Ask anyone in the beer business “What’s up?” and the answer is likely to be “Not much.” Not much, that is, except craft beers and, at the opposite end of the taste scale, light beers. Light beers are so far up, in fact, that they’ve easily become the largest segment in the industry, accounting for nearly four of every ten beers sold.
It wasn’t always that way of course. Almost 30 years ago, when light beers were first invented, you wouldn’t find a self-respecting guy’s guy ordering “diet” beer in a bar. But Miller Brewing changed all that in 1975. Consumers, especially the virile male variety, saw their sports heroes extolling the virtues of Lite Beer from Miller on television–“Tastes great. Less filling.” Lite was a beer with a different benefit: you could drink more of it without feeling weighed down.
Other brewers quickly followed suit with their own lower-calorie entries–Schlitz Light in 1976, Michelob Light in 1978, Coors Light in 1978, and Bud Light in 1982–and the light beer segment was born. Light beers have become so ubiquitous that the majority of domestic beer brands and many imports have a light beer counterpart. But in on-premise accounts, the “Big Three”–Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light–account for the lion’s share of the business. This year, they all promise a lot of support and innovative promotions for operators.
Over the years, the major brands have paid more than a passing nod to the on-premise side of the business through advertising or promotions. Budweiser Light, for example, was relaunched as “Bud Light” in 1984 because that’s how consumers were asking for it in bars. The brand’s “Gimme a light” campaign, conveying that bar call in a humorous vein, kicked off the new name. Amstel Light, introduced here in 1980, has relied heavily on restaurant and bar sales to put it on the list of top-10 best-selling imports. And, light beer brands often advertise their products in social settings like restaurants and bars. The bulk of these brands’ marketing spending, however, has been against more generic image advertising and retail consumer promotions.
Operators are critical to the beer business, though, and light beer marketers aren’t taking them for granted despite light beer’s large share of market.
“The on-premise channel is extremely important to us,” said Todd Martin, director of on-premise national accounts for Coors Brewing. “Over a fourth of all beer consumed today is in bars, restaurants and other on-premise establishments.”
Brewers know that bars and restaurants are where consumers try new things and are influenced both by a brand’s image and what other patrons are drinking.
“A lot of light beer’s popularity has to do with taste preferences on the part of consumers,” said Jim Schumacker, director of marketing for Bud Light and Bud Ice at Anheuser-Busch. “But young drinkers are taking a harder look at light because that’s what they see people drinking in on-premise accounts.”
Because consumers are more experimental, more willing to try new products like craft beers, marketers recognize the need to bring “news” to established brands. Light beer brands are focusing on how to get consumers more involved with their products. Their big push recently has been programs that are more “interactive.”
Anheuser-Busch has recently put “contemporary marketing teams” of youthful brewery employees on the street to drum up excitement among bar patrons.
“The CMT force has done a wonderful job for us to deliver an image message versus a price message,” Schumacker said. “We’re still finalizing what we’re going to do in terms of programs for Bud Light, but we’ll keep a fresh approach. It will be different from what we’ve done in the past. We’ll have stuff for CMTs to execute in market, but we’ll also have turnkey programs for operators to use when they want.”
Miller Lite also is trying to do things a little differently this year. “The ‘Miller Time’ attitude is helping define Lite,” said Michael Johnson, franchise director for Miller Lite, “but now it’s an integrated marketing effort, not just an ad campaign. Everything we do will continue to be fun and unexpected and entertaining–that’s what Lite and Miller Time are all about.”
Lite will tie the Miller Time theme to its motor sports sponsorship this year with a promotion called “Over The Wall.” Miller is making a replica of a NASCAR racing car available to on-premise accounts. Operators can use the car to give patrons the chance to compete for prizes as “pit crew” team members. Another racing promotion, called “Lite Speed,” lets bar patrons pedal a stationary recumbent bicycle for prizes. Speeds are clocked on a wall-mounted speedometer to encourage fan participation.
Sometimes the question is which light to choose to light up sales. At T.G.I. Friday’s, all units carry the top three domestic light beers. Beyond that, it’s up to unit managers to decide.
But not all brands sell well in all markets. “We do carry a third light in some markets,” said Scott Dyke, beverage director at Champps Americana. “In New Jersey, for example, we added Coors Light, but we couldn’t give it away in Minneapolis.”
Some operators also mix and match light beer on draft and in bottles. Trophy’s, in San Diego, offers Miller Lite and Coors Light on tap and Bud Light in longneck bottles, which some people are more comfortable with, according to CEO Dale Wilson.
Try experimenting a little to see which combination of the “Big Three” work best in your operation. But don’t forget that many patrons are interested in the cachet and fuller flavor of imported or craft lights. Depending on what’s popular in your market, you may want to carry lights from brands like Amstel, Molson, Labatt, Corona or Samuel Adams.
Regional preferences and pricing may make below-premium brands popular in your operation, too. Brands like Busch Light Draft, Old Milwaukee Light and Keystone Light have a tremendous following.
Since consumers are into experimentation these days, do some experimenting of your own. Try offering a few different light beers from what’s usually on your list and see what lights up your patrons.
Following up on last year’s Singled Out social interaction program that gave consumers a chance to appear on MTV, Lite is sponsoring the I Never game show this year to help increase on-premise traffic. A variation on Truth or Dare, contestants are asked if they’ve ever done oddball things, competing for prizes or just plain fun.
The brand has tied in with the Chia Pet to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. What else would Chia Pets grow on St. Patrick’s Day but shamrocks? The special Chia Pets will be made available to operators to use as pi