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Friday, October 01, 2010

Brand Dissection: Pabst Blue Ribbon

Long ago, I began a series of "brand dissections"--pulling apart the various elements of beer brands and seeing what they intend to communicate. I started with Rogue, then did Hopworks and MacTarnahan's and then--well, then I got distracted. Then I ran across an interesting piece on Pabst and thought it was ripe for its own treatment. Perhaps a little different, but useful nonetheless. Large industrial lagers are creatures almost entirely of brand. What's inside the can is so much less important than what's outside. People don't select Brand A over Brand B based on flavor (though they may think so), but because of more subtle cues they pick up from clever branding. (Okay, some folks make decisions based on price alone, and I'll grant a level of admirable agnosticism to that segment.)

Brand History
Pabst is an interesting case because its great renaissance began after it had quit being a brewery. One of the giants of American brewing, Pabst was founded in Milwaukee in 1844 and was the country's largest brewery by 1874. It started calling its "Best Select" beer "Blue Ribbon" after winning (or claiming to win) the 1893 World Expo in Chicago in 1993--an event huge in the history of religion scholarship, but that's a different post. Pabst became a major fixture in Milwaukee, and after the company shut its flagship in 1996, the brewery was placed on the National Register. The Pabst family were major philanthropists, and the name lives on in the Cream City.

The later days of Pabst as a brewery are familiar: declining sales made it ripe for plucking during the great epoch of consolidation. By the 1980s, it had become just another cheap beer, always in the rotation with Hamm's, Blitz, Oly, and Rainier for lowest price. It was a national brand without a national following.

Then a funny thing happened. In the early aughts, a smart brand manager named Neal Stewart had an idea about how to rehab the brand. Pabst couldn't compete with the big three--it was still just another SKU in a faceless megacorp. Instead, Stewart thought a viral approach of fastidious non-advertising might endear it to a subculture turned off by megacorps. (Try not to let the irony hit you in the chin.) Portland was ground zero for this approach:
Stewart made his close-to-zero advertising budget work for him. Instead of putting together focus groups, he and the Pabst team beat the streets in cities such as Portland, Chicago and New York in search of what he calls "buzz hubs," local places where the regulars groove on Pabst. He made it a policy while on the road always to eat at small independent restaurants. In local eateries and bars, joints where he might find a Pac Man game in the corner, he met people. He'd slip them Pabst Blue Ribbon trinkets and get conversations going, then let them spread the word. Some asked if Pabst would support their gallery openings or bike messenger races. Pabst did, but not the way of big business. There would be no girls passing out glow-in-the-dark logo necklaces or corporate suits making sure the banners were straight. The locals could do what they pleased with the beer and Pabst swag. Stewart walked city streets looking for Pabst Blue Ribbon neon signs. In Portland, he happened upon a barbershop that served free Pabst with every haircut. When the shop opened a second location awhile later, Stewart and his team sent plenty of free beer.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Stewart said this about his gambit: "Hey, there are all these people out there who hate marketing – and we should sell to them."

Brand Elements
The Pabst phenomenon is fascinating because it's wholly a meme-based success. The brand itself has changed little in the past few decades. No one recalls the origins of the blue ribbon; even old-timers relate to the brand as just a downscale bit of unchanging Americana. This comforting continuity is what formed the kernel of the new meme: like Converse All-Star and Levi jeans, some brands' durability create a sense unpretention. Stewart built on that, trying to associate the brand's longevity with credibility and authenticity.

Beer brands have a unique place in the American advertising landscape. For decades, beer was the working man's drink, synonymous with hard work and blue collars. Branding, from very early on, played on regional rivalries in the way sports teams did. When you pore over old advertisements, they always seems to be freighted with a wink and nod--claims to be the "best" were really calls to rally the troops. I love the old Henry's ads that portrayed Oregon as a kind of blue collar heaven, where bearded giants felled skyscraper-tall firs by day and drank Blitz by the fading light of sunset. It burnished my own sense of being an Oregonian. Pabst is no different--the "blue ribbon" of yore was a boast of one-upsmanship in line with rivalries between the Packers and Bears.

