Sapporo Beer Plots Escape From Sushi Bar

Brand Tries to Get Beyond Stereotype by Using Events to Court Hip-Hop Crowd

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CHICAGO ( -- Sapporo beer, long synonymous with sushi bars and little else, is striving to become the latest luxury brand embraced by hip-hop culture.
Frank Pronio, Sapporo USA marketing chief, says that through hip-hop fashion tie-ins, total sales have risen by about 15%.
Frank Pronio, Sapporo USA marketing chief, says that through hip-hop fashion tie-ins, total sales have risen by about 15%.

Through a series of nightclub and fashion events in major markets, the brand is partnering with top urban designers such as Zero Halliburton, Jungle Gurl and New Era to transform its trademark oversized steel can into a status symbol.

Sushi chic
Executives said the positioning play isn't as incongruous as it might seem, given that many sushi restaurants in key markets such as New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Chicago are morphing into trendy nightspots.

"This is being driven by the evolution of the sushi bar," said Coltrane Curtis, an MTV fashion guru who is creative director at Epiphany, a unit of Margeotes, Fertitta & Powell that handles Sapporo's event marketing.

For most of its three decades in the U.S., Sapporo has been sold almost exclusively in foodservice settings. About 70% of the brand's 2.4 million annual cases are distributed on premises, and about 80% of those locations are Asian-themed restaurants. (Grocery and liquor stores make up the balance of total sales.)

But that's slowly changing, said Sapporo USA marketing chief Frank Pronio. Last year, as Sapporo began to use hip-hop fashion tie-ins to gain broader acceptance, its distribution widened, and total sales rose by about 15%, Mr. Pronio said. The brand's slim budget limits its marketing activity to events and some in-house print and out-of-home ads.

Brand on sneakers
The brewer has conducted events featuring fashion designers such as Zac Posen and hip-hop artists such as Common. A recent fashion event positioned the beer as an urban lifestyle brand featured on sneakers from Jhung Yuro, a bikini designed by Jungle Gurl, caps from New Era and even in a snazzy four-can pack from Zero Halliburton.

Few beers have tapped the selling potential of hip-hop -- which has fueled turnarounds for brands such as Courvoisier and Cadillac -- although brewers such as Heineken and Anheuser-Busch have included rap stars in commercials. Hip-hop artists have tended to embrace champagne and spirits brands rather than beer.

Likewise, the fashion runway traditionally has been the purview of spirits brands, but high-end import beers have been eying it of late. SABMiller's Peroni brand sponsored New York's Fashion Week last year as part of a larger push to position itself as a glamorous option.

Sapporo has aligned itself with designers associated more with street cred than with traditional glamour, but it's hoping for the same sort of fashion-fueled makeover. "We need to get people to think about our brand when they're not eating sushi," Mr. Pronio said.
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