Corona Rethinks Its Vacation in a Bottle

After Three Years of Declines, Import Turns to Humor and Takes a Step Away From the Beach

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

CHICAGO ( -- While other beers deluged consumers with frat-house gags and women in bikinis, Corona Extra rode to 16 years of consecutive growth on the most unique positioning in the category: It was a vacation in a bottle. But now, as it tries to avoid a fourth consecutive year of sales declines, Corona is beginning to act a bit more, well, like everyone else.

BEACHED: Fewer seaside scenes in ads.
BEACHED: Fewer seaside scenes in ads.
Crown Imports is jacking up media support behind the brand by 16% for 2010, and Exec VP-Marketing Jim Sabia said as much as 75% of the brand's media budget could be spent on sports TV, a major shift for a brand that historically has invested heavily in cable advertising. "We need to be where our consumers are," he said. Corona Extra spent $54 million on measured media in 2009, according to Kantar Media.

Then there's the creative itself: While nobody will soon confuse any of the ads for, say, Bud Light, the brand's latest batch of creative leans more heavily on humor and opposite-sex ogling and in one case, the brand (gasp!) briefly steps off the beach. "Consumers like our ads, but they want them to be more relevant," said Mr. Sabia, a 17-year veteran of old-school beer marketer Coors who joined Crown a year ago. "If we stay true to what this brand is, we will absolutely come out of this."

The situation facing Corona looks increasingly daunting. Shipments fell by 9.8% last year, and they now sit 15% below the brand's 2006 peak. The persistence -- and acceleration -- of the declines for Corona and its mega import peer Heineken have caused many beer-industry executives and analysts to wonder aloud if the brand is entering a phase of permanent decline because many of the 20-somethings who drive beer sales associate it with their parents.

"When you look at the numbers, at some point the lifecycle questions do become fair game," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights.

Down economy
Mr. Sabia said the brand's issues are caused primarily by the economic climate, which has depressed traffic at bars and restaurants (Corona leans more heavily on so-called "on-premise" sales than do other large beer brands) and has been particularly rough on Hispanic consumers, who account for about 30% of the brand's volume.

As the economy comes back, Mr. Sabia reasons, Corona will, too, so long as it can find a way of rekindling its relevance with consumers.

The latest creative he previewed intends to do exactly that: The centerpiece of the effort are two sequels to an ad currently running, dubbed "Squirt," which show a couple sitting on the beach as a gorgeous blonde draws the man's gaze -- along with his wife's lime-squeezing retribution. The sequels play up the same gambit: In one, the man follows three bikini-clad women frolicking in the ocean; in another, his wife spots her own eye candy.

Another ad, dubbed "Moments," is notable for how long it takes to actually feature a beach. It shows vignettes of couples enjoying Corona from other sparkling non-beach locales before ending up on the seashore and imploring drinkers to "find your beach."

Mr. Sabia said he's excited about the possibilities of "find your beach," particularly online. But he's not quite ready to commit to it as a new tagline.

That caution, he explains, comes in part from his run at Coors, where he witnessed firsthand what havoc can result from detouring from a long-held brand equity -- in that case, Coors Light's "Rocky Mountain Cold Refreshment" theme. After a campaign dubbed "Rock On," starring a pair of "Coors Twins," cratered, Mr. Sabia was one of the executives who helped to steer Coors Light back into its traditional cold-refreshment platform; the brand has had the best results in its category ever since. (Coors' chief marketing officer from that initial recovery period, Lee Buxton, is currently consulting for Mr. Sabia at Corona.)

One area where he has not hesitated to make changes, however, has been on the agency front. While Mr. Sabia has retained the brand's creative agency, Cramer-Krasselt, and professes to be thrilled with its output, he stripped the shop's media duties, which went to Horizon Media. He also hired new Hispanic ( La Comunidad) and promotional (Upshot) agencies. "My philosophy is that, to be the most effective, we need functional specialists," he said.

Told that goes against an industry-wide trend toward integration, Mr. Sabia said he felt he could still obtain integrated results by forcing agency partners in different disciplines to collaborate.

Mr. Sabia also relieved C-K of creative duties on Corona Light, which originally went to Publicis, New York, but the agency quickly resigned the account after it won a global Beck's assignment from Anheuser-Busch InBev, leaving Light without a creative agency. (The brand is now working with a group of freelancers.)

Corona Light has, historically, not been marketed separately from Extra, and Mr. Sabia said a goal of the agency switch was to get the brand a distinct platform.

Still, import lights have historically had a hard time gaining traction. Mr. Sabia said the reason for that is that most of the parent brands that have rolled out light beers, such as Heineken, are known for heavier profiles that are, on some level, incongruous with the concept of light beer. Because Corona Extra is already known for a lighter, more refreshing style, it stands a better chance.

Of course, that redundancy also means Light could cannibalize its sibling, adding yet another obstacle to Corona's hoped-for recovery. "That's the strategic challenge," he said.

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CORRECTION: The headline of this story originally said Corona had four years of sales declines.

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