The Light of My Life is Dimming
Everybody I know these days hates light beer, except those who don’t. It’s not just that they don’t prefer light beer or that they like more flavorful beers: They actually actively and morally despise light beer. It’s as if light beer was once a significant other who wronged them somehow—cheated with an import, say—and forgiveness is out of the question.
And of the cheating tarts out there, none is more despised these days, it seems, than poor old Miller Lite. You can forgive Bud Light, who was just a friend with benefits—easy come, easy go. You can forgive Coors Light because that was just a youthful dalliance—all summers must end, right? Corona Light was just a hook-up on the beach, and Amstel Light was an uptown girl you couldn’t afford anyway. Natty Light and Keystone Light? Well those were just one-night stands and you consider yourself lucky for not getting the clap.
But Miller Lite? That’s the one you thought you’d marry for life. The one that tasted great, but was also, confoundingly, less filling. The one with half the carbs of that meathead Bud Light. The one that has “more taste.” Whatever that means.
I don’t exactly know the tipping point where it started to become uncool for even moderately dorky people to hate light beer—especially Miller Lite—but I suspect it started on Jan. 7, 1997.
That’s the exact date when Miller Brewing Co. announced it was going to run the now-infamous “Dick” ads. Dick was a fictitious advertising exec who created inane ads. One example: A middle-aged man sees the message “twist to open” on a Miller Lite bottle cap, and he proceeds to do the Twist. The ads were universally loathed by distributors, and almost immediately Miller Lite sales started to decline. A shareholder of AB InBev once told me: Marketing is like motor oil—it can speed up your engine moving forward, or it can speed up your engine going backward. In Miller Lite’s Dick ads, the engine was in full-speed reverse. The beer never really recovered, except for a brief resurgence during the low-carb craze of 2005. Today, Miller Lite volumes are running down around six percent so far in 2013 (according to IRI scans), and is the worst performing brand in the MillerCoors portfolio by market share. Miller Lite is the light beer that is suffering the most among the Big Three, which includes Bud Light and Coors Light.
As a sidebar, I note that the “Dick” ads would probably be hailed as brilliant by today’s young beer drinkers.
My adult life has been inextricably (and inexplicably) connected with Miller Lite, for better or worse. It was the beer I sold when I used to sell beer. It was an easy brand to sell in Houston, where it was the No. 1 beer when I arrived on the scene in 1991. It sold itself, really. Within a few years it started to decline in Houston as it did in the rest of the country, and that fact pulled back the curtain and revealed that I was not a great beer salesman. So it was with the decline of Miller Lite that I “decided” to leave the distributorship and try my hand at writing. Actually it was decided for me when it was politely suggested to me that beer wholesaling maybe wasn’t my game. It was a rebirth, such as what Miller Lite now apparently needs 15 years later.
And since 1997 I’ve watched the other light beer brands join Miller Lite’s slow demise with a little bit of sadness. Oh, it’s easy to say you hate light beers. That’s as easy as punching a baby on the playground. But when you grew up selling the stuff it’s hard to see it suffer. Light beer is losing share at an alarming rate, and it’s accelerating. Light volumes are down 3.6 percent this year through mid-July, according to IRI. Premium lights are down 2.2 percent. One prominent Anheuser-Busch distributor told me, “I don’t believe beer is going away. But I believe the American light lager is in trouble. The more they [A-B and MillerCoors] push price, the more they hasten the decline.” The fact remains that there’s just not much excitement in premium light beer these days, either in the marketing or the product itself.
That’s not to say that the big brewers aren’t desperately trying. Here’s what I mean by desperate:
MillerCoors is following a throwback strategy with Miller Lite by taking the product back to its glory days of meteoric growth by introducing the original label for a limited time in early 2014. Marketing experts believe the retro-label will help middle-aged men like myself remember their youthful erections, and maybe even achieve them with Pavlovian lasciviousness. I will buy a 12-er, wistfully and limply.
Anheuser-Busch has taken yet another route. It has turned Bud Light into something that people are actually drinking: a margarita. Along with its Stra-ber-Rita, the Bud Light Lime-A-Ritas give margarita lovers something that big beer companies do particularly well: convenience. Lime-A-Rita comes in a cute 8-ounce can with a 8%, so not only is the packaging convenient, also the alcohol content will conveniently get her into that loving feeling. Ounce for ounce, the Bud Light Rita sisters are the best idea A-B has come up with since it convinced people they can win the Tour de France by drinking Michelob ULTRA.
At this point in this maddening column, you may be saying or even screaming to the page: “I really don’t care what happens to light beer. I’m a craft beer drinker!” But what happens to big light beers does matter to craft beer, at least tangentially and at the margin. It matters because if these things don’t work, light beer’s slide will likely accelerate, and an extremely profitable monolithic segment could be replaced by fractionalized flavors-of-the-month with little brand loyalty and two- or three-year brand life cycles. The former prints money for all participants in the industry and provides a rich infrastructure to get and maintain a wide variety of beers on tap and on the shelves. The latter is expensive and difficult to manage. If light beers die, craft beer quality and selection could suffer, because it takes all that volume to pay for draft line cleaners, merchandisers and quality managers. But so far, it’s my impression that nobody has cracked the code to revive light beer yet. I mean really cracked the code. The problem is the segment is so big, so you have to appeal to so many diverse people and occasions. Yes, that means you have to even appeal to morons, and since there are so many morons out there, light beer ads tend to be, well, moronic.
But whoever does crack the light beer marketing code will get very rich. I suspect the words “Hispanic”, “Female” and “Millennial” will have to be deeply understood at the very least to turn around the style.
When I say cracking the code, I mean things like “vacation in a bottle” (Corona), “active lifestyle” (Michelob ULTRA), “Most Interesting Man” (Dos Equis), “retro-cool” (PBR), or “Tastes Great, Less Filling” (original Lite). What the light beer guys desperately need is new ideas.
Time has taken the luster off light beer. It’s due for a game changer to bring it back to its former glory.
On the other hand, light beers may never turn around, and Miller Lite may slide inexorably and inevitably, like an aging beer writer I know intimately, into that great lauter tun in the sky.
Harry Schuhmacher is the editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily. He tweets at @beerbizdaily. His book of essays, Thanks for Drinking Beer, will be out in early 2014.