Stewart tapped into this old tradition and focused it all on Pabst. Where each regional brewery played on local sympathies in past decades, Stewart made PBR the focus for kids of a certain tribe all across the country. Although the meme appeared new, it was actually playing on ancient American traditions. And kids, many wearing Converse All-Stars, picked up the cues.

It's also worth addressing craft brewing's role in all of this. Back in 2000, there was a mini-backlash against craft brewing by drinkers just coming of age. Anything that contained even a whiff of boomer interest was anathema to late-ere Gen Xers. Where boomers rebelled against megacorps with their hand-made beer, Pabst looked like a good way for Gen Xers to rebel against another upscale, boutique boomer product. This panicked me for a few years, but--at least in Portland--the next generation of brewers was already coming on line. Guys like Van Havig, Jamie Floyd, Christian Ettinger, and Craig Nicholls were founding breweries that had their own Gen X quality of authenticity. Pabst remained popular among a segment of younger drinkers, but craft breweries have done a fantastic job of attracting young drinkers.

Pabst's meme seems to be going strong. It's still the sole macro I see in many micro-rich Portland pubs--and I still see people drinking it. There's no reason to assume that, as long as it stays to the shadows and sticks to the authenticity-through-longevity approach, it won't stay as popular as other abiding icons. Of course, you won't see me drinking it.


  1. Thank you, Jeff, Thank you! Been waiting for this!

    The fact that Portland was GROUND ZERO makes it even more amusing. Actually, extremely embarrassing, but I've gotten used to being embarrassed.

    Let me continue my comments in the form of questions, not accusations.

    So... PABST popularity is an example of how a generation of dumb asses can easily be bought and influenced with a cheesy advertising ploy? Based on the fact a generation turned to PABST as their Anti-Corporate self expression, does this really show they're lack of focus, imagination, lack of forethought, gumption, fortitude, study, research or carelessness?

    So, they choose a beer that is "nothing!?" Tasteless crap? They embraced this as their mascot for a generation that has No direction, No cause and No original generational icons unless it's been stolen from a generation past? This is very amusing! PABST is not original; Not Anti-Establishment or Corporate and definitely not a quality tasting product. Isn't it a cheap tasting lowly beer from years gone by, a beer that almost fell off the globe and into extinction but was resurrected by a generation that offers society about as much as... PABST!? Nothing!?

    Does this mean Neal Stewart is a marketing genius or does it mean he's a lucky bastard who managed to hook in a generation of morons that don't understand the corporate world or appreciate quality Beer?

    BTW... For all you GEN Y scholars of quality and hold a anti-corporate stance. Here's a list of equally crappy beers made under the S & P Corporation, the makers of PABST.(Just sold in May 2010 to Food Kingpin C. Dean Metropoulos). This is the Corporation that brews and sells you your anti-establishment beer icon!

    Schaefer Beer
    Carling’s Black Label Beer
    Blatz Beer
    Champale Malt Beverage
    Colt 45 Malt Liquor
    Coqui 900 Premium Malt Lquor
    Kingsbury Beer
    National Bohemian Beer
    Old Style Beer
    Schmidt Beer
    Special Export Beer
    Stag Beer
    Old Milwaukee Beer
    Schlitz Beer
    Lone Star Beer
    McSorley's Ale
    Jacob's Best Beer
    Olympia Genuine Draft Style Beer
    Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
    Ballantine Beer
    Country Club Malt Liquor
    Falstaff Beer
    Pearl Beer
    Piels Light Beer
    Primo Island Lager Beer
    Rainier Beer
    Ice Man Malt Liquor
    St. Ides High Gravity Malt Liquor
    Schlitz Malt Liquor
    Silver Thunder Malt Liquor
    Stroh's Beer

    Isn't it nice to know the PABST generation could have picked any one of these pieces of shit as an icon for a (so far) worthless generation?

