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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pabst Calls It a Comeback

How PBR rose through word-of-mouth campaign

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From 1978 to 2001, Pabst Blue Ribbon was a brand in decline. It wasn’t hip, it hadn’t yet developed that retro cachet we all know it to possess today, and it certainly wasn’t selling. That all changed when Pabst Brewing Co. launched a word-of-mouth marketing campaign that prompted the national resurgence of the iconic American beer.

“We’re going on 10 years now that this trend started, and it has had unbelievable staying power,” says Neal Stewart, who worked for Pabst from 2000 to 2006. As brand manager, and later marketing director, Stewart worked with a team of brand ambassadors to direct and create the PBR re-branding campaign—a campaign that employed an unobtrusive approach to marketing that appealed to the consumers who had begun to adopt the brand in 2000 and 2001 in the Northwest.

These initial adopters were bike messengers in Portland, Ore.—a group that, according to Stewart, had created a subculture that didn’t include supporting mainstream brands. It was unlikely that they had ever seen a PBR commercial, as Pabst Brewing stopped advertising in the early ’80s; rather, they likely had grown up being inundated with ads from big breweries in the ’80s and ’90s.

“It didn’t have the baggage and it didn’t have the stigma of being this big corporation,” Stewart explains. “People thought of it as this little, tiny company trying to make ends meet.”

It was important to the growth of the brand that consumers continue to feel that PBR was the true alternative choice to mainstream counterparts.

“I don’t want to overcomplicate what we did,” Stewart says. “It was mainly finding people who were really supportive of the brand and supporting their efforts.”

Pabst Blue Ribbon began sponsoring bike messenger races and scooter rallies. While bigger beer brands, like Miller (now MillerCoors) and Anheuser-Busch, were sponsoring large concert venues and festivals, Pabst Blue Ribbon focused on smaller venues and low-level clubs across the country, solidifying the brand as a supporter not only of independent live music, but of hipster culture in general. From bike messenger to bike messenger, and music fan to music fan, the buzz created by the word-of-mouth campaign generated sales in 2002, resulting in PBR’s first volume increase since 1978.

“We tracked it state by state, and you could literally see it start in the Northwest and then jump to the East Coast, and then it slowly did make its way to the middle of the country,” Stewart says. “Milwaukee was a different market for us, though, because the brewery used to be there, and there was a huge backlash against Pabst… I wouldn’t say that Milwaukee was behind the trend, because of the late adopters. But maybe it was slightly late, because there was baggage with the brand back then.”

The “baggage” was the closing of Pabst’s Milwaukee brewery in 1996, after a 152-year presence in the city. According to Milwaukee historian and author John Gurda, the anger felt by many Milwaukeeans was directed at the irresponsible decisions made by the brewery’s ownership, S&P Co.

“I had been a loyal Pabst drinker for 30 years,” Gurda says, “and I wouldn’t touch the stuff because I was angry. And I don’t think I was alone. I think that there were a lot of people that were really miffed that this brand had been taken over by robber barons who drove it into the ground, ruining a proud heritage.”

After shutting down the remainder of its breweries nationwide, S&P Co. began contracting with MillerCoors (then Miller) to brew its portfolio in 2001. To Gurda, this softens some of what he refers to as the “psychological reluctance” of re-embracing PBR, because “it’s money, it’s jobs and it’s brewed here,” he says.

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