I recently found a very interesting thread on Quora (link here) in which a man by the name of Leon Kitain explained how and why the much-derided once-blue-collar brew Pabst Blue Ribbon became the beer of choice for US hipsters during the 00s.
I thought I should share it with you:
In the late 90s, PBR was doing poorly. Really poorly. They were shutting down its breweries, selling their formula to Miller, and in 2001, they would sell only a million barrels, its lowest in dozens of years, and 90% below its peak in the mid 70s. They believed that their demographic was the 40 to 60 year olds, who were the ones who loved PBR during its peak. But boy oh boy were they wrong.
Around 2001, there were a couple of interesting things that popped up. Kid Rock wore a PBR belt buckle, and some top snowboarders in Utah adopted PBR as their drink of choice. Most likely these were intentionally ironic actions, but these days, who knows? Also, people in Portland were drinking it too. This was all brought to the notice of a newly hired marketer named Neal Stewart, who was only 27 at the time, and soon rose to be the brand marketing manager.
So he went around the bars in Portland and he started handing out PBR schwag. He wouldn’t be dressed PBR, and he would never overtly advertise. He’d just sit there, and people would come up to him and ask for the stuff that most other beer companies could never force on people. The people liked PBR because it was scarce, cheap, and plagued with persistent rumors of imminent bankruptcy. Neal saw this, and decided to cash in on it. Under him, PBR’s marketing was to do as little as possible. When Kid Rock came around to ask for an endorsement they told him to shove it, and made it public. When the Pro snowboarders offered for PBR to endorse their competitions, PBR did nothing, but they made sure people knew they were doing nothing with the big guys.
Instead, who they sponsored were the Portland hipsters. They sponsored skateboarding meets, art galleries, independent publishers, and they did it in such a way as to not appear corporate. And with every little event they sponsored, they built their network, they built brand loyalty among subcultures that hate corporations, hate marketing, and were previously thought immune to such tactics. Having Kid Rock endorse them would have cost 500k, hiring 10 reps per city to go convince small bars and neighborhood institutions to carry PBR cost the same and was much more effective. In 2003, at the peak of these marketing campaigns, half of PBR’s whole workforce was involved in these marketing efforts, and in the end, it was such grass roots marketing that got PBR firmly established as the hipster beer of choice.
This is crazy. To distill: Pabst Blue Ribbon saved themselves by practically hijacking Portland, OR’s underground sports and arts communities. While many people would assume that PBR organically became hipsters’ beer of choice due to their needs for cultural and economic authenticity in their inorganic identities, it has as much to do with PBR’s desperately smart marketing efforts.
The New York Times Magazine has an excellent long piece up written during the genesis of Portland hip, circa 2003, that explains much of PBR’s rise to hipster ubiquity. It’s well worth a skim whether you are interested in the science of marketing, commercial beer, or just like to check out the hips. Click this post’s headline or this link to view it.