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POWER 50M;EDIA ARE THE MESSAGE FOR 2 ALCOHOL MARKETERS ;BEVERAGES: SEAGRAM LOOKS TO TV, WHERE A-B HAS A MAJOR PRESENCE

By Published on .

even though he spent $64 million in advertising last year on myriad spirits brands, including Absolut vodka, Arthur Shapiro can make a big splash with a wee drop.

There may be no better evidence of that quality than a short, inexpensive series of TV spots for Crown Royal whiskey that ran in Corpus Christi, Texas, in June. Defying the voluntary ban on electronic advertising for hard liquor, the exec VP-marketing & strategy for Seagram Americas reaped a publicity bonanza that paid for the air time 100 times over.

That TV test, along with forthcoming spots in other U.S. markets, threatens to level the media playing field between brewers, who can use the medium, and spirits marketers like Seagram.

AVOIDING BACKLASH

If Seagram can convince TV outlets that there will be no backlash from brewers, who spent about $570 million in broadcast TV last year, then it can start to advertise in earnest, as brewers already do.

Alternatively, if future unpleasant reaction to Seagram's TV plan eventually makes Congress consider beer ad restrictions, Seagram then also levels the playing field.

"It's never a question of how much money you have but what you do with it," says the 51-year-old Mr. Shapiro.

While he proclaims himself satisfied with the company's foray into broadcast, magazine publishers need not worry yet about watered down schedules as a result.

What may be coming is the combination of print and broadcast that will allow Seagram to tackle regional markets in the same way other marketers have been doing for decades.

"A combination of local books and spot TV allows me to directly address issues or problems on a competitive basis," he says.

Of even more importance to Mr. Shapiro is the huge investment the company has made in direct-mail, event marketing and public relations.

"I think we've blazed some trails" in these areas, he says. "We are a little behind package goods, but way ahead of our competitors."

That's for sure: In a market where people are drinking less but drinking better, Seagram's dollar-heavy focus on its top-shelf brands, such as Absolut, Captain Morgan rum and Glenlivet scotch, has enlivened those spirits to sales and share increases in a segment that shrinks in volume every year.

For August A. Busch IV, VP-brand management for Anheuser-Busch Cos., overall consumption is not the problem.

In fact, "More people are drinking but they are drinking less at a time," says the hands-on scion of the country's biggest brewing family.

A-B has been spending aggressively to maintain and, in many cases, even build share in 1996. Long a sports-marketing powerhouse, the brewer went into the Olympics in a big way, spending "upwards of $100 million" in licensing fees, sponsorships and 198 on-air spots.

`SINGLE LARGEST INVESTMENT'

"It was the single largest [market-ing] investment in company history," says the 32-year-old Mr. Busch.

As a bonus, in addition to the traditional sports-oriented target, he notes the company's big Olympics push also reached "A different audience: a female audience," which has been key to the explosive growth of brands like Bud Light.

Even though sales of flagship Budweiser have been going flat for a several years, Mr. Busch says it has decreased its rate of decline.

His formula for maintaining market dominance, Mr. Busch says, is not just lavish use of the over $300 million in ad spending for A-B's beers but a strategy of support for its core brands.

This contrasts with major competitors like Miller Brewing Co., he says, which "shifted to new products and their mainstream brands suffered as a result."

Mr. Busch seems to be turning his attention to the red-hot microbrew and import segments.

"It's not as expensive a segment to compete in," he says, but A-B will need the "right product or the right import partner" to get its piece of the pie.

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