Retro Brews News Again

Young drinkers thirst for taste of old brews

SAN ANTONIO -- "Retro beers," brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, which might bring to mind old men in ribbed undershirts, are finding a new audience with young drinkers, said the Associated Press.

Getting new life from an old brand is a great deal for brewers because they avoid the cost of launching a new product. The trick is doing it right. Heavy-handed advertising can backfire. Word of mouth seems to work. TV commercials with the Swedish bikini team are out.

"That's the whole point of the retro thing," said Eric Shepard of Beer [image-nocss] Marketer's Insights. "The harder you try to push it, the more skeptical people are going to get."

These are not the happiest days for brewers, AP said. Sales are growing slowly, andas reported in CSP Daily Newsbeer is losing ground to spirits as consumers turn more to mixed drinks. Beer's market share dropped to 52.9% last year from 56% in 1999, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Among the recent bright spots is the quirky story of Pabst, which caught on early this decade with young "hipsters" in Portland, Ore., and its popularity spread. Without initial prompting, PBR became a symbol of authenticity and cool. It has been enjoying double-digit growth every year since 2003, said Pabst brand manager Neal Stewart.

Consumers like these beers, in part, because they cost less than fancy imports or craft brews. They also can play on happy memories of simpler days, maybe of granddad swigging a beer while barbecuing, said Darrell Jursa, managing partner with Liquid Intelligence, a Chicago marketing agency that has Pabst as a client.

Jursa also mentions that "you are what you drink." Just like a club hopper ordering Grey Goose vodka could be signaling she's like the urban sophisticates of Sex in the City, a Pabst drinker could be showing he is beyond the mainstream. "You can pay a couple of bucks and you can hold a can in the air, and it's a badge, 'I'm retro and I'm cool and I'm chic'," Jursa said.

The challenge for brewers is to tap into that anti-establishment streak without seeming too establishment. Pabst managed by tailoring marketing to its young drinkers. It sponsored skateboarding film premieres, Vespa scooter rallies and art gallery openings. "I had guys get in my face and tell me if we ever advertised on TV, they'd beat me up," Stewart said.

While Stewart doesn't think the Pabst playbook will work for every brand, other brewers are at least trying to see if they can capitalize on their own venerable names. San Antonio-based Pabst Brewing Co.'s stable of brands also includes Seattle-based Rainier, which is running the nostalgia-soaked "Remember Rainier" campaign. The website suggests enjoying a retro can to the sounds of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Leinenkugel's, a subsidiary of Miller Brewing Co., introduced retro packaging this year. Even Anheuser-Busch rolled out a series of retro Budweiser cans this year and recycled a 1956 commercial featuring a crooning nightclub quartet.

One brand that hopes lightning can strike again is Utica Club in upstate New York. Once a big seller in the Northeast, the brand was down to selling 100,000 cases annually just a few years ago. Most Utica Club drinkers were 55-plus. Then, Pabst-like, it picked up with younger people. Sales are up 9% from last year, said Fred Matt, vice president for the Matt Brewing Co., Utica, N.Y.

"All of the sudden we're getting calls on a weekly basis: 'Where can I find Utica Club?'."

Matt said the company is contemplating a modest ad campaign that could resurrect old jingles in bars and a cable TV commercial. Nothing too much, though: The company does not want to kill the positive buzz. "More than anything," Matt said, "we're just letting it go by word of mouth."