Beer Battle Moves to Bodega as Brewers Seek out Hispanics

Importers Such as Crown Use Cultural Appeal to Gain Further Share in Demo

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As beer marketers plow dollars into Hispanic ads and plot new strategies from their corporate suites, the real battle for this coveted consumer will be played out in places like Nuevo Laredo, a corner grocery in a Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side.

Owner Jeronimo Salgado, who also runs the Acapulco Night Club next door, might know more about the Hispanic consumer than any market researcher. And yet, when quizzed on what's flying fastest out of the beer coolers lining the wall, he says he can't name a clear leader. Some customers gravitate to established Mexican imports, while others want American brands. "They drink Busch, Miller -- it's cheaper," he said. In other words, Hispanic beer consumers are still up for grabs.

Big American brewers already control a healthy majority of the Hispanic market and are eyeing more of it, pouring big bucks into soccer sponsorships and ads. But importers are fighting back, making an appeal to the cultural ties Mexican Americans have with brands from their homeland, while bringing in more beers from south of the border. "We have a built-in affinity with these consumers for our brands," said Jim Sabia, exec VP-marketing for Crown Imports, seller of Corona Extra, the No. 1 U.S. import, fast-selling Modelo Especial and Victoria, Mexico's oldest beer brand that Crown brought to the States last year.

Here's what's at stake: The percentage of drinking-age adults who are Hispanic is expected to grow from 16% in 2010 to 23% in 2030 and 30% by 2050, according to Census data cited by Crown . And beer is by far the alcoholic beverage of choice of marketers. But beer is different. Unlike soft drinks, for instance, where American brands have mass international appeal, beer is still a local product in many places, with brands linked to cultures, traditions and even patriotism. (Consider that Coke has a 24.6% international market share, while Snow -- the world's biggest beer brand though sold solely in China -- commands only 4.5% of the global market, according to Euromonitor International.)

In the States, American beer brands control roughly 75% of the Hispanic market, leveraging their size and massive ad spending, according to brewers. Still, imports overindex with the demographic, commanding about a 25% share, compared with 13% among non-Hispanics, according to Nielsen data cited by Crown .

Importers are making overt appeals to Hispanic sensibilities in hopes of gaining even more share. For instance, Corona's latest Hispanic campaign features the "Corona bleachers," sort of a Greek chorus for beer drinkers that reminds acculturated Latinos of their roots -- in one ad, for example, a man is scolded for touching a soccer ball with his hands. "We are Latins -- we kick the ball," said Jose Molla, co-chief creative officer of La Comunidad, Corona's Hispanic agency.

Meantime, other Mexican brands are widening the net. Heineken USA's Tecate -- the fourth-largest import and third-largest Mexican brand -- has traditionally reached out to first-generation blue-collar Mexican-Americans, with ads that emphasized immigrant perseverance. Now the brand is throwing humor into the mix while planning its first English-language TV ad, in hopes of luring more acculturated drinkers of all Hispanic ethnicities, said Felix Palau, VP for the brand.

Among U.S. beer brands, Anheuser-Busch has outpaced MillerCoors among Hispanics, with Bud and Bud Light taking big leads over Coors and Coors Light, according to a survey of beer preferences conducted last year by Mintel. A-B shoveled $56 million into Hispanic media last year, or roughly 10% of its total measured media, according to Kantar Media. Budweiser and Budweiser Chelada -- a Clamato-juice-flavored beer with Hispanic appeal -- are sponsors of Major League Soccer, while Bud Light this year is backing the tour of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull.

MillerCoors is looking to make up ground, last year upping its Hispanic measured media spending to $45 million, or 11.4% of its total, up from 9.6% the year before, according to Kantar. The brewer last year made Coors Light the official beer sponsor in the U.S. of the Primera Division soccer league in Mexico. This year the brewer signed a similar deal for Miller Lite, pairing it with one of the most popular teams in the league, Chivas de Guadalajara. An ad by Hispanic agency Lopez Negrete plays off the team's famed goat mascot, with rabid fans shouting "baaaah," after a goal, Miller Lite in hand.

Soccer "is the No. 1 passion point for our Latino consumers," said Al Patel, the brewer's senior director-multicultural marketing, noting that two-thirds of Hispanic drinkers in the U.S. watch Mexican soccer weekly. "It's the NFL on steroids."

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