Background Shiner grew from a relatively unknown regional beer to a Texas icon not through mass marketing, but rather through word-of-mouth appeal. Its signature beer, Shiner Bock, became the hip beer in Austin and then exploded throughout Texas. But in the late 1990s sales began to plateau. New imports and specialty beers chipped away at Shiner’s long-held position as the unique alternative in Texas. Shiner needed a boost, and the folks at the parent company thought they had the perfect idea.
The Assignment In an effort to revitalize the brand, The Gambrinus Co. wanted to launch a new product in Texas: Shiner Light. We first asked, “Why Light?” The answer made sense on the surface: Texans drink more light beer than any other state, and Shiner is the #1 specialty beer in Texas. Plus, 66% of Shiner Bock drinkers also drink light beer, which would provide an immediate audience. But we still had trouble imagining that this brand, known for its dark bock beer, should sell light beer.
What We Learned On beer chatrooms, in online surveys, and in bars all over Austin and Dallas, we heard great things about Shiner, but too often they were said in the past tense. When Gambrinus bought Shiner in 1989, word got around that a massive corporation (some swore it was Anheuser-Busch), had bought it and changed everything: the packaging, the advertising, even the liquid itself. Before that, it “used to be” a great, dark, unique beer brewed in small batches. Many flat-out said that Shiner “sold out,” and they pointed to advertising that they said sounded too much like Bud, Miller, and Coors, who all slap the Texas flag on their bottles and cans and claim “Texas.” This actually turned off Shiner drinkers, especially younger ones who had become accustomed to distrusting anything that sounded corporate or “marketing.” Since most light beer is made by the largest beer companies, we feared introducing Shiner Light would only reinforce the perception that Shiner had gone corporate.
But when we visited the town of Shiner, it was anything but corporate. There was no McDonald’s, Starbucks or Wal-Mart. Literally every business in this town of 2,070 residents was locally owned. We ate breakfast at Werner’s, picked up a Shiner Gazette at Patek’s Grocery, got a haircut at Mike’s, and took a tour at the Spoetzl Brewery. We talked to people who had moved to Austin and Houston and Dallas and then returned to Shiner. They were fiercely local and had a personal connection with the brewery, either through a cousin, a sibling, or a friend who at some time worked there. They all grew up on Shiner beer, and it wasn’t uncommon to meet people who tried their first Shiner when they were 2 or 3 years old. It’s no surprise when you consider that their ancestors had built the brewery back in 1909 after they moved to America and couldn’t find any beer that tasted like the beer they drank back in Bavaria.
Insights and Strategy There clearly was a gap between what consumers perceived about Shiner and what was true. No consumers mentioned the town of Shiner when they talked about the beer; they just talked about Shiner as some big corporation, “The Budweiser of Texas.” Shiner’s success had become its poison. Increased distribution clouded the fact that little had changed about the beer. Consumers didn’t realize that every drop was still made the same way it had been made since 1909: by citizens of Shiner, Texas (just 51 of them, to be exact). We had to let people know that Shiner Light came from a real place, was brewed by real people, and was anything but big and corporate. The strategy statement simply was, “Finally, a light beer good enough for Shiner, Texas.”
We returned from our trip to Shiner with pictures and artifacts from the town, including a subscription to The Shiner Gazette, a menu from Werner’s (on a 1/4 page of typing paper), a CD from local polka stars The Shiner Hobo Band, and of course, a fresh haircut that went a full inch above the ears.
The Work The entire agency dove into the town of Shiner, and, in keeping with what we’d learned about Shiner drinkers, the creatives came to us with a premise that was both risky and the only real way to introduce Shiner Light. If Shiner Light were truly a product of the people of Shiner, why not first make sure it lived up to their standards? So we threw a “New Brew Fest” for the citizens of Shiner, before it was launched to the rest of the state, and gave them the opportunity to sign a certificate stating their approval. If they didn’t approve, our strategy was shot. But Shinerites loved Shiner Light. It was worthy of putting the Shiner name on the label. Those same signatures appear on the neck labels of Shiner Light bottles to show the actual people who have approved the beer.
The tagline, “Approved by Citizens of Shiner, Texas,” reinforced Shiner’s preciousness and gave Shiner Light credibility that no other light beer could claim. Billboards, print ads and radio spots all reminded Shiner drinkers that it’s still the local beer. But the golden eggs were a couple of alternative ideas. One was to hire an independent film company to film the New Brew Fest and tell the story of Shiner Light and the town of Shiner through a short documentary, Something’s Brewin’ in Shiner. The next idea was to buy thousands of copies of the Shiner Gazette from the week of the New Brew Fest and insert them in the alternative weeklies in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio where we were running print creative. Readers were greeted with an authentic, unfiltered document of the town celebrating this new beer.
The Results The first positive sign was when the campaign bested other creative options in tests with beer drinkers in their 20s, the bulls eye for Shiner. Consumers liked the small town feeling of the work and the fact that they talked about a real place in a real way, not a corporate way. It distanced itself from other beers and reassured them that they could still be proud of Shiner beer. Also, we received lots of free press in papers across the state and in national magazines (including AdAge and Adweek) because of the unusual tactics to spread the Shiner story through the Shiner Gazette inserts and Something’s Brewin’ in Shiner.
What about sales? Gambrinus projected sales of Shiner Light to be 65,000 case equivalents in the first three months. Actual sales during that time were 95,206 nearly 50% above projections.