With cheap, in-house ads, Miller CEO Tom Long said, 'We're going to jab and jab some more' at Lite beer rivals.
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At its annual distributor conference here last week the No. 2 brewer hammered home -- through a seemingly endless succession of boxing metaphors -- that it intends to return Miller Lite to the combative posture its flagship largely abandoned in 2005.
Fresh from the flop of its "Man Laws" campaign, Miller CEO Tom Long said he's primed to resume the aggressive strategy that the brewer occupied during the successful two-year run leading up to his appointment as chief marketing officer. During that period "Miller had the confidence of a challenger that had the balls ... to challenge the dominant industry player," he said.
The Pepsi Challenge model
"We want to challenge the conventional wisdom, challenge the status quo and challenge our competition," said Mr. Long, who is modeling the Miller offensive on his former archrival, Pepsi. "If you talk about challenging the competition," the one-time president of Coke's Northwest European division said, "there's no question the Pepsi Challenge model is a good one."
But unlike Pepsi, which went after one brand -- Coke -- Miller Lite is going to try to take on all comers. Miller plans to compare taste, carbohydrates and calories to all rival beers. A similar strategy worked well for Miller Lite when it picked up market share from No. 1 light beer Bud Light in 2003 and 2004. But Mr. Long acknowledged that being a challenger brand today is no longer as simple as taking punches at Bud Light.
In addition to the wine and spirits brands that continue to steal beer drinkers, there are now 13 beers in the premium-light-beer category, including import entries such as Heineken Premium Light and Corona Light. And Mr. Long seems intent on going after all of them.
For the time being, the key to that strategy will be low-tech ads produced in-house that resemble PowerPoint slides. The ads make simple comparisons, usually on carbs and calories, between Miller Lite and Bud Light, Heineken Premium Light, white wine and even margaritas. Mr. Long said that because these ads are so easy to produce, they'll make Miller a more nimble combatant. "We're going to jab and jab some more," he said.
That feistiness was missing last year in the "Man Laws" campaign from Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, which established a humorous conduct code for beer. Aside from one Corona-inspired law forbidding men from putting fruit in their beers, the spots rarely alluded to other brands and, at times, seemed to only barely mention Miller Lite.
Bad call: Miller Lite sales fell while Bud Light and Coors Light posted gains. Crispin quit after Mr. Long insisted on a new direction, although the shop left behind a few spots focusing on Miller Lite's success in the World Beer Cup to hold the brewer over until a new agency is selected next month. Miller sales rose 0.5% in the first quarter as the new Crispin spots and Miller's homemade ads replaced "Man Laws."
Intentions aside, some are questioning whether the Miller team of Coke executives -- Mr. Long, Miller CMO Randy Ransom and Charles Frenette, a 27-year Coke veteran who sits on Miller's board of directors -- will really be ready to rumble. And in fact, while Mr. Long said Miller will come out swinging, he cited as examples Toyota's work against Ford and Apple's work against Microsoft. He said he finds the recent, much-heralded "Mac vs. PC" campaign "a bit mean" for his taste.
"The individuals involved at Miller come from the part of Coke history when they'd given up on confronting their major competitor," said veteran beverage marketing consultant Tom Pirko, who has worked for both Miller and Coke. "The stuff they've done so far tells me they're not comfortable punching A-B in the mouth, either."