The Archive July 15, 2020

The Unlikely Resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon

A Blue Ribbon for Rebranding

There are several rebranding books available but there’s no rebranding manual. That’s because it wouldn’t be helpful to advise all companies to court the bike-messenger demographic.

That’s what the Pabst Brewing Company did in the early 2000s, and its lager, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), is a powerhouse again because of this and a few other savvy moves. Each rebranding effort must — by design and by necessity — be unique to the brand that embarks upon it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned from Pabst’s past and its present.

The Advantages of Keeping Things Low-Key

The story of Pabst Blue Ribbon’s improbable revitalization and ascendance to previously unscaled heights was told by Rob Walker in a New York Times story titled “The Marketing of No Marketing.”

Apparently a divisional marketing manager at Pabst named Neal Stewart heard a rumor from a sales rep based in Portland, Oregon, that “alternative people” in the Pacific Northwest had embraced the flagging lager. Stewart did some stealth reconnaissance work in Portland hot spots and conversed with some of these Pabst-loving trendsetters. They told him at least one interesting and temporarily alarming thing: They hated marketing.

Each rebranding effort must — by design and by necessity — be unique to the brand that embarks upon it.

So Stewart remade himself as “the Pabst guy,” a low-key, street-clothes-wearing brand ambassador who would saunter into various Portland establishments, his pockets stuffed with branded freebies. The company did other understated things, like quietly underwrite cycling contests organized by Pabst-drinking bike messengers.

“Virtually no banners or signs announced this,” Walker wrote, “and no one from Pabst showed up to glad-hand the bikers.”

While Pabst’s competitors continued to sponsor enormous rock tours, wrote Emily Patti in Shepherd Express, Pabst was building buzz by slipping money in the manner of a sly uncle to these small events.

The Prescience of Pabst

So-called anti-marketing campaigns are much discussed in the social media era, but Pabst’s actions must have seemed counterintuitive — bordering on insane — to some marketers at the time. But execs at Pabst demonstrated exceptional shrewdness in at least two senses.

First, they were sensitive to shifts in the marketplace having to do with their product. “The secret to PBR’s success, really, is that the brand simply paid attention to how it was being used in the marketplace, and acted swiftly to fan the flames,” Jeremy Mullman wrote in Advertising Age.

Turns out that PBR 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.

Second, the brand got out of its own way. Pabst apparently was as surprised as anyone by the sudden hipster appeal of its PBR. Rather than chase this natural buzz with a colossal ad campaign, Pabst looked for subtler ways to keep the buzz buzzing.

“While most companies would have rebranded to appeal to this new audience,” observed a blogger on Works Design Group’s website, “PBR opted to keep their branding the same in order to maintain the authenticity that attracted hipsters in the first place.”

Pabst, according to the New York Times’ Walker, even went so far as to turn down an endorsement offer from rock star Kid Rock. This sort of thing was unheard of in the early 2000s. One irony, perhaps, of PBR’s hipster appeal was that Pabst had earlier shuttered its Milwaukee brewery (earning much local enmity) and had contracted with Miller Brewing to make its beer.

Attempting to explain this seeming contradiction, Walker unwittingly described the digitally savvy consumer of the future. “But perhaps the way to think of it is that the PBR base is less concerned with protesting boorish and heartless corporate behavior than with protesting boorish and invasive corporate sales tactics,” he wrote. “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 PBR 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.”

Low in Cost, Not Necessarily in Quality

One aspect of the Pabst Blue Ribbon resurgence that hasn’t been much emphasized is the quality of the product. This is not to suggest that any beer connoisseur would list PBR among his top 100 favorite beers, or even among his top 500. But in the realm of cheap, commercially produced lagers that fuel college revels (and college misdemeanors), PBR is considered to be a cut above.

Where much of the most ubiquitous lager rates “poor” to “awful” on Beer Advocate magazine’s review page, Pabst Blue Ribbon rates “okay” to “good.” It’s hard to imagine that hipsters would have embraced Pabst Blue Ribbon if it had been judged by most drinkers to taste “awful.”

Pabst Looks Ahead

So a perfect storm of kitsch-factor, drinkability and unprecedentedly nimble marketing returned to robust health a brand that everybody (including its caretakers) had agreed was dying. If that were the end of the story, that would be enough. But Pabst (which was sold in 2014 to beer entrepreneur Eugene Kashper and TSG Consumer Partners LLC) has spent the last decade continuing to make smart marketing moves on behalf of PBR.

In 2010, Pabst made headlines when it started offering a beer dubbed 1844 (the year of the company’s founding) for $44 a bottle in China. Critics lambasted the company for merely repackaging its inexpensive American beer and slapping an outrageous price tag on it.

It’s hard to imagine that hipsters would have embraced Pabst Blue Ribbon if it had been judged by most drinkers to taste “awful.”

But Max Read revealed on the website Gawker that the beer was actually a new formulation. Whether that new formulation was and is worth $44 is up to every Chinese beer drinker to decide.

In 2014, Pabst launched its own music festival in Portland called Project Pabst. According to a blog post at, it featured “performances by Modest Mouse, GZA and other acts curated by the brand,” and a related event that included “a pinball and video arcade (‘PBRcade’), lawn games, and, of course, plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.”

Pabst has also sponsored art contests that have involved putting fan creations on cans.

In August, Pabst was called a “brand to watch” by marketer Mike Seigel on his Social by Definition blog. Among the corporate traits and tendencies that Seigel praised were the Pabst social media team’s excellent and respectful interaction with consumers and fans, and the responsiveness of the marketing team to current events.

Pabst even recently returned to Milwaukee, a place where some people undoubtedly still hold grudges against it. The company, according to an article by Tom Daykin in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, plans to “open a microbrewery, including a tasting room, at the former Pabst Brewing complex on downtown’s west side.”

“The company,” he wrote, “will use the brewery to experiment with Pabst recipes for discontinued brands such as Old Tankard Ale, Kloster Beer and other beers made before Prohibition.” There are old recipes in Pabst archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Golda Meir Library and at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, according to the article.

Sounds like a pretty hip thing to do.

The Wages of Stealth

Pabst saved itself, seemingly, by anticipating the needs of the millennial consumer who was not yet a factor in legal beer consumption in 2001: someone who would one day expect to have a personal relationship with brands and who would be resistant to the hard sell.

Pabst unknowingly provided a model that others are now following.

Photos: Shutterstock

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