Miller, shops prep for ultimate test

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Miller Brewing Co. is expanding the product focus in ads for its No. 2 brew after recent sassy, sexy and spurned spots exacerbated its sales slide.

Ads for Miller Genuine Draft, as well as Miller Lite, will debut at the brewer's annual distributor meeting starting April 23 in Milwaukee. The outcome will be critical for Miller's two-year CEO John Bowlin, as well as for MGD agency WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Chicago, which has not lived up to expectations since the shop was brought on without a review in July 1999. And while recent creative for Lite, handled by WPP's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, has been better received, that campaign, too, will undergo some refining, with distributors' reaction being key.

"It all comes down to this meeting. No one is out of the woods," said an executive close to the brewer. "Everyone knows this will make or break Ogilvy, Thompson and Miller."

In fact, despite the amount Miller will spend producing the ads, it's uncertain whether consumers will see the work, according to one insider. He said Miller will decide what to do with the ads in the hot summer selling season and beyond based on reaction from the 5,000 wholesalers-an influential contingent whose dead silence at the convention two years back led Miller to can singing brewery worker work from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

Details of the spots are being guarded closely. But MGD's ads will maintain the "Never miss a genuine opportunity" tag and the sensual bent that has been pilloried as too racy and having nothing to do with the brew. The sex element, however, will be toned down at the behest of Senior VP-Marketing Bob Mikulay, according to one distributor, who said Mr. Mikulay last month agreed the work had gone too far. Mr. Mikulay did not return phone calls by press time, but another insider confirmed Miller had asked JWT to cool down the work.

So instead of vignettes showing a woman disrobing in a public laundry room or a bottle cap bouncing on a bed that vibrates with noise from, presumably, a neighboring bedroom, the new commercials will include "glorious product shots ... that get back to the classic equities of the brand," according to someone who has seen the storyboards. Three ads in the same vein as previous work are expected to be shown but will feature upbeat music; two other ads will have the sensual feel but will be oriented toward MGD's cold-filtered brewing process.

JWT and Miller declined to comment on the direction of the ads.

One Miller wholesaler said he expected the country's No. 2 brewer to refocus on MGD, now that Lite's hemorrhage has ebbed. "They've put a lot of money into Lite, and Lite is showing some signs of reversing [its downward] trend," he said.

Last year, Miller spent $90 million in measured media for Lite, compared with $83 million a year earlier, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Miller Genuine Draft, meanwhile, received $24 million last year vs. $28 million in 1999, according to CMR.

Last year, MGD shipments dropped 5%, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, while Lite-although it lost its No. 3 standing to Coors Light-dropped just 0.3%. For the 52-weeks ended March 25, Lite volume was up 0.3%, while MGD volume lost 1.3%, according to Information Resources Inc.

Meanwhile, the Philip Morris Cos.' brewer last year saw its share of the U.S. beer market fall to 20.6% from 21.7%, in 1999, while market leader Anheuser-Busch saw its portion grow to 48.3%, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

Overall, Lite is down 20% from its 1990 peak of almost 20 million barrels, while MGD is 27% off its 1993 high of 7.5 million barrels, the newsletter said. Lite's performance is exacerbated, however, by the fact that the low-cal beer category grew 46% over the past decade.

Distributors credit more marketing dollars and improved advertising for stemming the brand's sales decline. Ogilvy is on a tear from its early days when its "Grab a Miller Lite. It's Miller Time" ads were panned for, among other things, missing the target. While Ogilvy hasn't hit on the perfect strategy, the spots shown to distributors likely will continue the "Miller Time" tag but will include a product orientation and touch on the brewer's credentials, although that could not be confirmed. Ogilvy did not return phone calls for comment.

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