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.