A Column by Al Ries

CAN MILLER BEER SURVIVE THE MESS IT'S IN?

Despite 'Catfight,' Lite Sales Drop 2.5% This Year

By Published on .

Well the numbers are in and they're exactly what you might have expected. In spite of all the media attention to its "Catfight"
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Pamela Anderson's bedroom antics don't appear to be helping Miller sales, either.
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A Beer Company's Abomination of a Commercial

commercial, Miller Lite sales fell 2.5% this year.

What's killing Miller are those line extensions: Miller High Life, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Reserve, Miller Reserve Light, Miller Reserve Amber Ale -- not to mention the many other flavors that have carried the Miller name (including such losers as Miller Clear and Miller Regular beer).

Light beer trend
In the jockeying for position in the beer industry, two trends are apparent. One is the trend to light beer. The largest-selling beer in America is not Budweiser but Bud Light, which passed its full-calorie sibling in 2001.

As far as beer leadership is concerned, the game is over and Bud Light has won. The brand outsells the next two light beers, Coors Light and Miller Lite, combined.

Miller Lite losing
The second trend is not as clear-cut. In the battle for second place, Miller Lite is losing out to challenger Coors Light. Every year, Coors Light keeps increasing its lead, which is currently at 7%.

It's difficult to challenge a leader. It's almost impossible to challenge a leader with a family of brands. Miller needs to put all of its resources behind one brand -- and that one brand is obviously Miller Lite.

Perceptions do linger. Two of the perceptions associated with the Miller brand are "Tastes great, less filling" and "Miller Time." Miller should select one of these ideas to promote its Miller Lite brand.

But which one?

"Tastes great, less filling" is a generic idea that applies equally as well to any light beer. If you like beer, then all light beers taste great and are less filling. Furthermore, the slogan didn't build the brand. The brand built the slogan. It was the roaring success of Lite beer, the first light beer to leap into the mind, that made people remember the slogan.

'Miller Time'
The reverse is true for the "Miller Time" idea. At the time, the No. 2 brand, Schlitz, was declining. Miller Brewing then relaunched Miller High Life with a "reward for a hard day's work" theme. TV ads showed farmers, factory workers, construction men heading to the bar after a hard day on the job. At 5 o'clock, it's Miller Time.

Miller sales took off. By 1979, Budweiser's lead over Miller High Life was cut to only 21%. Miller was the strong No. 2 brand. (Miller High Life and Miller Lite together actually outsold Budweiser by 16%.)

Then the effects of line extension struck. Miller Lite went up and Miller High Life went down, the classic symptoms of line extension disease. From a high of 23.6 million barrels in 1979, Miller High Life sunk to 5.3 million barrels last year. (For all practical purposes, Miller High Life is out of the game.)

Pathetic execution
From time to time, Miller has attempted to revive its "Miller Time" slogan, but the execution has been pathetic.

Furthermore, there are verbal slogans and there are action slogans. "The real thing" is a verbal slogan. Consumers instantly get the idea that Coca-Cola is the original and that other brands are imitations.

"Miller Time" is an action slogan. It has little meaning without the action that takes place before the viewer hears the slogan. It needs the buildup of a hard day's work to make the emotional connection with having a beer at 5 o'clock.

'Catfight' as new idea
The question often arises in situations such as Miller's: Why should we limit ourselves to what's already in the mind? Surely there must be a new idea out there someplace that will turn the brand around. (Hence, Catfight.)

Wishful thinking. When a brand has been on the market as long as Miller has (148 years), when a brand has been advertised as heavily as Miller has (last year Miller Brewing spent $459 million), it's wishful thinking to believe you can find a new idea that will move the needle. An old idea with a new twist? Maybe. But a totally new idea? No.

"Miller, the smooth beer." What, Miller has been brewing beer for 15 decades and somebody just noticed it's a smooth beer? The slogan sounds phony.

Is it too late to clean up the mess at Miller? Will Miller go the way of Schlitz? By coincidence, Schlitz Light was the second light beer on the market, a line extension move that failed to halt the decline of the Schlitz brand.

Only time will tell.

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Al Ries is the author or co-author of 11 books on marketing, the most recent of which is The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. He and his daughter Laura run the Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries.

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