Now the largest American-owned brewery, the producers of Old Milwaukee, Colt 45 and, of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), was established in Milwaukee in 1844. The iconic beer rose to the top four in the US until it peaked in the mid-1960s, followed by a severe 40-year decline in sales, where the brand lost 90% of its market volume between 1978 and 2001.
Unexpectedly, the brand benefited from a revival at the turn of the Millennium, as it became suddenly popular amongst young trendsetters. Contrary to other beer brands, it was precisely because the brand was not advertising that it came back into favour.
What drew new consumer segments to the brand, besides its low cost, was the fact that the unpopularity of the beer actually made it cool. Bike messengers and Brooklyn hipsters appropriated the brand for themselves and redefined it. It was a counter-intuitive approach, and the marketing efforts to sustain the movement had to follow suit—or risk alienating the precious influencers.
The Pabst movement was born from then on, skilfully supported by the brand without alienating its core consumers. (Surprising) examples abound, from courier bike races to the popular Instagram handle pbr_art, which presents art inspired by, or made from, Pabst containers. It has 16,000 followers. From among all the partnerships, the music scene seems to be particularly welcoming to PBR, as the rate of sale is 18% higher in music venues than other bars.
After 15 years of supporting music events, the brand innovated once again, while maintaining their fringe, non-mainstream image, with a non-festival called Project Pabst, which launched in Portland, Oregon in 2014. Matt Slessler, National Brand Ambassador at Pabst Brewing Company, explains the rationale behind that choice: “We were supporting music events, lifting them off the ground just to see a big player steal it with money. We are a pretty unique brand so we are pretty specific on what we like. We are not the first ones to invent something like that but we thought: we would love to have one festival where we curated the music and set the prices, have our own vision, our own ethos.”
From the outside, it may look like an all PBR-event, but the brand partnered with Superfly, producers of Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, to bring the event to life. By choosing just the right partner, PBR didn’t need to relinquish control of the event, and was able to stay involved at every step to create something reflective of the brand. The initiative is structured and effective, but Project Pabst is also unique in that it falls into the category of marketing expense. As Slessler succinctly puts it, “[they] are a beer company selling beer, but also marketing a festival.” In 2016, on the heels of two successful years in Portland that saw audiences of over 20,000, the brewer added Denver, Atlanta and Philadelphia to the roster of Project Pabst sold-out events, totalling 32,000 festival goers.
So what sets the event apart, according to Slessler? “Project Pabst offers a unique experience, incorporating music, art, hands-on experiences, as well as food and beer at reasonable ‘non-festival’ prices.” At its core, Project Pabst is a music festival with other forms of (branded) entertainment their consumers enjoy, such as PBRcade, old-school arcades at the event, or PBR Vandalism, an art experience that uses—you guessed it—a van as a canvas. There’s PBR Wax, a mobile studio where people can record their own music demo on a vinyl 45. And each city has a limited-edition PBR can, designed by a local artist whose work gets plenty of visibility (a lot of beer gets sold). To top it off, one dollar from every ticket went to the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, which is dedicated to the overall well-being of individual musicians and their families.
Project Pabst has a limited number of their own partners, like Polaroid, CAR2GO, Dr. Martens, Kettle brand and other service providers. Slessler explains, “that allows us to work with the sponsors that we like and not only look at money.”
We love Project Pabst because it captures the spirit of the brand so well and offers an opportunity for numerous brand aficionados to get involved directly. For the 2016 edition, the event trended worldwide No. 1 on Instagram, which says a lot.
In the words of Superfly partner Rich Goodstone, Project Pabst “sits at the nexus of everything we do. We’re working on behalf of a brand, but we’re creating what we call ‘consumer funded marketing.’ Pabst is creating a festival, and people are willing to pay for that experience, yet it’s an incredible brand platform to leverage against all of their media, point-of-purchase, on-can stuff, retail promotions, in-store; it all ladders into this overall event festival. That feels really good, especially when there are revenues coming in from those experiences.”
In the end, everybody wins. “We sold a lot of beer leading up to the festival because of the very cool thing we were doing—we are the gritty underdog” adds Slessler. Indeed, consumer response is very positive: “they are wowed, because we come from a good place,” offering an affordable festival while supporting touring musicians and galvanizing local stakeholders.
With less money to spend than their bigger competitors, PBR needed to follow another route, and they did so with admirable skill and smarts. A program that can generate revenues from tickets sales and put the product, a gold medal winning beer at just $3, in the hands of consumers, deserves a lot of credit.
The biggest takeaway from Project Pabst is that brands don’t need to leech on to existing properties to see success. The endeavour can be pricier than a traditional sponsorship, but creating a platform allows for bringing other partnering brands on board to share some of the costs. It also helps in establishing an unexplored angle, one that’s different from the rest of the market. When you’re are an underdog, don’t compete in the same arena as the big players—create your own arena and beat them there.
PBR_Art Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/pbr_art/
Bilboard (2015). “Project Pabst, Superfly and the Still-Evolving Brand-Band Singularity”.
Culture Addicts (2017). “Iggy Pop, Beck, Nas, Father John Misty + more announced for Project Pabst 2017 Portland line-up.”