Philippines. The language of beer

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If one were to distill objectively the brand essence of San Miguel beer, specifically the flagship Pale Pilsen, one might come up with such words and phrases as “pagsasamahan” (or its closest counterpart in the English language, “friendship”), and one might add “tunay,” to suggest that a real friendship as offered by San Miguel beer is one that will never let you down, one that you can rely on in both good and bad times.

It almost personifies that sense of community that underpins our Filipino value system, so intertwined is it with our native culture.

Even its taste, summed up in the common word “sarap,” refers not merely to that unique harmony of malt and hops, but to the full experience of quaffing an excellent brew in the company of people with whom you share a special bond. Nor does it need any rationalization, for San Miguel beer has always been a language learned and understood by Filipino men, an exclusivity respected by Filipino women, and on occasion shared.

At different times in its 125 years of existence, different aspects of its brand character have been highlighted in its advertising, depending on the external socio-political as well as prevailing competitive environment, for advertising is what builds brands. And so it went from product taste, to pride, to long-time friendships and history, to celebration, to romance, to celebrity. With each campaign, the iconic brand became more and more firmly established in the lives of Filipinos.

To capture and project the fullness and richness of a brand, advertisers tell stories. So here is one among the countless tales one might recount about San Miguel beer.

It was early in the just-warming-up summer of 2002. A strange unsettling excitement that verged on anxiety pervaded the atmosphere from the 33rd to the 35th floors at GT Tower in Legaspi Village in Makati.

At McCann-Erickson Philippines, it was not business as usual. Rather, for most of the 308 employees, there was a conscious effort to stay focused on their assigned accounts, projects, and clients. But for the 45 individuals who comprised the pitch team for Brand San Miguel Pale Pilsen, it was a totally different matter: the pressure was intense and increasing each day as the pitch date approached—2 P.M. on March 15, a Friday.

It was to be a five-way pitch that included Jimenez & Partners, Lowe-Lintas, Ace Saatchi, Foote Cone & Belding, and the incumbent, McCann. All would have about a month to prepare, beginning from the briefing date.

Although the San Miguel Pale Pilsen agency was no. 1 in the country and had built for itself a formidable record of new business wins, never had it been so seriously threatened with the loss of its most prestigious account. Not that the agency did not have its share of blue-chip leader brands in different categories. It was just that San Miguel beer, apart from being the Philippines’ most recognized and best-loved beer brand, was probably every ad agency’s dream account.

First beer assignment

It had certainly been McCann’s since the early 1980s, when the agency finally got its first beer assignment from San Miguel Corporation. This came after months of courting the client with beer marketing data from its international intelligence resource. Gold Eagle Beer was among the first of San Miguel’s flanker brands, launched to steal the thunder from an expected new competitor.

It had been decades since any other brand had dared to enter the beer market. So dominant was the San Miguel Pale Pilsen brand, and so intimately associated with friendship, that to challenge it seemed ridiculous, quixotic. Yet San Miguel Corporation was not one to take such a possibility lightly. There are no secrets in Manila, and so the company had known for some time that a new brewery was coming up, and they wanted to be well prepared.

After all, San Miguel had been market leader for almost a hundred years!

It was only a matter of time before someone decided that they might be able to carve out for themselves a slice of the lucrative beer market—for no matter how entrenched San Miguel Pale Pilsen was, there were always new drinkers, younger and more adventurous than the loyal following the brand enjoyed. There was also the lower socioeconomic sector who, more and more, could only afford to drink it on special occasions.

In most markets, beer was a “popular” alcoholic beverage, affordable to most, and enjoyed as a favorite group beverage for everyday gatherings.

Beer is not traditionally considered a “premium” alcoholic beverage in the same way that wine is, nor is it usually seen as the most suitable, satisfying alcoholic beverage to be consumed with food. Except in the good old Philippines, of course.

And this was what constituted the true worth of San Miguel beer in the Philippine market—that it was the alcoholic beverage of choice across all socioeconomic groups, and for just about any occasion. It was not unusual to see executives in restaurants enjoying lunch with an ice-cold bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen. Its Old English font was ubiquitous; you could spot it in menus, in tent cards, in sari-sari store signs, in coolers where the stubby little steinies beckoned by sheer presence.

In areas where electricity was scarce, the menfolk learned to drink San Miguel beer with ice. Those who could afford it drank it more often (maybe in slightly fancier mugs), and those who couldn’t, aspired to drink more of it, and did so whenever the opportunity presented itself. Hence, there was a great deal of pride associated with the brand. The prized jewel of San Miguel Corporation, San Miguel Pale Pilsen was a brand they intended to protect at all costs.

