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Nov 15, 2004
How To

How Pabst Blue Ribbon Reversed a 20-Year Sales Decline With Underdog Event Marketing

SUMMARY: Pabst Blue Ribbon lost 90% of its sales volume between 1978-2001. When, at last, a new marketing team came on board, they didn't have much of a budget to speak of. Their only choice was to try going underground, sponsoring tiny local events that 20-something buzzmakers adored. Sales rose by 15% in 2003, and will probably do the same for 2004. More on how they did it here; plus why the marketing team refuses to run national ads despite their now-fatter budget:
by Contributing Editor Jennifer Nastu

When Neal Stewart took the job as Senior Brand Manager of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer in 2000, he was charged with reversing a 20-year sales decline.

"It was a forgotten brand with no marketing support," he says. "We were very sales driven, so our individual sales managers across the country were communicating the brand in the way they thought best. The way they were talking about the brand in South Carolina was very different from Oregon."

Also, marketing budget-wise he couldn't compete with Budweiser, Miller, or Coors. "Even if we wanted to go in the mass market, we couldn't."

The brand, which lost 90% of its volume between 1978 and 2001, was back in the positive numbers at +15% in 2003, with similar projections for 2004. How?

"We went for driving word of mouth and buzz," Stewart says, in large part through sponsoring subcultural events.

Stewart went to bars that he knew served Pabst and unobtrusively met Pabst drinkers. "If I saw someone drinking Pabst, I'd slip them a keychain or a hat, and they'd get excited and tell other people, 'Hey, the Pabst guy is here.'"

Without broadcasting the fact that he worked for Pabst, he was able, through conversation, to let Pabst drinkers know that Pabst supported their lifestyles.

"People would say, 'We're having this scooter rally, and we'd love to have Pabst involved, and I'd say, 'Send an email with the details.'"

In this way, Pabst began supporting subculture events produced by people out to have fun, with no profit scheme: scooter rallies, kickball and dodgeball tournaments, fashion shows, bike messenger races, and art exhibition openings. "They wanted us to be involved because they thought it added to the event," he says.

And by "supporting," Stewart doesn't mean pumping big money into the events and taking them over. Rather, he says, "We'd donate some beer, if permissible, and maybe give them some money to help them print fliers."

Through time, the brand developed a network of contacts, some of them promoters within their own subculture, others "regular" people, such as artists promoting their own art show openings.

"They'd call me from time to time, saying, 'I have this event and I want to get Pabst involved,'" he says.

The only thing the ambassadors got in return for promoting the brand was more status within their subculture. But it seemed to be enough.

Soon, Pabst had enough suggested events that the team were able to pick and choose those that would be most effective. How did they know which those would be?

"Obviously, you want to ask the right questions," Stewart explains. "We ask our sales people if they have heard of the event, if anybody else has sponsored it in the past. You have to gauge how fun it will be, how much buzz it will drive, how unique it is. That 'unique' factor is a big part of it."

Building the brand almost solely by word of mouth was a necessity, but it was also a strength. "The new consumer, young adults, liked the brand because we didn't advertise," says Stewart. "They literally said to us, 'I love your beer but the minute you advertise on TV, I'm done with you.' They felt like they discovered it, and there was a sense of ownership."

So when the brand began to make a comeback, and it would have been easy to put ads in national media targeting the young adult market. Instead, the team kept their local, event-focused, underdog ad strategy. For example, the Pabst brand is tied in with musicians, so Stewart decided to sponsor musical "underdogs" -- those who play in small, local clubs.

The team also place weekly, quarter-page ads in local alternative entertainment publications in about 25 markets (The Onion in the Denver market, for example). Each week, the ad sponsors a different band that will be playing in the local market the following weekend.

Depending on state liquor laws, the ad either tells where the band will be playing that weekend or says, "Check your local listings."

"Hopefully, [the band] will appreciate being sponsored by a national brand, so they'll drink it on stage and tell people about it," Stewart says. But there's no contract the band has to sign, and they're not required to talk about the beer.

"We find a band we think fits our brand and plays good music, and mutual respect builds," he explains.

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