Is Miller a Sucker to Throw a Punch at A-B?

Brewer Was Successful in Past Fight, but Experts Say Tack Can Take It Only So Far

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The spot, dubbed "Dalmation," opens with a Miller Lite truck pulling up beside Anheuser-Busch's signature dog-topped Clydesdale hitch. The pup stares longingly at the truck -- to the strains of Joe Cocker's "Unchain My Heart" -- before leaping aboard just as the light changes.

IT'S ON NOW: First Miller ads from Bartle Bogle Hegarty take aim at Bud.

Yes, it's abundantly clear Miller Brewing Co., under new agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is restarting the beer wars with the market leader Bud Light. The question is: Will the strategy come back to bite it?

Beer-marketing experts, in fact, are split on whether provoking the market leader will yield the same positive results it garnered the last time Miller went after A-B.

Last time around
Miller had tremendous success in 2003 and 2004 with challenger advertising that compared Miller Lite's carbs and taste with Bud Light's. Bud Light eventually hit back, with a particularly ugly spot ripping on Miller's South African ownership, and Miller gained market share in the slugfest that followed.

But the strategy ultimately stopped yielding gains, and Miller has only recently begun to recover from the drop that came after A-B slashed prices in 2005. "Miller perceives that it does better with these kinds of ads," said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights. "But historically, these things have limited effectiveness, despite the fact that they got some mileage out of them a few years ago."

A-B marketing executives -- who greeted news of Miller's coming spoof of their icon with groans -- said repeatedly they will not let themselves be dragged into a similar battle again.

In any event, the new work from Bartle Bogle demonstrates that Miller CEO Tom Long is following through on his promise to return to a more combative style of advertising at Miller's annual distributor convention last April. "We're going to jab and jab some more," he said at the time.

Taking on the king
Indeed, ads previewed at Miller's regional-distributor meeting in Milwaukee last week focused on tweaking the self-proclaimed king of beers. Another spot, "Trucker," which began appearing on TV earlier this month, shows a Bud Light truck unsuccessfully trying to pass a Miller Lite rig.

Bartle Bogle's ads are also a clear departure from the work of its predecessor on the Miller Lite brand, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, producer of the 2006 "Man Laws" campaign, which showed manly celebrities debating rules of masculine conduct.

Miller embarked on that campaign after its in-house research showed consumers were tiring of the combative approach. Miller "did Man Laws because all the indicators were saying consumers were tiring of the slugfest," said one person familiar with the matter. "Consumers were asking, 'Now that you have my attention, who are you?'"

The Crispin ads, which starred Burt Reynolds, Jerome Bettis and others, never really answered that question, in part because early incarnations were so minimally branded that some consumers were unclear which brand they were promoting.

Sales tanked under that effort (in part because A-B reduced its long-held price premium in response to Miller's earlier gains) and Crispin resigned the account in March. Bartle Bogle beat out Saatchi & Saatchi and Y&R in a competitive review for the business.

Using a mix of leftover Crispin ads and house-made slides reminiscent of a PowerPoint presentation, Miller sales have improved this year, with volume and pricing climbing 2.1% between April and September. Most of the spots have focused on taste, carbohydrate and calorie comparisons vs. other beers, as well as against wine and cocktails.

The more combative, comparative approach also helps distinguish Miller Lite from Coors Light's consistent "Rocky Mountain Refreshment" theme. The two brands will be siblings if a recently announced U.S. venture between Miller and Coors passes regulatory muster, and keeping them distinct -- and growing -- will be a key challenge.
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