It's Miller Time
If you were expecting a Buzz about the recent Supreme Court
decision on the legality of shipping wine (and probably beer and
liquor), well, sorry. The decisionís very narrow, and does not
appear to be the death knell of the three-tier system Ė although
it is a crack in the dam face.
If youíre a whiskey fan and you were expecting a Buzz on
the upcoming Allied Domecq/Pernod Ricard Ė Fortune Brands menage
a trois (because it sure looks like thatís whoís going to end up
in bed at this point) and what itís going to mean when Jim Beam
gets its hands on Makerís Mark, well, sorry to you, too.
Thatís an easy answer, too: not much Ė Makerís is a Money
Makerís, and Jim Beam is smart enough to leave that cash cow in
the pasture; Wild Turkeyís not big enough to figure in the picture.
There may be some interesting fall-out on the Scotch whisky side, but
I leave those angles to my man John "Malt Advocate"
And if you were expecting a Buzz about the recent re-emergence of
Dennyís Beer Barrel Pub onto the world competitive eating stage
with the Eleven-Pound BurgerÖIím not even going to say sorry.
All I can say is Dude, youíre way too wrapped up in the whole Pennsylvania
bar thing, and me saying that should scare you. (But
listen: Denny's has TrŲegs on draft now!)
No, this month the Buzz is about the fantastic return of Miller
Why do I care about Miller? "Miller makes swill!" I can
hear you all saying. Hear me saying: get over it. Miller makes beer,
and they have apparently re-discovered that fact about their business,
a revelation I cherish and applaud. SAB/Millerís shareholders are
probably pretty happy about it as well, because that revelation drove growth
of just over 10% in 2004, Millerís first positive year in quite a
Miller was the poster-child of Anheuser-Busch market domination in
the years between 1990 and 2002, when their market share continued to
slip under the assault of A-Bís menagerie of talking frogs and
lizardsÖmay God have mercy on the brainless wads whose
drinking decisions were made by those ads.
I have no mercy for the idiots at Miller who came up with the
endless string of horrible ads that rode their brands into the dirt all
those years. Do I even have to say it? Dick the Creative Genius?
Sumo Rodeo? "Itís It, And Thatís That"? A-B didnít need
the frogs and the lizards, Miller was screwing themselves blind.
And never a word about the beer, except that Miller Genuine Draft was cold,
and that Miller Lite was a fine pilsner beer. HAH! I couldnít
wait till South African Brewing bought Miller and I could ask the owners
of Pilsner Urquell about that one!
And it was the answer they gave that led me to believe that they
might have a chance. Michael Hennick, director of communications for
Miller at the time, e-mailed me to admit that "Pilsner
Urquell is indeed the original Pilsner beer and the standard to
which all pilsners are held. And while Miller Lite may not be one of
the original European pilsners, it is a great American beer brewed
in the pilsner tradition to be golden in color and slightly more
hoppy in taste." While this didnít really answer the obvious
question Ė why on earth did they say Miller Lite was a fine
pilsner beer, when it wasnít Ė it did show both honesty and pride. That
pride had been missing; all Iíd ever gotten out of Miller Brewing
before that was arrogance.
The arrival of Norman Adami sealed the deal. Adami, the new head
of Miller, was brought in by SAB headquarters to turn the company
around, and he did it from top to bottom. Management deadwood was
jettisoned in a flurry of rolling heads, and the entire company was
forcibly reminded that Miller Brewing made beer. Adami
actually went to the symbolic gesture of drinking a beer at a
Miller has always been at the bottom of my list of megabrewers, largely
because of that arrogance I mentioned, but that gesture grabbed
me. This guy gets it, I thought, he sees that Miller has become a
tool of the marketers, that the production people have become cogs,
forgotten, cost centers. Adami took that crap and stood it
on its head. Marketing must serve production, and a
company must be proud of its products; a brewer must be proud of their
So we got new ads: "I Canít Taste My Beer!"
was a classic, and the "Good Call" series was funny and
effective and made real points about the actual qualities of
Millerís beer. These were beer ads about the beer, not the name
of the beer, or the coldness of the beer, or the beautiful women who
appear around the beer.
