ROOT BEER TACTICS RANGE FROM GOOFY TO GHOULISH: A&W, BARQ'S, MUG SQUARE OFF IN NEW PUSHES

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Vampires, dogs and idiots. That's what the nation's top three root beer marketers are toying with as they launch new projects to drive up sales for one of America's best-loved soda flavors.

Cadbury Schweppes' A&W, arguably the nation's best-known root beer brand, jumps back into TV advertising next month after a two-year absence with an estimated $6 million campaign from new agency Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago.

At the same time, Coca-Cola Co. is in talks to link its Barq's brand with the popular teen show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as archrival Pepsi-Cola Co. readies a new advertising campaign for Mug.

ADS GET GOOD RESPONSE

FCB's ads, which debut in a few weeks, were greeted with glee by A&W bottlers when they were unveiled last fall (AA, Sept. 21). One shows a jobseeker mispronouncing the name of his interviewer, Mr. Dumass, calling him Mr. Dumb Ass. Another shows a dopey husband remarking to his wife that there's lipstick on his shirt collar and unusual hotel charges on their credit card bill.

The spots target males 18 to 34 with broad humor and the new theme, "It's good to be thick headed." That replaces "When you want one, you want one," from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York.

'STRAIGHT TO YOUR BRAIN'

Beverage's behemoths aren't far behind. Pepsi-Cola plans to launch a new campaign for Mug in May from BBDO Worldwide, New York. The ads will have a new theme line and target an older customer than the current teen-focused spots tagged "Mug root beer. The foam goes straight to your brain." Pepsi-Cola has also tweaked the brand's graphics.

Coca-Cola, too, is slated to launch new TV spots for Barq's this spring from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. They will continue the current campaign featuring a twentysomething guy named Billy hawking sodas on the streets of New Orleans to a cast of quirky characters.

Dogs helped Barq's grab headlines last month with a promotion linked to the oh-so-serious Westminster Dog Show. The company staged an event in Hollywood featuring pooches dressed as celebrities, including a pair of pups dressed as Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.

"Barq's has bite" is the theme for the brand, which positions itself as a more traditional soda than its competitors, according to a Coca-Cola spokesman.

Coca-Cola is also hoping consumers will bite into a new promotion this summer for Barq's called "Pizza Dough" that offers coupon prizes on 2-liter bottles redeemable for up to $10 off a pizza or a free pizza from local pizza restaurants.

NON-COLA THIRST

All three beverages posted sales increases last year, fueled by a consumer thirst for something different from a cola product.

A&W's sales were up 2.2% in 1998 despite virtually no advertising. Both Barq's and Mug, each backed by $6 million in estimated ad spending, posted impressive 12% sales gains, far outpacing overall beverage industry growth of 3.4%, according to consultancy Beverage Marketing Corp.

"People are searching for alternatives now," said Jim Trebilcock, senior VP-marketing, CB/7 UP, the division of Cadbury Schweppes' Dr Pepper/Seven Up unit responsible for A&W. "Root beer is a treat product. It's unlike any other flavor we have, and people get very passionate about it."

FROTHIER SALES

In what may be a testament to the power of marketing, sales in this comparatively tiny $1.65 billion segment of the $55 billion soft-drink business stand to be even frothier now that A&W is back in the advertising mix.

"For many years, root beer has probably lost a top-of-mind awareness. The effort that Barq's has put forth and we have put forth has brought people to it," said Craig Coffey, director-marketing, Pepsi-Cola Co.

The once-moribund category woke up in 1996 following Coca-Cola's acquisition of Barq's. That year, media spending was $8.5 million for A&W, up from $4.5 million a year earlier. As for Barq's, it received $7 million in spending for 1996, up from $661,000 a year earlier, while Mug received $7.9 million, up from a minuscule $7,000, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

"If [marketers] invest in a brand, it's going to respond, especially in these non-cola categories, which to some extent have been underdeveloped," said Gary Hemphill, VP-information services at Beverage Marketing Corp.

A&W, BARQ'S, MUG LEAD THE PACK

A&W, Barq's and Mug lead the root beer segment and account for 80% of its sales, Mr. Hemphill said.

Distribution problems took A&W out of the media spotlight in 1997 and 1998. Now that those issues have been resolved, Cadbury Schweppes, the third-largest U.S. beverage company behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, is lavishing attention on the brand.

"We expect above-average growth for the next four or five years and we are going to invest very heavily," Mr. Trebilcock said.

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