An authentic brew: How PBR clicked with hipsters

—The following is an excerpt from Jeff Swystun’s new book Why Marketing Works

Marketing has existed since mankind’s earliest time. From the ancient open-air markets to today’s websites—from Pompeii to eBay. It has been there to help sell products and services using every kind of communication, from hieroglyphics to the town crier to radio, television, and Facebook. When you look, you’ll find an amazing consistency, sophistication, and continuity in the practice of marketing throughout history.

I’ve examined marketing across the ages to the present day and have boiled it down to the seven reasons why marketing works. One of those is the need for authenticity. It has become a marketing buzzword, but cannot be ignored, as consumers increasingly demand honesty and transparency. Here is a story of a well-known brew that dug deep to be real.

At the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, several brands were introduced to consumers for the first time, including Juicy Fruit, Cracker Jack, and Shredded Wheat. At the fair, a beer named Best Select won the top beer prize. Several years earlier, Johann Gottlieb Friedrich Pabst began adorning each bottle with an actual blue silk ribbon. After the 1893 win, Pabst changed the name to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The ribbons added cost, but the little flourish helped the brew stand out and justified the expense. Demand kept increasing to the point that more than one million feet of ribbon was used every year. Today, the blue ribbon (now printed on the label) remains the key visual element of the brand, acting both as the cornerstone of the brew’s advertising and as a symbol of quality and genuineness.

Pabst knew that authenticity was more desirable than exaggeration. He let happy customers drive the marketing. He subscribed to Socrates’s contention, “Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of—for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again. The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.”

In the early 2000s Pabst Brewing Company re-embraced the notion of authenticity after a slide in sales. A divisional marketing manager at Pabst, Neal Stewart, heard a rumour from a sales representative in Portland that “alternative people” in the Pacific Northwest had embraced the flagging lager. It was about the only bright spot in the national sales report so he visited Portland hot spots and conversed with these Pabst-loving trendsetters. These consumers shared a very distinct insight: They hated marketing.

The company decided that being understated in its marketing was the way to grow the business. One subset of the “alternative people” who championed Pabst Blue Ribbon was bike messengers. They loved “PBR,” as it was affectionately called. One of the brand’s first understated acts was to underwrite cycling contests organized for the bike messenger community.

If any other beer brand had sponsored the contest, the event would be awash in banners along with attractive representatives handing out cans and bottles. Pabst added no advertising and sent no one to attend. The messengers responded by drinking more Pabst. The company was as surprised as anyone by the sudden hipster appeal of PBR. Rather than chase their audience with an expensive campaign, Pabst sought subtler ways to keep up the buzz.

The anti-marketing advocates became the beer’s marketers. For a brand that was dying this was more than a coup. Pabst was sold in 2014 to beer entrepreneur Eugene Kashper who stuck with the authenticity that was sparking new interest in the brand. Pabst even sponsors art contests that have involved putting fan creations on cans.

Pabst recently returned to Milwaukee, where it had closed its manufacturing facilities over 20 years ago. Its new microbrewery includes a tasting room. The company intends to use the brewery to experiment with Pabst recipes for discontinued brands such as Old Tankard Ale, Kloster Beer, and other beers made before Prohibition. The old recipes come from Pabst’s archives.

In 2002, Pabst advocates were seen as “alternative people.” They were soon labeled “hipsters.” Now we have “Millennials.” This is a group highly concerned with how they are perceived and seen. They are defining and emphasizing what it means for marketing to be authentic. They hold brands accountable. The Cohn & Wolfe Authenticity Report shows brands are facing an “authenticity deficit,” with just 22% of consumers agreeing that brands and companies are open and honest today.

Brands have to up their performance in this area or consumers will vote with their wallets. It was said before, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” Brands have to show up every day with ways that delight and never disappoint, or their competitors will.

Jeff Swystun runs Swystun Communications, a business and brand strategy consultancy. Throughout his 25-year career, Swystun has served as DDB Worldwide’s chief communications officer and Interbrand’s global director of marketing and innovation. His book Why Marketing Works: 7 Time-Tested, Brand-Building Principles is available at Amazon now.