Coors Banquet keeps growing as other domestic beers decline

Bartender Sinead Talty pours a Coors Banquet from the tap at Mac's Wood Grilled in Chicago. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune) By Greg Trotter Chicago Tribunecontact the reporter

Bartender Sinead Talty pours a Coors Banquet from the tap at Mac’s Wood Grilled in Chicago. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
By Greg Trotter Chicago Tribunecontact the reporter

As Coors Banquet appears headed for its ninth straight year of growth, it’s also gaining traction among Chicago hipsters and other beer drinkers fond of an old yarn.

Strange but true: As similar domestic mainstream beers continue to decline amid the continued surge of imports and craft beers, Banquet just keeps growing.

The original Coors beer’s curious marketing success story is becoming almost a matter of routine, after turning around a more-than-20-year slide in 2006. Leaning on the beer’s retro style and its rustic history in the Rocky Mountains, Chicago-based MillerCoors has found gold in them hills — an old beer with a loyal following that’s attracting a growing number of drinking-age millennials.

The gains are happening nationally across regional markets, according to market researchers, as well as some Chicago-area distributors and beer buyers who call it a “perfect storm” of marketing savvy and consumer tastes.

“For a brand to be growing across generations, across channels and across regions is really unique and very exciting,” said Liz Crews, vice president of professional services at Nielsen, a global information company that monitors consumer behavior.

Banquet’s sales increased 2.4 percent last year to $462 million, while other full-calorie domestic stalwarts like Budweiser and Miller High Life went in the other direction, according to data provided by Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research group. More recently, MillerCoors reported single-digit growth for Banquet in the second quarter, while total company sales were flat.

In the past five years, Banquet’s sales have grown in all regions, Crews said, and the data indicate that an increasing number of 22- to 35-year-old millennials as well as 35- to 44-year-old Generation Xers are buying a larger amount of Banquet more frequently.

In the Great Lakes region, sales in stores — not bars and restaurants — rose 22 percent last year, Crews said. That dollar sales are up on case sales indicates MillerCoors isn’t just slashing the prices to sell the beer, she said.

Context is important. At $462 million in 2014 retail sales, Banquet is still fairly small when compared to, say, Budweiser with $4.9 billion in sales, according to Technomic data.

Still, Banquet has some serious momentum going. It’s succeeding in a way that other old beers — like Old Style, Hamm’s or Schlitz — are not, said David Henkes, vice president of Technomic. MillerCoors has applied some “marketing muscle” to Banquet and is connecting a new generation to a beer that once had a regional mystique.

“For many years, Banquet was the beer to have if you were west of the Mississippi,” Henkes said.

Banquet was first brewed in 1873, when Adolph Coors opened the Golden Brewery in Golden, Colo. Beginning in the 1970s, full-calorie beers began to lose ground as light beers began to dominate the market, said Banquet’s brand manager, Heather Gaspar. Banquet was no exception.

The turnaround began with some soul-searching around the brand in 2004 and 2005, and the result was a decision to reposition the brand on Banquet’s history and “timeless Western masculinity,” Gaspar said.

Stan Slater, a Colorado State University marketing professor, has a unique perspective on the matter, having worked in marketing and finance at Coors Brewing in the early 1980s.

Slater said a pivotal moment came when the company moved away from using Pete Coors as the Banquet spokesman in ads. Coors, who’s still chairman of both MolsonCoors and MillerCoors, unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2004.

Coors was also arrested on a DUI in 2006 in his driveway in Golden, the same town where Banquet is brewed.

“Celebrity spokespeople can harm a brand if they’re perceived negatively,” Slater said. “(Coors) could have been harming the brand equity.”

Enter the gravelly voiced Sam Elliott, who’s done the voice-overs for Coors’ TV commercials since 2007. His voice captures the “timeless Western masculinity” that Banquet represents, Gaspar said.

The decision to no longer feature Pete Coors in advertisements had to do with the brand repositioning and was “not a decision revolving around the family or politics,” said MillerCoors spokesman Marty Maloney, who added that Coors and his family are still involved with the brand.

Now more than ever, Banquet’s Western heritage is crucial to the brand, said Jonathan Stern, MillerCoors spokesman.

The beer is only brewed in Golden, an authentic Western town near the Rocky Mountain foothills, and there are no plans to change that, Stern said.

Despite the surge of craft beer in recent years, non-craft domestic beer still represents about 74 percent of taxable beer production in 2014, according to data from the Brewers Association. Craft beer accounts for 11 percent, and imports make up almost 15 percent.

And while non-craft domestic beer has continued to decline, there are signs that craft beers are trying to meet consumer demand for a lighter tasting beer, a corner of the market that beers like Banquet have long claimed as their own.

Slater said his students frequently talk about the numerous craft beer options available in Fort Collins but often opt for beers like Banquet of Pabst Blue Ribbon for their weekend plans.

“There are a lot of hot summer afternoons in Colorado,” Slater said.

Same goes for Chicago.

Pat Brophy, a beer buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot, calls Coors Banquet “a good lawn mower beer.”

At Binny’s, Banquet sales rose more than 40 percent in 2014, and the stubby bottles, in particular, are helping sales, Brophy said. “I think it’s sort of a perfect storm of a retro coolness that resonates with older drinkers and certainly has hipster appeal,” Brophy said. “And it’s affordable.”

At Town and Country Distributors, which distributes alcohol to restaurants, taverns and retailers in northwest Chicago and the suburbs, Banquet sales year-to-date are up 23 percent from a year ago, said general manager Jon Jahnke. “I think it’s connecting with consumers looking for that authenticity and history,” Jahnke said. “It’s telling that story really well.”

Danny Kraft, general manager of Tuman’s Tap and Grill in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, said Banquet sold well enough there to serve it on tap at Mac’s Wood Grilled, a Ukrainian Village restaurant under the same ownership. At Mac’s, Kraft said, Banquet’s “gaining some ground in the hipster community, but it’s also a favorite for the 30-somethings who were part of the stubby bottle resurgence.”

Yet despite such documented growth, locally and nationally, Banquet’s didn’t even crack the top 20 best-selling beers in the U.S. last year. In terms of volume, Banquet’s sitting at 21st, between Stella Artois and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, according to Technomic data. Above it are numerous light and import beers.

Could it someday challenge Budweiser, the third beer on that list and the top-selling full-calorie domestic mainstream beer? Asked that question in a phone interview, MillerCoors’ Stern played it safe. “Who knows?”

Read the story at The Chicago Tribune.


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