BRAND IN DEMAND: Corona has right 'lattitude'

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Budweiser may be the king of beers, but Corona is king of the imports.

In the past several years, the country's leading import has shown annual growth from 10% to 40% despite a growing cadre of competitors. The double-digit increases are noteworthy when compared to a domestic segment that's largely been stagnant, but they have more impact considering that soon after Corona blasted into California and Texas in the late 1970s, it was branded a fad.

"A large brand has never been turned around in the U.S., but Corona is an example of a smaller brand being able to. [How they did it] is hard to duplicate," said Bill Pecoriello, beverage analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Corona Extra's last down year was 1991, when the brand sold a mere 950,000 barrels, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Then came a general shift toward lighter beers and Mexican food; spot-on promotions; an ad campaign that appealed to overstressed Americans; a highly segmented marketing push toward Hispanics, and an overall bump in marketing spending. By 1999, the latest year for which data are available, Corona's sales had more than quadrupled to 4.9 million barrels. The brand had become the country's No. 10 beer and had given rise to Corona wannabes such as Anheuser-Busch's Tequiza.

A decision by Gambrinus Co., Corona's importer in the Eastern half of the U.S., to absorb a 1991 federal excise tax aided the recovery, said Benj Steinman, associate publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights. The move, coming during a recession, made Corona cheaper than its competitors.

Corona's distinctive advertising has helped. Gambrinus and its Western counterpart, Barton Beers, say spending will increase on the decade-long campaign that positions Corona as essentially a vacation in a bottle. "This [theme] isn't something you come up with in a conference room. This is something our consumers provided us-an image we've been careful to consistently foster over the years," said Timm Amundson, Barton's VP-marketing for Modelo products.

Advertising duties for Corona are split between Gambrinus' agency Richards Group, Dallas, and Barton's Cramer Krasselt, Chicago. Pete Lempert, the Richards principal who oversees Corona, said the brand and ads speak to a tightly wound public.

Barton's agency at the time, Campbell Mithun Esty, Chicago, launched the "Change your whole lattitude" tag in 1992. Corona changed its own latitude last year to "Miles Away From Ordinary" tag, but the new spots feel the same-low-key, with voice-overs, prominent product shots and evocative sounds.

"It would be difficult to imagine the TV changing. That's the awareness anchor," said Tim Denison, senior VP at Cramer Krasselt.

Corona's strategy has also been to focus on promotions, tying into holidays like Cinco de Mayo. National and local marketing spending in 2001 is projected to be more than $40 million. For the first half of last year, before the summer selling season and heavy advertising began, the importers spent $14 million on Corona Extra, compared with $34 million for all of 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

"For the first time, this brand is a really big-time competitor. It's no coincidence that beers like Tequiza are out there. People are going `Uh-oh,' " Mr. Lempert said.

Corona also has drilled down on marketing for Hispanics, presenting myriad strategies for different groups of Latinos, rather than lumping Cubans, Mexicans and other Spanish speakers together. "I think we were among the first to recognize the opportunity within the regional differences in the Hispanic market," said Don Mann, Modelo products director at Gambrinus.

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