Why is that such a big deal? After all, put aside the "Mr.
Fair To All Beer" persona Iíve been using so far, and Iíll
admit: Millerís beer is not exactly Godzilla in the taste
department. Itís more like the Geico gecko.
It's a big deal because it's the first little baby step out of hell.
If Miller's embracing of what they do takes the other big brewers
further down that path, then maybe we'll see people thinking about what
they're drinking. Maybe beer will be more than just a thing to do while
you're getting a buzz. Maybe it will spell the end of the embarrassment
beer has suffered for decades.
But what I'm really hoping for is for Adami's example to spread.
I'd like to see more emphasis on the beer in every ad campaign, from
megabrewers to imports and crafts, brewpubs too. I'd like to see every
bit of beer marketing talk about the beer, I'd like to see the public's
attention focused on the taste of the beer. I'd like to teach the
world to drink, in perfect harmony...
Sorry. I'd truly like to see the brewing industry focus on the
beer, because spirits and wine are kicking our ass by
focusing on the spirits and the wine. Actually, that's not quite
true. Spirits are finally focusing on the fun and innovation of
spirits, something that's been missing, and that's working for
them in tandem with their traditional emphasis on heritage and
luxury. But the wine industry's marketing is clearly focused on the
wine, and it's working.
It's because they've been focused on the wine, and because
they have wine with real flavor to focus on. The beer industry
-- worldwide, not just in the U.S. -- has decided to focus on
production of one fairly innocuous type of beer, and focus their
marketing on every aspect of that beer except the flavor.
This has worked so well that I recently saw a beer analyst say in public that beer was screwed in
the competition against wine and spirits because, he said, beer was just
beer, there were no other flavors of beer. (I'm trying
to find the actual quote, because I'd love to expose this ding-dong
to public ridicule: if you find it, let
me know. FOUND! Thanks to Julie
Bradford, editor of All About
Beer magazine, it is now known that the guy who said "You
can't come out with a new flavor beer. Beer is beer." was
Eric Schmitt, a lead researcher with the Adams Beverage Group.)
Brewers: if an industry analyst knows so little about beer, you've
failed in a big way. Or I suppose you could say that the megabrewers
have succeeded in a terrible way. But I think Norman Adami may be
able to lead the industry out of it. I suspect Adami knows where
this kind of focus on flavor could lead, and he's not against it,
especially judging from remarks he made at the last Brewers Association
of America meeting in New Orleans last November. The core of the speech
is this single sentence:
"I believe the single biggest threat facing the
American beer business
today is the possibility that we will allow the American consumer
to get bored with beer."
Stand up for your beer, Adami urged the small brewers, and
it was a thrilling moment. He laid out five ideas on how not to bore the
consumer, and they were great: One Ė
get clear about who we are. Two Ė play to our strengths. Three Ė donít
pretend to be something weíre not. Four Ė innovate every way we can.
And five Ė give the distributor meaningful alternatives.
Now is not the time to give in and go bland to try to appeal
to a wider range of drinkers. That's not what The Revolution was
about. Now is not the time to go froo-froo malternative to try to
make beer something it is not. Keep pushing the boundaries.
Continue to work on the wholesaler-producer connection.
And drinkers? Be demanding, be pushy. If you want bigger
beers, ask for them. If you want session beers, ask for them. If the
beer selection at a restaurant sucks, tell them.
Most of all, talk about beer. Talk among yourselves, talk to
friends. Challenge your friends about why they like their beer; not
because yours is better (it may not be), but because thinking about it
leads to enlightenment.
It's Miller Time. If Miller's come to their senses and started
acting normal, while the small guys have been talking this way all
along, well, be gracious and have them in to the party. As the
Good Book says: "I tell you that even so there will be more joy
in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine
righteous people who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7)