The Rise and Fall (and Rise and Fall) of Pabst Blue Ribbon

This post started out as a light hearted attempt to walk down memory lane by posting classic commercials from Pabst.  The resurgence of the Pabst Blue Ribbon brand will go down in the annals of marketing history.  A dying brand was resurrected by a generation of people who were not born when it was last prominent.  It was not nostalgia because there was no memory from youth.  It was a counter culture phenomenon where a large number of people decided to express their individualism by all drinking the same beer (and riding fixed gear bikes in tight jeans, but that is a different story all together).

The truth is that these things don’t just happen.  PBR was an inexpensive beer that by most accounts is not a bad brew.  Brilliant guerilla marketing played a huge part as well.  PBR did not explicitly market their product, but instead paid influencers to buy rounds.  They knew that hipsters hate advertising, so they introduced brilliant marketing schemes that did not appear as advertising.  Faded t-shirts and product placement disguised as graffiti spread the word.  Once the market demand was created, bars gained cred by offering the brand.  Offering PBR became as important as having Gogol Bordello in your music mix to having your bike rack filled with fixies.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Pabst Blue Ribbon was once a working man’s beer.  One of dozens of regional beer producers in a time when what part of the country you lived in had more to do with what you drank than your social status.  Early marketing campaigns focused on their sponsorship of boxing

They were not trying to be cheap or trendy.  They truly wanted to market themselves as a quality beer and sign of sophistication.

In the Sixties they seemed to return to their common man roots.

In the Seventies with sales on the decline, the company launched the “I’ve got Pabst Blue Ribbon on my mind” campaign.  This disco influenced commercial features the late Patrick Swayze at the beginning of the ad.

Pabst continued advertising into the Eighties, but continued to lose market share.  It received the best publicity in this impromptu (but profanity laden) line from the movie Blue Velvet.

The last part of the twentieth century was not too kind to the people at Pabst.  Ownership of the company was transferred to a non-profit charitable trust.  The beer was often offered to retailers at cost to keep the brand alive.

The new millennium opened well for PBR.  In 2005, the company took on new leadership and moved the headquarters to Chicago.  Guerilla marketing firms they employed began targeting bike messengers and artist.  Soon PBR became a brand of distinction again.  The marketing was so subtle that people saw it as an anti-marketing choice.  This brought a new set of problems including profitability.  When the company became profitable, it could no longer be owned by a charitable trust.  It was sold in 2010 to the Metropoulos family.

If you have heard of the Metropoulos family, it is probably due to the family’s sons who run the company.  Younger brother Darren recently bought Hugh Hefner’s mansion.  His older brother was featured on MTV’s True Life “I’m the Youngest Tycoon in the World.”  The family made its fortune on marketing and branding products such as Busy Bee Tuna, Chef Boyardee, and Perrier Jouet.  The company’s headquarters were moved to Los Angeles and marketing deals with major celebrities are in the works.  The companies first celebrity advertising campaign for a Pabst brand might already be familiar to you.

Yep, the people who brought you this monstrosity are the ones in control of PBR now.  The CEO who brought PBR back to prominence left the company six months after it was bought out.  The VP of Marketing who brought the brand back from obscurity was quoted in a great Chicago Tribune article as saying, “I want it to fail.” And “I hope they lose every dollar they have. If our core PBR drinker knew that what they were drinking is owned by guys like these, it’s the last beer they’d want to drink.”  The same VP of Marketing had tried to warn the owners of a pending mass exodus, only to receive this in an email from Darren Metropoulos that was provided to the Chicago Tribune.

“Success is what our family has proven in 75 acquisitions over the past 25 years and is respected by every major financial institution in America,” … “Check the Forbes list for a reference bud, I guarantee you will only ever be able to read that list, not be on it. If you were so talented you (would) be your own boss by now and not looking for yet another new job soon. …”

That is what has become of PBR.  Sales are on the decline again.  I am sure the mass marketing campaign to follow will not please the hipsters who brought it back from obscurity.  The beer of the working man was resurrected by the counter culture only to be taken over by two brothers on the Forbes list.  It never sold on taste alone.  It carried a cachet of credibility based on decades of roots.  These roots have been pulled and replanted in the LA sand.  Think about that next time you are asked, “What’ll you have?”

 

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