Miller surge goads Coors

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Miller Lite is seeing a sales surge that's put Coors Light-which last year narrowly eclipsed it as the country's No. 2 beer-on the defensive.

Sales for long declining Miller Brewing Co. brand have risen in the past 13 weeks, since the brewer launched TV spots comparing its carbohydrate and calorie content to rival Adolph Coors Co. and Anheuser-Busch brands. Industry insiders credit the campaign for the boost.

"Bud Light and Coors Light are vulnerable and this is the first time we've been able to say that in years," crowed a Miller distributor.

Miller Lite's volume gain in both supermarkets and convenience stores outpaced Bud Light and Coors Light for the 13 weeks ended Nov. 22, according to AC Nielsen data. Miller Lite rose 0.6 of a share point, while Bud Light's volume share was up half a point and Coors Light fell 0.2 share points. In convenience stores, Miller Lite's share was up 0.1 point, while Bud Light and Coors Light were flat.

More surprising, in both channels, Miller Lite drove total Miller sales up to lead the three breweries in share growth, while Coors was flat to down and Anheuser-Busch's share dropped 0.7 share points. That's a big turnaround, since Miller has declined since it relinquished the top beer spot in 1994 to Bud Light.

"It would be fair to say Miller has flip-flopped [brand positions] with Coors," said one multibrand distributor in the Central U.S.

Coors, however, isn't sitting still. Last week the brewer broke a new spot attempting to advance its own low-carb message. In the spot, Coors asserts the difference between its brand and Miller Lite is just 1.8 carbohydrate grams, which can be burned off doing a slow dance. The week before, Coors said it would launch a super-premium low-carb brand called Aspen Edge early next year.

Consumers, said a Coors spokeswoman, "are surprised to learn that Coors Light has only 5 grams of carbs for a 12 ounce serving."

making a dent

Those close to Coors acknowledge that Miller is making a dent in their share. "Coors was down last year so this is not fair to attribute all of the softness on Coors Light to Miller but Miller has clearly exacerbated Coors problems," said an executive close to Coors.

Miller has been spending heavily to achieve the gain. The brewer has pushed out at least a dozen spots in as many weeks to promote Lite. "Spending is way up," said a Miller spokesman, to about equal "what Anhesuer-Busch spent last year at this time."

Ironically, observers credit Anheuser's Michelob Ultra for carving out the niche that is helping Miller Lite. "We were seeing 2% to 3% declines prior to Michelob Ultra and now we're seeing double digit growth," said the multibrand distributor.

According to Harry Schuhmacher, editor-publisher of Beer Business Daily, because Bud Light is twice the size of Miller Lite, "for Miller Lite to gain about the same share as Bud Light, they have to sell twice as many cases off their base."

Miller first broke its low-carb campaign in early August with four spots from WPP Group's Ogivly & Mather, New York.

In addition, Miller Lite Dec. 5 broke a new branding spot called "Epidemic" from WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago. In the spot, a guy sitting in bar drinking a competitive beer looks at it and says, "I can't taste my beer." Others chime in and run into street shouting "I can't taste my beer." The spot ends with the men enjoying their beer, which turns out to be Miller Lite.

But while Miller is bouncing back, executives aren't willing to claim a victory. Said Bob Mikulay, exec VP-marketing for Miller Brewing: "This is very early frankly to have a point of view one way or the other."

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