In a Chilly Beer Market, It's All About the Cold

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Coors Brewing Co.'s case to be Marketer of the Year is a straightforward one: It simply outperformed all the competition.

In a mature, largely stagnant industry, the Colorado-based brewer made bigger gains than better-funded rivals on the top, middle and bottom shelves. It used mass media and huge sports platforms but also word-of-mouth and viral marketing.
Andy England
Photo: Andreas Larsson
HOT PROPERTY: Andy England has found myriad ways to talk about cold for Coors Light.
It moved brands with iconic image ads but also with frat-boy humor.

The result has been a two-year run that's easily the best performance by a major U.S. brewer this decade, and perhaps in several. "It's a ride like we haven't seen in a long time, if ever," Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, said in an interview earlier this year. "We haven't seen a large brewer post percentage gains like that since at least the 1970s."

Coors, a division of Molson Coors Brewing Co., formed a U.S. venture with SABMiller's Miller unit during the summer, and MillerCoors is hoping that what worked so well for Coors can work for Miller's legacy brands too.

Consecutive years of decline before Coors Banquet label rebounded
Boost in the sales of the Keystone brand through August
4:53 p.m.
Daily arrival of 'Cold Train' across various websites in anticipation of happy hour.
Coors' approach hasn't been all that complicated. The brewer revived its two namesake brands -- Coors Light and Coors Banquet -- with pitches that repeatedly hammered at the brands' heritage and attributes. The work is rarely exciting and doesn't rate at Cannes and other ad festivals, but the consistent messaging sells.

Coors Light returned to its long-held "cold-refreshment" positioning and has been finding new ways to say the same thing about itself ever since in ads, sponsorships and packaging, relying on an endless string of "Cold Trains," "cold-activated labels" and other things frigid in every communication. "Cold Train" even steamed onto the web. Avenue A/Razor-fish, Portland, Ore., built an application that had the train rolling across various web pages at 4:53 p.m. daily, in anticipation of happy hour. Coors Light has benefited from the addition of major sponsorship deals, becoming the official beer of the National Football League and Nascar.

The numbers speak for themselves. Through August, case sales climbed 5.1%, while Anheuser-Busch's segment-leading Bud Light eked out a 1.2% gain and Miller Lite fell by 1.9% vs. a year ago.

It's little wonder, then, that MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England, who held the same job at Coors, is fitting Miller Lite into a similar blueprint. The brand has already returned to its 1970s-era "Great taste, less filling" tagline, and Mr. England says future ads and communications will emphasize taste much as Coors Light has harped on cold.

"We're going to pound great taste and then pound it some more," he says.

Coors also successfully leveraged heritage in the beer industry's best turnaround story of the year, the return of Coors Banquet to positive growth after more than 20 years of annual declines.

'Banquet beer'
That story started last year, when Mr. England's team opted to back the brand with a TV campaign focusing on its history as a "banquet beer" served to gold miners by Adolph Coors. The ads employed Rocky Mountain vistas and focused on what it called uncompromising quality measures like Rocky Mountain water -- which Coors no longer uses for Virginia-brewed Coors Light -- as described by gravelly voiced Sam Elliott.

What's more, Coors returned the brand to the yellow cans best remembered from the 1970s, when the beer, unavailable east of the Mississippi, developed a cult following and was often smuggled out of Colorado on airplanes.

"Coors is an icon of Western masculinity," Mr. England says. "We needed to remind people of that." And, again, it was hard to argue with the results: A brand that had seen sales fall uninterrupted for more than two decades was up 7% this year through August, while its two largest competitors in the struggling full-calorie premium beer segment, Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft, saw sales drop 5.4% and 4.4%, respectively, during the same period.

Coors also succeeded with smaller-scale brands. Its Belgian-style Blue Moon, which poses as a craft beer, gets little mainstream-media support beyond a few artsy magazine ads and billboards. Instead, it's relied on word-of-mouth and on-premise efforts to slowly build itself over a decade. Blue Moon's iconic branded glassware and orange garnish seem to have evolved out of the cocktail craze of recent years, and the current popularity of Belgian-style wheat beers has fueled it further.

Avenue A built a website for Blue Moon that cleverly plays up the brand's history as a small Colorado craft beer, which it was, and not the Canada-brewed product of a multinational corporation, which it is. The site featured an online competition for paintings inspired by the beer, as well as advice for home brewers.

In recent years, Blue Moon has grown by mid-double-digit amounts, outpacing the likes of Leinenkugel's and Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams.

Smooth path
But while Blue Moon is a pricey, top-shelf beer, Coors has also gotten traction with the cheap stuff. Its Keystone brand grew 11% through August, compared with 1% growth by A-B discount brands Busch and Natural, and a precipitous 8.3% decline by Miller's Milwaukee's Best.

Mr. England says Keystone's success has been a product of two developments: First, the brand's campaign -- which points out the disparity between the smooth taste noted in focus groups and the not-so-smooth antics of people who buy cheap beer -- has connected. And second, Keystone's success has helped it gain distribution steadily. "It's true that smoothness is not an attribute typically attributed to [cheap-beer] drinkers," Mr. England says. "The success is an example of the entire system working together."

Coors' primary creative agency is DraftFCB, Chicago, which handles Coors Banquet and Coors Light. The marketer also works with Integer Group, Denver, and Taxi, New York. Miller's legacy creative agencies include Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Saatchi & Saatchi, both New York, and Y&R, Chicago.

Coors' media planning and buying chores are split between DraftFCB and Initiative, New York, though those assignments are currently up for grabs as MillerCoors looks to consolidate media responsibilities in an effort to cut costs and eliminate redundancies. Miller's longtime media shop, Starcom USA, Chicago, is also vying for the business.

Mr. England says he's unlikely to take similar steps with creative shops because he wants brand identities to remain distinct, but that he'll likely look within the combined brewers' current roster if he needs to make a change.
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