Move to Los Angeles Could Tap Pabst’s Character

Some consider it “swill,” some “hip.”-The Professor

Pabst Blue Ribbon began its comeback 10 years ago and is now a favorite among hip urbanites. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / May 13, 2011)

Written by Julie Wernau for The Chicago Tribune

Pabst Blue Ribbon: the breakfast of Chicago hipsters. Old Style: beer of the Chicago Cubs. Schlitz: “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

It would be difficult to find a more quintessentially Midwestern pack of brews than those owned by Woodridge-based Pabst Brewing Co., whose announcement Wednesday that it would move its headquarters to LA took state officials and branding experts by surprise.

“I do kind of want to grab these guys by the ears and say, ‘Hey, do you not know what this (group of beers) is?’ This is a Midwest portfolio of beers, and it makes no sense to plop them in, of all places, LA,” said Kelly O’Keefe, professor of brand strategy at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter.

A lot has changed since food industry magnate C. Dean Metropoulos bought the company in June and granted control to his LA-based sons Daren and Evan Metropoulos. The change in power resulted in the departures of its CEO and other executives.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television last month, the Metropoulos brothers, the youngest of whom lives in Hugh Hefner‘s former LA mansion, touted a new turn for the company that would include a star-studded cast of movie stars and pro football players backing everything from Schlitz to Colt 45.

Branding experts say such tactics could backfire.

The flagship brand, Pabst Blue Ribbon, or PBR, has a cult following of young, hip urbanites in Chicago and elsewhere who say they enjoy the beer because it is unsexy, unpretentious and blue-collar Midwest.

“I like PBR because it doesn’t taste like beer,” said Brenna Ehrlich, 26, co-author of the blog “Stuff Hipsters Hate” and book by the same name. “It tastes like water. Dirty water.”

Hipsters, she said, are “people who define who they are by who they aren’t,” and they wouldn’t drink PBR if it “looked like Urban Outfitters,” she said. “PBR is like the nectar of the hipster gods.”

The company hasn’t done a lot of advertising in recent years, O’Keefe said, because it hasn’t needed to. And with such a band of cult followers, advertising could have the opposite effect as intended.

“It’s a brand people like to feel they’ve discovered,” he said. “If it’s countercultural, you don’t want to make it cultural.”

As long as Pabst’s new management doesn’t attempt to become trendy or change the look of the product, he said, they should survive a move to Los Angeles, but the city wouldn’t be his first choice.

“I picture movie stars and sunglasses and people in not-too-much clothing. It’s sort of the opposite of blue collar,” he said.

At The Boiler Room in Logan Square, general manager Andy Gould, 27, said brands like Old Style, Schlitz and PBR run in the veins of patrons in a way that can’t be matched.

The cash-only bar and pizza restaurant runs a popular $7.50 special called PB&J (pizza, beer and Jameson) that comes with a tall can of PBR. Locals call it the hipster special.

Hipsters weren’t the only ones disappointed by Pabst’s announced departure.

Pabst’s move to Woodridge from San Antonio in 2006 was backed by $1 million in state tax incentives and training funds. In exchange, the company pledged to create 31 full-time jobs within two years and make an investment of $2.4 million in its facilities.

The company started receiving the tax credits in 2008, state documents show. The agreement required the company to remain in Illinois and retain those jobs for 10 years.