05_Neal Stewart

Senior Brand Manager, Pabst Brewing Company
San Antonio - TX US

Marketing With a Whisper

Pabst Blue Ribbon, the blue-collar beer, has become the quaff of choice among urban hipsters. But how to build on that ironic buzz? Not heavy-handedly. A case in point: In Portland on January 11, Neal Stewart saw the Pabst sign in Bishop's Barbershop. With every haircut, you got a Pabst. Stewart kicked in free beer and publicity to sponsor the opening of two more barbershops. Subtle tactics have made Pabst the second-fastest- growing beer in America.

From Neal's original entry:

Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.

Pabst Brewing Company is the fourth largest beer brewing company in the United States, but by 2001 its namesake brand, Pabst Blue Ribbon, had been losing sales volume for 23 straight years. In the beer industry, it's widely believed that a brand that lags for more than a few seasons doesn't have a chance at revival. But Neal Stewart, Senior Brand Manager at Pabst, kept catching glimmers of underground attachment to the Pabst brand. Hipsters in the Indie Music scene loved Pabst. Then there were the snowboarders in Utah who spontaneously held a "Pabst Bowl" every Super Bowl Sunday. The challenge Stewart faced was capitalizing on that underground buzz without killing it through over-the-top marketing blitzes or loud, in-your-face TV commercials that could also bust his budget. He needed to develop the brand almost invisibly.

What was your moment of truth?

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.

What were the results?

Pabst is now considered to be the second fastest growing beer brand in America, according to Nielsen research. Sales rebounded by 10 percent in 2002. So far, in 2003, the brand has gone up by another 10 percent. Stewart's "no-marketing" marketing approach is the buzz on Madison Avenue and in MBA programs. Stewart engineered a turnaround on a shoestring, proving that it takes more than cash to win customers' hearts.

What's your parting tip?

Keep it real. Find out where your focus groups groove and visit them in a credible way.

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