Pabst Blue Ribbon: an America's Hottest Brands Case Study

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Pabst Blue Ribbon
Sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon leapt 25% through August of this year, but not for the reason you think.

Yes, Pabst is cheap, and many cheap beers are thriving, but PBR's growth has occurred amid a price increase that's placed it as a premium to the bottom-shelf likes of Keystone, Busch, Natural and Miller High Life. And PBR is still growing faster than all of them in percentage terms, despite a dramatically smaller ad budget behind it. (Miller High Life outspent PBR $4.5 million to, uh, $0 in measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence, yet only grew at an incremental pace.)

The secret to PBR's success, really, is that the brand simply paid attention to how it was being used in the marketplace, and acted swiftly to fan the flames.

Earlier this decade, it was adopted by the hipster, bike-messenger set. Lacking much of an ad budget, in 2004 it leaned on word-of-mouth to stoke the emerging trend (and presumably spent whatever was left over on trucker hats and bar-window neons). Sales surged by 17% in 2004, and grew at a single-digit clip in each successive year, until the current recession, when sales soared as consumers forced to trade down opted for the one cheap beer with "badge value."

"There's still a bit of hipness to it," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. "Of all the subpremiums, it's got a little more cache."

"It's an anti-establishment badge," added a major market wholesaler. "It seems to play to the retro, nonconformist crowd pretty well."

Of course, PBR's traditional drinkers aren't nonconformists so much as the older folks who would enjoy nothing more than beating them senseless. Case in point: Clint Eastwood's cranky badass septuagenarian character in "Gran Torino," who is rarely seen in the movie without a PBR in hand thanks to a well-executed product placement.

And, clearly, part of the brand's success has been its ability to appeal to both groups simultaneously, a task perhaps made easier by the lack of mass-market advertising. After all, it's not like guys like Mr. Eastwood's character are drinking at the same bars as the bike-messenger set.

PBR is owned by the privately-held Pabst Brewing Co. Marketing is overseen by Brad Hittle, whose experience includes InBev and Unilever. The company declined to participate in this article.

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