New drinkers don't belly up to the beer bar

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When choosing their first (legal) alcoholic beverages, today's young adults are more adventurous than their predecessors of 10 or 20 years ago. And that's a challenge for brewers.

Instead of automatically bellying up for quarter tappers, they're experimenting with a broader array of drinks, from cocktails to beverages such as Diageo's Smirnoff Ice.

It's a change driven by a broad cultural shift to more diverse taste palates. Aggressive marketing efforts by spirits companies going back a decade also have played a role.

"Beer is not what it was 10, 20 years ago," says Chris Rich, group account director for Labatt USA at the TAG Ideation unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson Worldwide. "People's tastes have changed. Drinking patterns have changed."

BEER SALES SLIP

To be sure, beer is the dominant alcoholic drink among this set. But despite a growing population of legal-age drinkers, spirits sales grew by 3% in 2003 while beer sales slipped by nearly 1%, according to Impact Databank.

That's tough for brewers because getting in front of consumers when they're young can shape habits for a lifetime. And out-on-the-town young adults drink more than older consumers who've slowed down.

Bigger bar banners and broadcast TV buys aren't enough to reverse this trend. The new drinkers' media consumption is more fragmented than that of their forebears, and they're tougher to reach.

Also, marketers must be careful not to use media or imagery tht could skew toward under-21s. For instance, Coors Brewing Co. drew criticism for a tie-in with PG-13 rated "Scary Movie 3." Coors had expected the film to be rated R, like its two predecessors

Marketers are trying to be more creative with on-premise promotions and choosing which media to use for ads. A classic example is Sidney Frank Importing Co.'s "Jager Girls" who show up at bars and press shots of Jagermeister liqueur on patrons.

PABST MAKES INROADS

Some brewers have been able to make inroads. For instance, S&P Co.'s Pabst Brewing Co. has been building its brand with promotions aimed at twentysomethings who embrace the brew for its ironic downscale chic. This effort followed the discovery that pockets of hipsters had already snagged the brand.

"Ten percent of 21-to-24-year-olds are tired of being shouted at," says Darrell Jursa, president of beverage consultancy Liquid Intelligence, which works with Pabst. Drinking Pabst is "flipping off" the big beer marketers and "doing what they want to do."

Pabst has rolled out promotions geared to this irreverent demo. Bike messenger races are one example. It also will team up with small art galleries and other local venues.

Meanwhile, Rheingold Brewing Co. is targeting New York City scene-sters, getting its brew into bars and clubs in hip areas like the East Village. Rheingold has run unconventional promotions, such as a Miss Rheingold contest featuring female bartenders. Agency Powell, New York, also created ads taking shots at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's smoking ban.

The 21-24 set "is our bread and butter," says Neil Powell, president-creative director.

Not that big brewers can't play, too. SABMiller's Miller Brewing Co. has made wooing 21-to-24-year-olds part of the "Good call" theme that positions its Lite and Genuine Draft brands as better-tasting alternatives. One way Miller is doing this is by conducting "taste challenges" at bars that pit its brands against Anheuser-Busch rivals. The promotions are designed to "reach the audience where they are," says a Miller spokeswoman.

Advertising, of course, remains crucial, and brewers are spending more effort figuring out the best places to put ads to reach this target.

Miller has been increasing focus on some magazines geared toward this demo. "We have readjusted some of our out-of-home dollars toward more print because of the targeted reach with the 21-to-24-year-old group in specific print publications" such as Dennis Publishing's Maxim and Blender, the spokeswoman says.

TAG's Mr. Rich contends that people in their early 20s want to interact with media and not simply be passive viewers. To reach these consumers, Labatt's Rolling Rock has run an ongoing promotion in conjunction with Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN combining TV and Internet elements. "We're competing with all things that are part of the young adult culture," says Mr. Rich.

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