Light Beer Fights for Life as Craft Brews Invade Shelves

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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 can’t revive the brand, “we’ve got big trouble ahead of us,” said Bump Williams, whose Stratford, Connecticut-based BWC Co. advises more than 100 beer retailers and distributors. “Light beer has become a commodity.”

The new Miller Lite ads will revive the brewer’s classic tagline, “It’s Miller Time.” Aimed at men in their 20s and 30s, the campaign will tone down outdated talk of carbs and calories in favor of a “brewed for brotherhood” theme. The brand will spend 50 percent more on media during the crucial summer selling season.

“Miller Time is all about real friends getting together over a real beer,” MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England said in an interview. “We’re going to articulate that with a kind of Midwestern grit that can only come from Miller Lite.”

American Invention
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 Anheuser’s Bud Light and MillerCoors’ 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.

Consumer Relevance
“Our competition has convinced retailers that their categories are providing more value and have more relevance with the consumer,” 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 “Everything You always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.” New York Yankees baseball legends George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin later argued over whether it was better to say the beer “tastes great” or was “less filling.”

By the mid-2000s, craft beer’s rise made it harder for light beers to make a case for taste. They tried anyway. In 2008, Miller Lite brought back the “Great Taste, Less Filling” idea in its advertising amid falling sales. Anheuser-Busch went with the tagline “Drinkability,” a brewer’s term used to describe beer that goes down easy.

Fat Tire
The following year, Miller Lite advertised itself as “triple hops brewed for great pilsner taste,” as more Americans discovered more heavily hopped craft beers such as New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Fat Tire. Miller followed that up with its “Taste Greatness” campaign. Sales didn’t recover.

Coors Light has grown while largely staying away from taste claims, focusing instead on what it calls “Rocky Mountain Cold refreshment.” 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 drinker’s choice, because millennial guys “like to tinker,” 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 drinkers’ minds. England said the campaign will go beyond Bud Light’s more generic “here we go” advertising, by focusing on close friends, not just acquaintances.

“We’re going to kill it,” England said. “Obviously, I’d like to see some immediate results, but what’s more important is sustainable improvement.”