26 August 2008

Guest Post | Roger Baylor of NABC and The Potable Curmudgeon: "Murketing" Makes the Pabst Seem Fonder

The Potable Curmudgeon, a blog written by New Albanian Brewing Company headman Roger A. Baylor, is a frequent read for the Knights of the Beer Roundtable. We became smitten with Roger's beers in 2007 at the Phoenix Theatre Brew-Ha-Ha and the Indiana Microbrewers Festival. We particularly love NABC's signature hop bomb, Hoptimus Imperial IPA, and the NABC Thunderfoot Cherry Imperial Stout.

With Roger's permission, we bring you his blog posting on the ascendance of Pabst Blue Ribbon as the hipster beer of choice. Our thanks go to Roger for allowing us to rehash the subject at HBG.


After making various gibes in the general direction of a weirdly rejuvenated Pabst Blue Ribbon, generally along the lines of my finding it constantly amazing that a beer so unspeakably bland and formless could inspire an inexplicable cult following among young people who should know better, I’m feeling highly vindicated by the information provided in a recent book review.

The article is entitled “Branded” and was written by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times Book Review (July 27, 2008). The book being reviewed is Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, by Rob Walker. You can bet that I'll be reading it.

According to the reviewer Manjoo, the author’s objective is to “lift the cloud of self-delusion that obscures our buying habits” and to “argue that our susceptibility to marketing arises from our ignorance of its pervasiveness.” In this extended excerpt, how these aims apply to bad beer is clearly detailed:

Consider Pabst Blue Ribbon. Beginning in the 1970s, the cheap beer that had long been synonymous with the blue-collar heartland began a steep decline, with sales by 2001 dipping to fewer than a million barrels a year, 90 percent below the beer’s peak. But in 2002, Pabst noticed a sudden sales spike, driven by an unlikely demographic: countercultural types — bike messengers, skaters and their tattooed kin — in hipster redoubts like Portland, Ore., had taken to swilling the stuff. When asked why, they would praise Pabst for its non-image, for the fact that it seemed to care little about selling.

Traditionally, a company that spots a sudden market opportunity responds by gearing ads toward the new customers. But Neal Stewart, Pabst’s marketing whiz, had studied “No Logo,” Naomi Klein’s anti-corporate manifesto, and he understood that overt commercial messages would turn off an audience suspicious of capitalism. Thus the company shunned celebrity endorsements — Kid Rock had been interested — and devoted its budget instead to marketing, sponsoring a series of unlikely gatherings across the country. Like “some kind of small-scale National Endowment for the Arts for young American outsider culture,” Pabst paid the bills at bike messenger contests, skateboarder movie screenings, and art and indie publishing get-togethers. At each of these events, it kept its logo obscure, its corporate goal to “always look and act the underdog,” to be seen as a beer of “social protest,” a “fellow dissenter” against mainstream mores.

Pabst’s campaign was designed to push beer without appearing to push it. To the extent that it conveyed any branding message at all, it was, Hey, we don’t care if you drink the stuff. To people sick of beer companies that did look as if they cared — don’t Super Bowl ads smack of desperation? — Pabst’s attitude seemed refreshing and inspired deep passion in its fans. Many customers did more than just buy the beer. Walker speaks to one who tattooed a foot-square Pabst logo on his back. Pabst’s low-fi marketing is “not insulting you,” the fellow tells Walker.

Note that Walker has coined the word “murketing” to describe the deceptive corporate stealth that is deployed in these situations. In the absence of hard knowledge, murketing muddies the consumer’s conceptual waters and causes folks otherwise feigning marketing-weary savvy to embrace brands that play hard to get and seem somehow hip. The result is predictable.

In reality, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s anti-capitalist ethos is, as Walker puts it, “a sham.” The company long ago closed its Milwaukee brewery and now outsources its operations to Miller. Its entire corporate staff is devoted to marketing and sales, not brewing. “You really couldn’t do much worse in picking a symbol of resistance to phony branding,” Walker writes. But P.B.R.’s fans don’t care. In the new era of murketing, image is everything.


  1. I own a Scion and I drink PBR.. I guess I am ultra susceptible to 'murketing'. Of course I started drinking PBR about 15 years ago when they still actually had a brewery and before this punk skateboarders made the brand trendy.

    Rob Walker wrote another article for the NY Times speaking strictly about Pabst and it's underground marketing. He sums it up with:

    "But perhaps the way to think of it is that the P.B.R. base is less concerned with protesting boorish and heartless corporate behavior than with protesting boorish and invasive corporate sales tactics. The connection to Miller seemed more potentially damaging to such an ideology than the elimination of a few hundred pension-bearing jobs. (How many recent college grads expect a pension nowadays?) It's very much a politics of individual freedom, of rejecting overt pitches and elite tastes. Pabst did not set out to fill that niche, but it's well positioned to do so. Turns out that P.B.R. actually does have an image, but it's an image that its consumer base can hardly complain about, because they're the ones who created it. That's what makes it perfect."

    Pretty good article actually:

  2. Nice follow up article - I think the following might sum it up even better:

    Ryan Kelley, a mild-mannered guy who actually arranged the first P.B.R. sponsorship, allowed that the beer's newfound popularity was slightly annoying. ''But basically,'' he said, ''we're going to drink whatever beer costs a dollar.''

    Throwing out math and ABV and anything that requires much thought, craft beer can't compete with a dollar buzz.

    And why would it want to?

    * * * * *

    For the record, we own a Scion too. I think it's an interesting comparison - both companies target the same sort of audience, but I'd argue that Scion is a lot more likely to make sure you know their brand is involved.

    From every bit of Scion propaganda I've ever seen, they're definitely trying to create some sort of "scene" - their latest tv ads ("United by Individuality") basically convey the whole bike polo/messenger aesthetic (and it's not hard to see the similarities in fixed gear bicycles and tricked out scions) - and I wonder if being so obvious will hurt them long-term.

    For the record, we (well, Gina) bought because the car had the most room for the money. I pushed for a VW.

  3. I love that Scion commercial, it's actually one of the best adverts I can think of in recent years. I wanted an xB since the instant I saw pictures of the concept 5 or 6 years ago. Now I love the whole brand.

    One thing I find interesting is that many people seem to get after Pabst Brewing for this stealth marketing campaign and I struggle to understand why. I fully realize the majority of beer drinkers look down on PBR and very few craft beer drinkers will admit to liking it at all. But with that said, I personally think we should be applauding Pabst for not ramming commercials down our throats or full page ads in the beer related publications. Yet I see criticism that they sponsored some events in Oregon towards a group of people that was trending towards PBR and deliberately didn't have the PBR logo everywhere. At the same time I don't hear any complaints about the countless Bud, Miller, Coors, Sam Adam's and Corona commercials we are subjected to around the clock.

    A-B probably spends about $30-40 million dollars just during the Superbowl and Pabst is the one that get's beat up for their marketing strategy? I posted on my blog about how Pabst is now the largest American owned brewer, which is a somewhat of a tongue in cheek statement. But even with that grandiose title, Pabst has only about 2-3% of the total US beer market, and that is when you add in all of their individual brands. SO with all that said, I find it curious that Pabst is the one that is attacked for what is really brilliant marketing. Marketing in way that is non-intrusive to those that aren't looking for their message, and also in a way that some easy web searching will reveal that they fully admit to using.

    Sorry for the rant.. I am just a Pabst fan and have been since before I could drink. In my world view there is a time and place for the macro beers, and when those times come up for me, I prefer something from the Pabst line-up. I guess anymore I look at Pabst as the underdog of the national macro brands and figure there is no need to beat them anymore into the ground then they already are. :-)