Coors Lights a Fire Under Miller

Dropping Bud-Beating and 'Ultimate' Tagline Likely After Brewers Unite

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You can expect a kinder, gentler Miller -- and one with a laser-focused, single-minded message -- when the U.S. combination of Miller and Coors takes effect next week. There might also be some agency shifts brewing.

Current and former executives from both companies and their respective agencies are betting Miller Lite will ditch its trademark tweaking of Anheuser-Busch and lose the "Ultimate Light Beer" positioning that has helped the Colorado brewery significantly outperform its Milwaukee soon-to-be sibling in recent years. Both approaches are seen as anathema to Coors executives who will be chief marketing officer and CEO of the new entity, which spent a combined $417 million on measured media last year.

Coors' recent success -- its top four brands, Coors Light, Coors Banquet, Keystone and Blue Moon, are all significantly outpacing the industry -- likely means its portfolio will be largely left alone at first. "I wouldn't expect a whole lot to change as far as Coors goes," said one former high-level Miller marketer. "Miller's stuff, I think, will look a lot different."

Until now, Miller and Coors have had to compete for the attention of the roughly 60% of wholesalers they've shared, and their advertising has often reflected those efforts.

Messages for wholesalers
Miller Lite's current campaign, from Bogle Bartle Hegarty, New York, has repeatedly tweaked A-B's Dalmatian and Clydesdale icons, subtle jabs that may be lost on consumers but that tend to fire up the wholesalers who compete with Budweiser and Bud Light daily. "I honestly don't know if consumers get that stuff," said an executive at one Miller shop. "But the wholesalers eat it up."

Coors, under the direction of CMO Andy England and CEO Leo Kiely, who will hold the same titles at MillerCoors, has tended to stay out of the Bud-Miller fray, a tactic executives there credit with helping set it apart and allowing it to soundly beat its rivals during a two-year run.

Instead, the brewer has opted to focus most of its brands on one-note concepts such as "cold refreshment," the mantra of Coors Light. Coors executives are said to regard Miller Lite's current positioning -- "the Ultimate Light Beer" -- as too muddled, because it makes separate claims on taste, carbohydrates and refreshment, and is also implicitly derisive of Coors Light.

People familiar with Mr. England's approach said he was likely to pick one of the claims under-girding the "ultimate" message and hammer it repeatedly.

Coors followed a similar tack when it re-embraced its "Rocky Mountain refreshment" message following the failed "Rock On" campaign it ran from 2002-2004.

Reclaiming 'taste'
Several executives suggested Miller Lite's "more taste" claim -- which the brand briefly focused on in a 2005 series of ads from Y&R, Chicago featuring consumers helplessly declaring "I can't taste my beer," only to have the ailment cured by Miller Lite -- as the sort of strategy Mr. England is likely to pursue.

"If you look at what Andy has done, he likes a complete focus on one notion," said a Coors agency executive. "Taste could be it."

It's not entirely clear, however, that Mr. England will have the final say on strategy. He'll be reporting to current MillerCoors chief commercial officer and Miller CEO Tom Long, who has taken an active role in marketing decisions at Miller. Mr. Long will report to Mr. Kiely, who has tended to employ a more hands-off approach at Coors.

Given MillerCoors' stated goal of saving $500 million in costs during its first three years, most agency partners have viewed the prospect of at least some consolidation as inevitable, and several executives said they expected a shootout between media agencies -- Miller uses Publicis Groupe's Starcom and Coors uses Interpublic's Initiative -- to ensue quickly after the deal closes.

"We currently have no plans [to consolidate]," Mr. England told reporters and analysts during a recent conference call announcing MillerCoors executive team. "Once we get past the close, I'm sure we'll have a good think about it."
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