US. What Is Wrong With Miller Lite?

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MillerCoors CEO Blames Bad Weather, Weak Economy for Sales Drop While Analysts Point to ‘Strategy,’ ‘Marketing Front’

MillerCoors still has a Miller Lite problem, with the brand failing to emerge from its long-running slump in the second quarter.

Sales to retailers fell by “mid-single digits,” which contributed to a 2.7% sales decline across all of the brewer’s brands in the quarter, the brewer reported today. MillerCoors, a joint venture of Molson Coors and SABMiller, was still able to grow earnings by 2.6% in the quarter to nearly $400 million, thanks in part to strong cost management, the company said.

But Lite’s decline, which came at the beginning of the all-important summer beer-selling season, is an ominous trend, considering that it had shown signs of life in the first quarter, with sales to retailers only down slightly. The slump could also put more pressure on the brand’s ad agency, Interpublic Group of Cos.’ DraftFCB, to find marketing solutions quickly in advance of the upcoming football season, another key period for beer sales. (DraftFCB is already under stress after losing one of its biggest accounts last week, SC Johnson.)

“Miller Lite definitely took a step backward in the second quarter and it does suggest they still have some work to do in the marketing front,” said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights.

Still, MillerCoors did not signal any major marketing changes for the brand, instead pinning some of the losses on external factors such as the weak economy, record rainfall in many parts of the country — which could limit beer occasions — and higher fuel prices, which officials said “all impacted consumer spending on beer.”

“We would like [Miller Lite] to be growing faster, obviously,” MillerCoors CEO Tom Long said on a call with analysts. “We are putting more pressure on its marketing position,” he said. He added that “we do not plan to fundamentally change our policy on Miller Lite, but we are going to keep working on it.”

In an interview, MillerCoors spokesman Julian Green said: “We very pleased with DraftFCB’s work on our flagship brands.” Miller Lite is the nation’s fourth-ranked beer brand by shipment volume, but has suffered declines of 3.9% last year and 6.6% in 2009, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.

With DraftFCB at the helm, MillerCoors has sought to position Lite as the light beer with the most taste with its “Man Up” ads that mock men who choose other brands. It is arguably a tougher sell than the cold positioning MillerCoors uses for sibling brand Coors Light, which has ridden the “world’s most refreshing beer” message to stellar growth. That growth has put it on the verge of overtaking Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser as the nation’s second-ranked beer by shipments. (A-B’s Bud Light is the No. 1 beer brand.) Coors Light is also handled by DraftFCB.

On today’s earnings call, analysts suggested more radical changes for Miller Lite, prompting a few testy exchanges with Mr. Long, who took over as CEO on June 1. Credit Suisse’s Carlos Laboy suggested the brewer was placing too much blame on the economy and weather, noting that its other brands fared better, such as Coors Light, which was up slightly in the quarter, and Blue Moon, which continued its double-digit growth. “The only unemployed consumers who keep getting rained on are the Miller Lite consumers,” Mr. Laboy said sarcastically. He suggested that MillerCoors try dropping the price on Miller Lite. (In an analyst’s note published Monday, he called Lite “structurally impaired” and said it “needs a new strategy.”)

Mr. Long on the call replied that “we consider the price on the brand every day by market.” But he said a general price decrease would not work because “taking a brand down, it almost never comes back.”

So why is Miller Lite underperforming Coors Light? MillerCoors officials suggested one reason could be that Lite relies more on sales in bars and restaurants, which have been weak because fewer people have gone out in the tough economy.