Recently, while enjoying a beer or two with some other beer-loving friends, we began discussing the popularity of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. We all agreed that it was cheap but, considering there had been no marketing anyone could think of, we also figured there was something else at play.
If you’ve been in any bar in America catering to 20- to 30-something hipsters lately, you’ve likely seen cans, bottles and and glasses full of Pabst Blue Ribbon flying off the bar. In fact, PBR is so popular that it actually posted a 25% sales volume gain last year, while increasing their case price by $1.50, during a recession! It was even recommended in The Hipster Handbook. However, what you may not have noticed, is that all this popularity came from a 134 year old brand that has done almost zero marketing.
Though essentially a dead brand, PBR did have somewhat of a kitschy, retro appeal, and if you’re looking for it, you’ll see PBR show up occasionally in movies (Dennis Hopper’s famous, NSFW endorsement in Blue Velvet, Will Ferrell’s character sporting a PBR t-shirt in Old School). That said, its’ classic logo was far more popular than the beer itself and the PBR demographic was males 40-63, which is to say from a beer marketer’s perspective, your Dad’s and Grandad’s beer…
So how to explain the sudden success of PBR, especially considering that, before 2002, the brand had seen declining sales for 23 straight years? It can certainly be attributed to marketing, but not in the traditional sense. That 25% sales gain last year came with no measured media, which is to say no TV, radio, newspaper, or outdoor. Instead of over-the-top, the company went underground.
In my research, I found conflicting stories about the resurgence of PBR, but however it happened, it apparently all started in Portland, OR and spread from there among the 20-somethings. Maybe it was the bar owner who started selling it at $1 a can and thence it spread to the young urban hipsters, bike messengers, and ski-boarders who wanted cheap beer. Or it may have been the PBR brand manager who, faced with a meager promotion budget, fed the above fire for PBR though subtle sponsorships such as monetary and product donations to events, bars, and other vendors (including a barber shop that had a PBR neon in the window and gave a free pint of PBR with every hair cut!). What didn’t he do? There were no banners at any of the events, no girls in tight tees in bars handing out logo key chains, and no gladhanding reps. Just lots of cheap PBR. In fact, that Pabst Blue Ribbon didn’t follow the traditional beer marketing handbook has allowed the brand to keep its’ cool factor with the hipsters who originally championed it as an underground, retro chic beer.
Now, PBR trails only Coors Light, Budweiser, Bud Light, and Corona in supermarket sales. And they’ve done it with a microfraction of the marketing budget of any of their competition…
So what’s the moral to the story? Basically, as Pabst Blue Ribbon has shown, you don’t need to have a big marketing budget to achieve success in your market. But, do you know who’s using your products or service and why? Do you know what they expect from you? Figure that out and, even with a minimal budget, you can maximize your marketing spending and make more money!