Miller shifts tack to redefine itself

By Published on .

Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars during the last decade on advertising featuring a host of ex-jocks, a quirky guy named Dick and a bevy of brawling babes, Miller Brewing Co. has accepted that its name means little to the average beer drinker.

It's a tough admission for the marketing brass at Miller's Milwaukee headquarters and for SABMiller, the brewer's South African owner, but the company has realized that the humor-and-babes model has failed to differentiate it from Anheuser-Busch. The Miller name has become so generic that even when consumers liked an ad, they mistook it for a Budweiser commercial, Miller executives confessed.

"We found ourselves more focused on form than substance," said Bob Mikulay, exec VP-marketing at Miller, which spent $245 million in measured media on its brands last year, as compared to Anheuser-Busch's $411 million.

The brewer is now trying to change its strategy, beginning with a package of three trademark spots designed to make consumers realize they have a choice, and that choosing Miller is a "good call."

`good call'

As reported Oct. 29 on, Miller this week breaks an anthem spot to re-establish its name with consumers. Created by the New York and Chicago offices of WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, it aims to convince consumers that "there is good enough and better than it has to be," and reminds consumers that Miller didn't compromise when it created the first light beer that tastes great and the first cold-filtered beer in Miller Genuine Draft. The spot closes with the tagline "Miller. Good call." A Hispanic spot via LatinWorks, Austin, Texas, also breaks this week. (See the spots at QwikFIND aap10g.)

Another spot, called "Dominoes" sets up what could be a dramatic debut for Y&R, Chicago, as a creative shop for Miller rather than the strategic resource it had been in recent years. Lines of people in train stations, offices and restaurants fall in succession like dominoes as a voice-over talks about not following the crowd. One man in a bar stops the action by moving out of the way to reach for a bottle of Miller Lite. The voice-over states, "Because you can get in line and pick what they give you, or you can make your own choice."

More spots are on tap for the brand effort and Miller Genuine Draft and Miller High Life via the three shops and independent Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore, which handles High Life.

"We had forgotten why people drink our beer," said Mr. Mikulay, from his Milwaukee office. "We needed to remind ourselves that consumers need a compelling reason to try and use your product-otherwise consumers go with the default choice, the market leader. It sounds very basic, but we had forgotten that."

Galvanized by research, a discipline enforced personally by Miller Brewing President-CEO Norman Adami, Miller executives for the past 15 months also have taken a "fundamentally different" approach to understanding how Americans choose their beer, Mr. Mikulay said.

holistic understanding

Among other changes under SAB, Miller took strategic responsibility in-house, and beefed up its market research staff and tools to more holistically understand how consumers choose beer and how they live down to the local level. Mr. Adami tapped a team of consultants from McKinsey & Co, and Kevin Keller, professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, to guide the deep dive into the habits and lifestyles of the 21- to 27-year-old set. "Being really grounded with the consumer is maybe one of the biggest cliches in the world, but it's one of the toughest things to make happen," said Mr. Keller.

Now Miller is near the top of investment spending on research with other leading consumer package-goods firms as a percent of revenue, compared to being at below the middle of the pack, said Ed Gawronsi, Miller's VP-market and business insights. "It's more in line with an organization that is really focusing on having world-class capability."

While it may sound like a rationalization to fend off buyer's remorse, Mr. Adami said SAB bought Miller to enter the U.S. market, knowing the brewer had problems. "The reason we were able to get Miller was because it was in trouble," he said. Yet he conceded that he "didn't fully realize the extent" of Miller's problems. "We've made the statement that the problems of Miller are deep and fundamental and we're addressing them," he said.

To ensure it was getting the best creative input, the brewer borrowed from the Coca-Cola Co. agency model that gives roster agencies equal opportunity to pitch the Miller trademark effort. "Jump balls are never fun and are difficult on a partnership," said Rick Roth, worldwide managing director and president of O&M, Los Angeles. "But to Miller's credit they went out of their way to assure and reassure that partnerships were not being risked and they still wanted to partner with us. "

For Kary McIlwain, president-CEO of Y&R, Chicago, a key lesson in the process was, "Don't keep your agencies in boxes. Unleash them and let them wrestle with your problems," she said.

Mr. Mikulay said that for the time being agencies would work like they did during the trademark rebranding development, and that he is still figuring out how exactly the agency assignments will work in the future. In developing the platform, Miller saw concepts from seven agencies, including the roster shops plus five outside shops: Doe-Anderson, Louisville, Ky.; Love Collection, New York; Bravo Group, New York; VCCP, London, and Leagas Delaney, London. From the beginning, Miller reviewed 80 to 90 executions in the process.

significant result

When asked whether outside agencies will again be invited to present ideas, Mr. Mikulay said, "As of today, I see no additional reason to bring additional resources."

A result was the introduction this summer of product-focused ads that favorably compared Miller's Lite brand to Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra low-carb beer and Bud Light. Since then, sales have rebounded-much to the surprise of Wall Street. In the latest week that ended Oct. 12, Miller Lite volume was up an astounding 9%, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

While a short-term result, it's significant, considering that Anheuser-Busch controls 48.9% of the U.S. beer market volume, according to the trade publication, up from 48.5% in 2001, while Miller's share fell to 19% in 2002 from 19.6% the year before. U.S. sales volume of Miller Lite, which accounts for about 40% of Miller Brewing's output, fell 2.5% in 2002.

While Mr. Adami is confident Miller's strategy is correct, he is cautious to point out that the Miller trademark campaign is merely a "first step" in the turnaround. "We're moving from a mind-set of fighting decline and feeling overwhelmed by the spending power of the No. 1 spender in the category to [a mind-set] about choice," said Mr. Mikulay.

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