In the early 1980s, San Miguel hired an elderly husband-and-wife consultancy team whose credentials established them as solid academics and experienced beer marketers. The Faisons helped draw up a multibrand strategy to head off competition, starting with Gold Eagle Beer. It had its own taste profile, and came in a distinct bottle shape different from Pale Pilsen.

For McCann, the Gold Eagle Beer assignment was a foot in the door, for finally, the agency could begin to build its local beer experience. Up until then, the best McCann could do was count on the Miller Lite experience from its head office in New York. Although there were valuable insights to be learned from the multinational’s strategists, nothing beat the real-world immersion offered by route-riding with the San Miguel sales force, visiting down-market outlets, and getting to understand the psychological dimensions of the brand space occupied by San Miguel Pale Pilsen. The creative teams churned out ad campaigns to introduce Gold Eagle and later Red Horse Beer, but it was San Miguel Pale Pilsen we had always dreamt of winning.

Change is in the air

In 1986, that chance of a lifetime came around, and McCann was good and ready for it. We had even done the unthinkable—poached a top executive from client’s side. (The opposite was the norm in those days.)

Ray Dempsey, head of the Magnolia brand division at San Miguel Corporation, had beer experience, having handled the export business in Papua New Guinea. He was greatly attracted by the advertising side of marketing, and the offer to move to McCann was an adventure he could not resist.

(Ray Dempsey eventually took over the reins of McCann after Don Dillon had completed his tour of duty, and achieved his hugely audacious objective of making the agency No. 1. I would succeed Ray as president in 1992.)

Change was in the air, as the business district hosted rally after rally to end the dictatorial regime, and perhaps it was catching. The country’s single biggest media billing account was suddenly opened to a pitch after two-and-a-half decades of residence with Philippine Advertising Counselors (PAC), at that time the second largest agency in the industry.

McCann won.

By the end of that same year, McCann finally and officially became the country’s leading ad agency. And San Miguel Pale Pilsen was, of course, the brand that made it happen.

In the 15 years that San Miguel PP (for Pale Pilsen, the nickname used by client and agency) had been handled by McCann Erickson, over a dozen memorable campaigns had been created, beginning from the first, “Iba ang may pinagsamahan.”? This was a departure from the light-hearted and often funny commercials done by its previous agency, which were mostly pegged on taste? “So good, ayos na ang kasunod,” “O anong sarap,” “Isa pa nga” and “Ito ang beer!”—the campaign theme lines were memorable, the jingles sing-able, the approach was slice-of-life narratives. But there was competition now, and it was time to bring brand loyalty to the fore with more emotional appeal that went straight for the consumer’s heart.

“Iba ang may pinagsamahan” was pegged on what the brand symbolized: friendship. Among its most popular celebrity endorsers at this time were the Apo Hiking Society, a trio whose camaraderie and easy companionship were a familiar backdrop to the music they wrote and performed. They were a perfect fit for the new ad campaign, especially for the task of repairing the rift created during the events leading up to the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986. During one of the most heavily attended rallies for change, a boycott of the brand had been called for by no less than opposition leader Cory Aquino.

After she was duly sworn in as President of the Republic, the agency promptly recommended a “reconciliation” commercial that would link the brand’s previous endorser Bert Marcelo with the Apo. In the advertisement, as in real life, conflicts could be resolved over a bottle or two of San Miguel beer. It was a message of unity and peace among previously (politically) opposed groups.

Danny Javier of the Apo remembers it thus: “The best and worst of times were not quite over, and things were still in flux. Whose side were you on? Yet life had to find a way to return to its regular flow and normalize, rancor be damned. San Miguel beer had to get back to being the ‘toast’ to good times, and not get caught in the flotsam and jetsam of petty politics. So ‘Iba ang may pinagsamahan, San Miguel Beer’ blazed through the airwaves as the anthem of unity that bonded everybody who had a story to tell and experiences to share. What a recovery! From being nearly a political footnote, to returning as the drink of a nation united in that historical moment!”

Winning team

The agency’s creative team for San Miguel Pale Pilsen was led by a shy yet charismatic writer, Erwin Castillo, who not only loved the product, but had long been itching to conceptualize ads for the brand. He applied for the post almost as soon as word was out that McCann had won the pitch. It was a strange twist of fate, for his wife had been creative director at PAC during some of its best San Miguel years. Erwin headed a tightly knit, highly dedicated creative team, and for the next six years, they churned out some pretty outstanding campaigns that mined a broad spectrum of the consumer experience, as well as the epic prominence of the iconic brand itself. (This article is culled from “Leader, Essays on the first 125 Years”, a book produced to commemorate the 125th anniversary of San Miguel Corp. To be continued)