Could Pabst Be Too Cool?

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Pabst Blue Ribbon ("PBR") is a 100 year old+ beer brand and one of 25 labels just bought by an investor renowned for his ability to make old brands profitable again. I want to give him the benefit of some dim insights, though it’s proving much harder than I expected.

There used to be a lot of beer brands just like there were more than a handful of car brands. Visionary entrepreneurs, local histories, and the limitations of production, shipping, and storage gave America Packard and Tucker cars along with Olympia and Stroh’s beers. Those days are long gone. Giant multinationals control both industries. Pabst Brewing accounts for little more than 2% of total beer sales nationwide.

Interestingly, the company is nothing more than a collection of recipes and logos. Everything else is virtual. Take PBR for example:

  • It has no breweries but rather outsources it to MillerCoors. Its famous facility in Milwaukee is a crusty eyesore that’s locked in perennial talks to be redeveloped as a shopping center
  • Its HQ is in a nondescript suburban Chicago industrial park, not Milwaukee as claimed on its logo and online propaganda graphics, and
  • PBR customer service is based in San Antonio

There’s nothing real about PBR whatsoever, only it gets lots of cred from artists and other aspiring nonconformists…so much so that its 2009 sales far outpaced those of its better-known rivals, like Miller High Life, and it spent next to nothing on measured media. This is where my analysis runs into trouble.

Is Being Cool Uncool?

PBR can trace its success directly to its failure. 

It started the 2000s as a has-been brand name, so pointless and uncool that it was perfectly poised to become cool when it was touched by the dark, abstract magic that drives consumer trends. No schmarty-pants marketer can take credit for architecting the Phoenix-like rise that followed; the brand was owned by a charitable trust that knows about as much about consumer tastes as you’d expect a charitable trust to know. It didn’t hurt that PBR was the beer of choice for the wacky Dennis Hopper character in the movie "Blue Velvet" but the brand’s revival was pretty much organic, from what I can tell.

Today, the company has caught up with the trend. Its web site plays up its hipness, allowing visitors to create mashup art with its logo and post pictures. It seems to sponsor the occasional art or music event. Obviously its consumers like drinking the stuff, but the brand’s marketing is all about anti-pretense and authentic when the reality of its business is nothing but pretension and inauthenticity.

I was told once that there was a saying within MTV that went something like "if you have to say you’re cool, you’re not." If you need any proof of this truism you need look no further than Microsoft or the last few years’ worth of Detroit’s auto marketing. Now PBR is officially in the cool business, and what surprises me is that more consumers haven’t figured it out. Will they come to realize that there’s no there there at PBR? Can it stay cool by acting cool? Does it matter if they like the taste and price of the brew? 

Getting Uncool Again

I think PBR needs to get uncool again…for real…not in a tongue-in-cheek Hormel Spam or faux nostalgia sort of way. Doing anything less just isn’t sustainable, as I don’t believe any brand can consistently identify the latest trends (let alone stay ahead of them, no matter how consultants might confidently claim otherwise). Consumers eventually catch up to reality and there are far too many other options in the beer category. So here’s what this dim bulb would recommend:

  • Do anti-cool things. Scrap the art sponsorships and web site nonsense. Every time somebody suggests to do something cool, consider doing the exact opposite. Fund marketing events that are distinctly and straight-forwardly not cool. Don’t wink or acknowledge that there’s some joke on which the brand has an in. Once you give away that you know something’s cool, it’s not. It’s just lame. Dare to be dull and let your customers decide if it’s interesting.
  • Create legitimacy. If all you have is a recipe, create ways to build legitimacy around it. Does PBR guarantee purity of ingredients or have some brewing oversight that puts other processes to shame? Are its ingredients locally grown (somehow?) or does it only use local vendors? Could its delivery services better paid, more fully covered with health care, or enjoy some other unique qualities? I think it needs to create a real company out of the management service it currently maintains.
  • Turn the business into a brand. What if everything PBR did — from its policies and how its employees dressed, to the design of its offices and its outbound marketing — embodied a concept that was anti-cool and legitimate? PBR has a rich heritage from which to draw (as so the other brands in the Pabst stable) so why not come up with a brand that applied to every aspect of its business? My fantasy idea is that it function and even dress/look like the company did in the 1950s…and do it for real, not just pretend…

There’s an opportunity here, so I think PRB’s new owner might be onto something. The challenge will be to make the brand real while keeping it really uncool. Virtual hipness isn’t the key to building the brand. 

It’s funny, though. Now I want to go buy a six-pack and reacquaint myself with the brew, cool or not.

(Photo: an "arthack" from the Company’s website)

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