Kirin works on dumping sushi image

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Kirin Brewery of America hopes to take its flagship into the mainstream with an estimated $2 million campaign to show the brew isn't just for sushi anymore.

Kirin print and outdoor ads are breaking this week in Southern California, with the rest of the country to follow next year. Mark Choate, president-creative director at Open Minds, Laguna Beach, Calif., which handles Kirin, said the effort marks the first time a beer with Japanese cachet has tried to play in the hot-selling import category, competing with the giants Corona Extra and Heineken rather than just its Asian counterparts.

That's a huge order for the niche brew. Brewed by Anheuser-Busch Cos. under the supervision of Japanese brewmasters, Kirin had flat sales of about 1.3 million cases last year, according to industry publication Impact's 2001 annual beer study. Asahi Breweries' Asahi Super Dry, meanwhile, grew 15% to reach just under 1 million cases. Sapporo Draft, marketed by Sapporo USA jumped 13% to about 1.8 million cases.

Those figures pale next to Heineken, which sold 54 million cases last year, and Corona with 73 million, according to Impact. The import category overall grew 10%, Impact said.

Open Minds' four-ad "Think I'll have a Kirin" campaign carries lines such as "If it can make tofu taste good, think what it can do for buffalo wings," and "If it can make raw fish taste good, think what it can do for nachos." Point-of-sale materials will accompany.

TV could follow next year when the campaign goes national, Mr. Choate said. Southern California is Kirin's largest market.

Mr. Choate said the campaign would allow Kirin to separate itself from the Japanese troika. "The Japanese beer category has stayed pretty pure to the top three beers, so this is an opportunity to break out of it," he said.

It may take more than $2 million to do it. Although neither Kirin nor Asahi spent anything on measured media last year, Sapporo leveled $16 million in spending against its brand, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. That's well below the country's top two imports: Corona Extra and Heineken spent $35 million and $48 million, respectively.

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