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.)
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 zerofor 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."
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.