Budweiser and Miller Go Retro

Facing slumping sales, classic American beers are mining their past for authenticity.
Facing slumping sales, classic American beers are mining their past for authenticity.Getty / Bloomberg

The American beer identity crisis is imminent. In 2013, overall U.S. beer production fell 1.4 percent to 2.8 billion cases. The drop may appear small, but it’s yet another year of stagnation for the once-mighty brewers at Budweiser and Miller. 

Experts point first to milliennials entering beer aisles a significant preference for small-batch pale ales over cans of their father’s ice-cold brew. In fact, while beer production shrank, craft brewing saw nearly 10-percent growth over the year. The little guys cover a mere seven percent of the beer market, but the industrial brewers, unable to match craft beers on flavor, are scrambling for another solution to lure recently-legal drinkers.

Budweiser, for one, recently announced plans to gives its Clydesdales a rest in favor of a campaign featuring young people asking, "If you could grab a bud with any of your friends these holidays, who would it be?" The campaign includes the brand’s ongoing partnership with Jay-Z on the Made in America music festival in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. 

The move to abandon its horses was met with backlash, but Bud is struggling to maintain its title of the King of Beers. Ten years ago they led the U.S. beer market with a commanding 14.4 percent share. They’re now the third most popular beer and own just 7.6 percent of the market. It also wasn’t the King’s only play for younger fans. In November, the brewery released a limited run faux-antique wooden-crate cases of Budweiser with bottles baring vintage labels from 1918, 1933, and 1976. 

Bud’s second move mirrors a strategy seen across the industry by the big-scale macrobreweries. Miller Lite likewise revived its vintage labels and its High Life brand has long-relied on retro looks. Marketing departments are pivoting their images to the past to appeal to the new generation of consumers that will doubtless be more specifically defined by the appellation "hipster" and all of the fetishes it entails: tattoos, beards, heritage clothing, and raw denim; realness and authenticity above all, even if it’s fictional.

Bud and Miller’s retro bottles and cans are a play at fauxthenticity, says David Coomer, the chief creative officer of Cornett, a Kentucky creative agency that created a project called "Hipsterish Brands Reimagined." In that series, they performed the opposite operation that most beer brands are doing — by redesigning logos, they turned hip companies like Ace Hotel, Vice, and Dogfish Head into their corporate counterparts. While big companies are aspiring toward hipsterdom, the indie businesses that we’ve come to know and love might actually have more in common with the corporations of a few decades ago, given their size and ambitions.


To Coomer, the pseudo-hipster rush of beer brands rings false. "Celebrating true craftsmanship is mighty different than some monogrammed crossing hatchets or dusting off someone else's antique badges because they look cool," he says. Hence fauxthentic — a fake hipster authenticity cobbled together from a brand’s old ads and whatever props are left in their office basements. 

"Nostalgia-inspired branding is almost like instant brand equity," Coomer continues. "The aesthetic speaks to a time when the work was done by hand and folks had to keep things simple and focus only on what they did really well” That is, even if the company has long outgrown artisan status.

So when Miller Lite decided in September of this year to release its 1975 packaging again, with a sigil-like logo surrounded by golden branches of hops, Greco-Roman mixed with Greek life, customers bought in because their sense of nostalgia was piqued. In fact, sales of the beer bumped immediately with the new-old labels, though the rise turned out to be temporary.

"It aligns with a trend and it is part of their history," Coomer says of the de-design. Yet basing a branding move entirely on nostalgia is a dangerous proposition, he argues. "I don't think it'll hold up very well," he argues, adding that consumers can sense the difference between real and faked authenticity.

Big beer brands attempting risk falling into the fauxthentic uncanny valley of hipster branding. We know we like dark wood bars, elaborate can designs, and tattoo sleeves. Close approximations of those same things, however, revolt us, like a robot that looks just like a human, but just doesn’t quite get there.

Beer’s hipster revivalism is part of a larger trend of business. "Once upon a time, big brands worked hard to appear small and local while small brands wanted to seem big and important," Coomer says, explaining the logic of the corporate branding in Cornett’s satirical project. These days, small brands don’t have to pretend to be globe-spanning businesses to reach the same size audience as their larger competitors. Technology is helping the craft-brewery revolution happen. "Now the small guys can connect with consumers via social media and word-of-mouth." 

What should big beer brands actually do if they want to court the next-generation consumer that we call the hipster? Honesty might do it. "There are brands going back to their roots and writing their next chapter by doing things on their terms without cutting corners, compromising quality, or losing focus on what they do well," Coomer says. The once-mighty Schlitz, for example, recently reverted to a 50-year-old recipe. Schells, another former titan of the Midwest and the second-oldest brewery in America, has also dug through past recipes to excite young drinkers at a price just below your average craft six-pack.

"If you make a good light beer, own that, even if craft is taking a piece of the pie. You might just find that people will love who you really are," Coomer adds. 

Coomer has one more bit of advice for surviving the hipster era that’s relevant for any industry. "Stop asking focus groups who they want you to be or if adding crossed arrows makes it taste better," he suggests. "Pour your heart and soul into your work and if people see themselves in it, they'll help fight for your success alongside you." It’s all about finding truth in the bubbles. 

Yet sincerely appreciating irony could lead to success as well. Given the burgeoning popularity of beer-and-shot deals in Brooklyn bars, Budweiser or Miller Lite might simply accede to their status as lowbrow favorites and give us commercials of world-weary advertising execs leaning over a counter somewhere in Bushwick, pounding a Bulleit bourbon then leaning back to sip an ice-cold can of a beer their fathers were perfectly happy with, long before small-batch double IPAs that come in four-packs.

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