  2. dr wort,

    excuse me if i don't agree with your point, which is in fact quite clear despite the anger you obviously harbor.

    i sincerely do not understand the vitriolic, and frankly absurd, comments about generation y (or millenial or whatever).

    there are stupid people all over the place, and so far i haven't noticed more of them in the 20-30 year old age bracket. sadly, this entire country is about as decadent and clueless as any in the world. yes, its going down the toilet... its been swirling around a long time now and you want to blame it on the youngest cohort? hmmmmmmmm

    in all likelihood this dude Stewart probably lucked out with this strategy. or maybe he's just that smart. regardless, its a pretty darn subtle way to build a brand, and i positively don't understand how you can be so surprised that 20 year olds are buying it when boomers and silents will buy something just because its shiny and made of space age plastic.

    an interesting point can be found on this Blog in Jeff's piece about Rogue. according to the piece, Rogue sells beer based on the imagery of revolution. specifically, the soviet revolution. rogue wants you to buy the beer because you're rebelling against the cheap domestic beer market. its not political he says.

    Stay with me dude... because PBR is marketing an anti micro brew, even if their advertising execs don't understand it. they tapped into a vein, and found gold. and they think its because generation y is generally anti-corporate (which it is). but that's not why people are buying it. people are buying it because:

    1) its the anti micro brew,

    2) its cheap,

    and not just at the supermarket, but also in the bars. 20 somethings are generally broke, so beers in the bar that sell for $2, and as low as 1$, are going to be a hit.


    i thought the piece on Pabst was interesting, and i hope you keep up the branding discussions :)

    my only critique is explained above, and to state it more clearly:

    the pbr executives are probably imbeciles (as is generally the case with just about any large organization), and though they've been successful, i think the brand's success is probably due more to its bar prices, which can't be beat, and its status as the anti-microbrew (especially in portland).

  3. Nathan-

    1) Wouldn't the 'anti-microbrew' be Bud/Coors/Miller?

    2) Judging from the Reedies, hipsters and Intel engineers I see drinking PBR, I can tell you it's not because they're broke.

    It's all about the 'ironic' fashion of trying to buy in to some working class authentic bullshit.

  4. As much as I hate the idea that they used hipsters sucessfully, I gotta hand it to them. Brilliant move.
    Also great post. I wouldn't have thought I would find reading about beer so interesting.

  5. Another piece of the PBR lore comes from the movie Blue Velvet, where a crazed Dennis Hopper mocks the young yuppie Kyle Maclachlan who requests a Heineken.

    "Heineken??!! F*** that S***! We drink Pabst Blue Ribbon! I can recall being in various "edgy" pre-hipster bars in DC in the late 80s where DJs would play that clip over and over.

  6. el heuso,

    1) for sure PBR is the antimicrobrew, not coors or bud or whatever. Here is a beer that was abandoned by its traditional base and if you read the article again, its obvious that PBR became popular again in places like NY Chicago and Portland BEFORE Stewart and the marketing team began their strategy... so they in fact jumped on the bandwagon, not the other way around.

    2) for sure. but that's really only in portland. you go to the other hipster cities and nobody's really drinking PBR outside of the hipsters... so chalk it up to people that want to be cool but aren't (people like that are everywhere).

    Really, i totally agree with you about how stupid it is that people drink PBR to look authentic. Its a real emotional need for people right now because our society is so inauthentic. But you must realize that this happens with every trend... 90%+ of the population are followers, not trendsetters... it will always be like this.

    I think what it comes down to is:

    PBR initially became popular in cities like portland and ny because it was NOT a Boomer luxury beer and it was super, super cheap.

    Then a confluence of events:
    Stewart and cronies notice sales are up and try to figure out why, eventually implementing a new strategy. Plus millions more beer drinkers start drinking PBR, mostly because it is "cool", not because its anti-micro or cheap.

    Now i can tell you, PBR has not been seen as "cool" for many years now. Its still around in all the bars, and its always the cheapest option but now you often see high life or another crap beer along with it. Lets face it, price had everything to do with the authentic and broke urban dwellers starting to drink it en masse back in the late 90s. For these latter day PBR drinkers, yeah, they are ridiculous, just like any hoodwinked consumer.

