Miller hails triumphant return of High Life man

Campaign ditches beer's pompous positioning and helps stem sales slide

By Published on .

jmullman@crain.com

After an ill-fated attempt to pose its oldest brand as a metrosexual, Miller Brewing Co. is back in touch with its inner High Life Man. And the Man just might have what it takes to turn sales around.
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Following four years of sales declines, including a 7.5% drop in the first nine months of 2006, sales of Miller High Life turned flat to up slightly during the fourth quarter as the brewer returned the beer to its blue-collar roots with new TV ads.

The ads, from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, feature a High Life delivery man forcibly removing the beer from French bistros and gourmet grocery stores-the very locales High Life's "Girl in the Moon" effort targeted. "Pardon moi," the burly driver says while informing an evidently stunned maitre d' he'd lost High Life selling privileges. "Eleven-fifty for a hamburger? Y'all must be crazy."

The spots started running in October in High Life's core Midwestern markets. In Chicago, traditionally a major High Life market, sales have risen double digits in three of the four months since the ads started running, including a 19% boost during the first five weeks of 2007.

Miller has approved a round of TV and radio spots from Crispin it hopes will continue the century-old beer's unlikely uptick.

High Life Senior Brand Director Dan Hennessy said the beer's resurgence reflects a larger consumer pushback against the pretension that's often accompanied the widespread trading-up phenomenon.

"You look at $5 for a cup of coffee, and there's a backlash," Mr. Hennessy said. "Dunkin' Donuts' [rising coffee sales] and High Life are good examples of that."

High Life's embrace of the anti-trading-up movement comes on the heels of its own failed attempt to trade up, after trying to position itself as an upscale, more feminine brew.

In 2005, it killed off its long-running High Life Man-whose gravelly voiced exultations of the joys of eating bacon grease and doughnuts with unwashed hands boosted sales from 1998 to 2003 before losing momentum. Miller replaced him with the beer's longtime neck-label emblem, the Girl in the Moon, attempting to use her femininity and nostalgia to broaden the beer's appeal.

Back to its roots

Sales tanked, and the ads were quickly pulled. Miller parted ways with Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., which was responsible for both campaigns, and hired Crispin, which handles creative for Miller Lite, to bring the beer back to its roots.

Two other spots from Crispin are in the works, both starring the unnamed delivery driver, who this time drops the beer off at acceptable locations. "You know, bars with peanut shells on the floor, free pool on Thursdays, that sort of thing," Mr. Hennessy said. "You see him going through a mental checklist when he goes into a place that wants to sell High Life." For now, at least, that makes the delivery driver the new High Life Man.

"The Girl in the Moon stuff was so nondescript; I think people just forgot about High Life," said James J. Doney, president of Chicago Beverage Systems, Miller's Chicago distributor. "This campaign is distinctive, because High Life drinkers like making fun of French bistros and frou-frou stores."
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