agency Mathisson & Co., Milwaukee, had gotten so haughty that an early 1969 magazine ad featured a needlepoint rendition of the bottle with the tagline "Home is where the Miller is."

The new owner immediately truncated the slogan to "Champagne of beers." More importantly, it decided to pitch High Life as the working man's beer.

NOT ENOUGH CONSUMERS

"The Miller consumer treats beer a little like champagne, but the problem was that there haven't been enough consumers like this to increase the share of the market," said an executive for new agency McCann-Erickson, New York, in 1971.

Under McCann, the "Miller time" campaign was born and sales quadrupled between 1970 and 1978, to 21.7 million barrels, putting it just behind Bud.

It was a great run, but imports and the surging light category -- created at that time, ironically, by Miller's then-new Lite beer -- eventually bit into sales, and what was the brewer's flagship brand went into free fall during the 1980s.

GENUINE DRAFT INTRO

The Miller ad account had left McCann when key executives departed and formed Backer & Spielvogel, New York (later merged into Bates). Not only Lite followed the people who had helped create it -- the agency also was responsible for the 1985 introduction of Genuine Draft, which also cut significantly into High Life's business.

Miller changed the packaging, abandoned the "Champagne" slogan in 1988, and came up with new campaigns -- but nothing helped. In 1993, the brewer cut the brand's price and also marketing.

Last year, however, Miller decided to give it another go, when it noted that High Life sales -- amid extensive tactical discounting by the brewer -- grew 6.8% to 4.7 million barrels, making it the eighth-largest beer in the country, according to industry newsletter Impact.

With nostalgia already on its mind -- the brewer earlier had revived the "Miller time" tagline for new campaigns for Lite and Genuine Draft -- the brewer returned to the beer's roots.

`90S ADS ADD IRONY

The 1998 High Life campaign blends the populist bent of the 1970s' "Miller time" with the irony of the 1990s. While old spots featured blue-collar guys, new ads zero in on men working around the house as voice-over celebrates the fixing powers of duct tape and pleasures of eating powdered doughnuts with greasy fingers.

A beer industry rival dismissed the High Life effort, charging it was "too little too late" and that the new ads "make fun of who they [the drinkers] are rather than giving them joy."

But Miller wholesalers applauded the new push. No one expects the brew to return to the top, but distributors believe the support will nudge up the brand and bolster it against rival subpremiums such as Busch beer from A-B.

PACKAGING BOOSTS SALES

"I'm very encouraged by the new advertising and, even before that came out, the nostalgia look helped sales pick up," said a Texas wholesaler. "That almost never happens with packaging."

Miller certainly is comfortable refitting the brand in the packaging of its glory days.

High Life "has never gone away," Mr. Winterton said. "We didn't want to stray too far from where we were in the 1970s. That's when it was successful, and the packaging had something to do with that."

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