  7. PBR + Bloody Mary Mix = Pabst Smear

  8. Good comments, folks. With these posts, I try to discuss what the brewery is intending to communicate. What that message says about the consumer or brewery is a separate matter.

    Speaking to Doc, your commentary reads like a Marxist critique and the place itmainly calls down is the generational stuff. Every generation is subject to sales pitches. A generation fell for advertising about whether Lite beer was good because it tasted great or was less filling. Same thing. (Slainte's brief comment was, I suspect, alluding to this.)

    I don't harbor especially dark feelings for Pabst, except that it has stolen so much of the thunder I believe rightly belongs to Hamm's, America's truly authentic cheap beer.

  9. What do you know about Karl Strauss' (brewery in San Diego)connection with PBR?

  10. You are 100% correct Jeff. Every generation has it's mindless followers of fad, trend and cultural icons. Being that the Doc never followed these mainstream buffoons, I guess I can mock every generation... If I choose. ;-}

  11. I've witnessed the way PBR's image has changed over the last decade. When I first turned 21, as much as I wanted to buy good craft beer, I just didn't have the cash a lot of time, which left me choosing between all the bland macro lagers. And since at the time PBR was the cheapest, it's what I bought. I remember showing up with it at parties, and getting made of and people saying, "my grandpa drinks that," or "they still make that?"

    After a stint in the marine corps, I moved back to Oregon and I found PBR was de rigeur at parties, especially those held by hipsters. What was at the beginning of the decade an uncool grandpa's drink is now the drink of choice for most 20 somethings.

    I don't believe any of the bs about anti corporate self expression or this PBR corporate hack taking credit by saying passing out trinkets and sponsoring fixie bike polo is what improved sales. The reason PBR is popular is because of economics, the 20 something age demographic is one of the most chronically under and unemployed generations in recent American history, and PBR just happens to be one of the cheapest beers out there. It's not because of hipster culture, which is both meaningless and at its core vapid, it's because most everyone who is young in this country is either unemployed or making practically nothing. And then, if you're around something long enough, eventually you even start to become loyal to the brand and buy it without thinking.

    Like most young people since beer was invented, today's generation likes to drink. But since it has no money, it goes for the cheapest availible product. I wish I could afford to buy good craft beer every time, but buying good beer is sometimes an expensive splurge that I can't afford often.

    However, I stopped buying Pabst recently. I started showing up with Hamms or Oly to parties because they're even cheaper than PBR, and now I can tell who's been stealing my beer since everyone else has their PBR in hand.

    I've also noticed how other brands are trying to do the same thing; Old german has been showing up in bars recently and they're trying to tap into the same sort of old school kitszch that rescued PBR. I'm not sure if they'll pull it off, but it's interesting to see them using the same marketing technique, cheap beer.

    One day I'll be old and rich and curmudgeonly enough to be able to afford all those awesome imperial IPA's and drink cascadian dark ales until I'm satisfied. Until then, sometimes I'm just stuck buying cheap beer. And that's what PBR has done, corner the cheap beer market. And they sponsor NPR, which I wholly approve of, even though most NPR listeners would never buy PBR in between driving around in their Priuses and shopping at whole foods or the local farmer's market.

  12. I just stumbled on this entry somehow. I don't know if anyone would possibly read this but I found your write up interesting.

    I think it's also extremely important for people to note that PBR does not brew their own beer. At all. They contract brew all of it so they're exclusively a marketing company at this point. I know someone who works for them locally getting their name and image into the hipster shows and what not. I'm sure they must do this in every major market. And that's all they do. Which makes a discussion on their brand worth looking at.

  13. FoA,

    Yup, totally. And the fact that the old brewery still sits there, like the bones of a dinosaur, must underscore the point to Wisconsins every day.

  14. I think it must, Jeff.

    I drive past the old, enormous Schmidt brewery in St Paul periodically, and while it's not really the same as Pabst, it is a very visceral reminder that regional breweries are probably gone forever in this country. There are now plans to turn the remnants of the brewery into condos... and a shopping mall. Horrifying.