ROLLING ROCK GETS BOOST TO $24 MIL: FIRST NETWORK TV ADS FOLLOW CRAFT BREW SLOWDOWN

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Labatt USA will hike marketing support for one beer from its Latrobe Brewing Co. and possibly yank a line of specialty beers.

The distributor is pouring $24 million behind Rolling Rock in 1998, by far the most marketing support the brand has ever had.

At the same time, it is pondering whether to kill its line of Latrobe specialty beers. Labatt already has suspended point-of-purchase and field marketing support for its Latrobe Pale Ale, Bohemian Pilsner and Bavarian Black brands.

"It's possible that we will discontinue them during this year," said Brad Hittle, marketing director for Rolling Rock and Latrobe.

CRAFT BREW SLOWDOWN

The slowdown in the craft brew segment is helping drive Labatt's marketing decisions. After years of double-digit growth, the segment expanded by less than 10% in 1997. Labatt rolled out its specialty line in 1996 to compete with the rash of emerging craft brews.

Today, "the craft segment is in such a state of disarray that it's not wise" to back the specialty line, Mr. Hittle said.

The fall-off in craft brews could provide a boost to Rolling Rock, however. The brew grew rapidly after Labatt acquired it in 1987, but sales stalled at about 1 million barrels in 1993 -- just as craft brews started catching on.

Now that craft brews are falling out of favor, Labatt believes it can boost Rolling Rock sales by 5% with a plan that includes $12 million in media support, including the brand's first network TV exposure.

During the spring and fall, Labatt will run a mix of seven 30-second spots and four 15-second spots during sports telecasts and prime-time and late-night network and cable TV programming.

The humorous ads, from Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, revolve around the distinctive green, painted bottle. Some spots first aired on ESPN in the fall.

RESTAGING THE BRAND

The increased marketing support goes hand-in-hand with an overall restaging of the brand. Labatt now sells Rolling Rock solely in long-neck, painted bottles and has boosted pricing to sandwich the brew between domestic premium and specialty beers.

Labatt also will run a summer promotion in which consumers can get posters of artists' renditions of the bottle.

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