Written by Duane D. Stanford for businessweek.com
At a beer industry summit last month, Ed McBrien, distribution chief for MillerCoors, compared himself to a typewriter salesman in an iPad age.
McBrien was sketching out plans to resurrect light beer, a $50 billion market battling to stay relevant as makers of craft beer, wine and spirits increasingly steal customers from Molson Coors Brewing Co. (TAP), SABMiller Plc (SAB) and Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV. (ABI)
Light beer is ceding ground as cabernet-loving baby boomers and millennials weaned on exotic cocktails seek more complex flavors in their brews. High unemployment among light beer drinkers also has prompted some to drink less or switch to cheaper brews. In a bid to return the froth to light beer, the U.S. joint venture between Molson Coors and SABMiller last week unveiled new advertising for a key brand, Miller Lite.
If the companies canâ€™t revive the brand, â€œweâ€™ve got big trouble ahead of us,â€ said Bump Williams, whose Stratford, Connecticut-based BWC Co. advises more than 100 beer retailers and distributors. â€œLight beer has become a commodity.â€
The new Miller Lite ads will revive the brewerâ€™s classic tagline, â€œItâ€™s Miller Time.â€ Aimed at men in their 20s and 30s, the campaign will tone down outdated talk of carbs and calories in favor of a â€œbrewed for brotherhoodâ€ theme. The brand will spend 50 percent more on media during the crucial summer selling season.
â€œMiller Time is all about real friends getting together over a real beer,â€ MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England said in an interview. â€œWeâ€™re going to articulate that with a kind of Midwestern grit that can only come from Miller Lite.â€
Light beer, an American invention, took hold in 1975, when Miller Brewing Co. became the first to distribute a low-calorie beer nationwide. Now four of the five best-selling suds in the U.S. are light beers, including Leuven, Belgium-based Anheuserâ€™s Bud Light and MillerCoorsâ€™ Coors Light.
Still, as consumers turn to more exciting alternatives, U.S. beer sales volumes have dropped for three straight years, including a 1.5 percent decline in 2011, according to the Beverage Information Group, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based researcher. Coors Light — the only Top 5 U.S. beer still growing — posted a 1 percent increase last year, the same as in 2010.
The shift has retailers stocking more wine and spirits. Beer lost 2.3 share points of display space during the past five years as spirits and wine gained, according to Nick Lake, senior director of category management for Heineken NV (HEIA) in the U.S. in Atlanta, who cited Nielsen data.
â€œOur competition has convinced retailers that their categories are providing more value and have more relevance with the consumer,â€ Lake said at an industry conference hosted last month by Beer Business Daily in San Diego.
Miller Lite has always sought broad appeal, with early television ads featuring athletes pitching the brew as â€œEverything You always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.â€ New York Yankees baseball legends George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin later argued over whether it was better to say the beer â€œtastes greatâ€ or was â€œless filling.â€
By the mid-2000s, craft beerâ€™s rise made it harder for light beers to make a case for taste. They tried anyway. In 2008, Miller Lite brought back the â€œGreat Taste, Less Fillingâ€ idea in its advertising amid falling sales. Anheuser-Busch went with the tagline â€œDrinkability,â€ a brewerâ€™s term used to describe beer that goes down easy.
The following year, Miller Lite advertised itself as â€œtriple hops brewed for great pilsner taste,â€ as more Americans discovered more heavily hopped craft beers such as New Belgium Brewing Co.â€™s Fat Tire. Miller followed that up with its â€œTaste Greatnessâ€ campaign. Sales didnâ€™t recover.
Coors Light has grown while largely staying away from taste claims, focusing instead on what it calls â€œRocky Mountain Cold refreshment.â€ Coors Light used special ink on cans to show when the beer was at its optimal temperature.
The industry also has attempted to juice sales with packaging innovations, such as wide-mouth screw top cans, aluminum bottles and wide-mouthed vented cans. Now Anheuser is turning to higher alcohol content with the January introduction of Bud Light Platinum, featuring 6 percent alcohol, compared with 4.2 percent for regular Bud Light.
Miller Lite will ship new cans by Labor Day that have darker, more masculine blue graphics. Other cans will have a perforated second opening that will have to be punched out with a tool of the drinkerâ€™s choice, because millennial guys â€œlike to tinker,â€ England said. The opening will allow the beer to flow more like a glass, he said.
Miller Lite focused on its buddy theme after research revealed that sociability was high on beer drinkersâ€™ minds. England said the campaign will go beyond Bud Lightâ€™s more generic â€œhere we goâ€ advertising, by focusing on close friends, not just acquaintances.
â€œWeâ€™re going to kill it,â€ England said. â€œObviously, Iâ€™d like to see some immediate results, but whatâ€™s more important is sustainable improvement.â€