Miller announced last week it is entering the ice beer arena on a very limited basis with its Icehouse brand, a week before Anheuser-Busch's rollout of Ice Draft from Budweiser. That disclosure was tempered with more caution than enthusiasm, the result, beer industry observers reason, of not knowing whether the brand should be launched as a preemptive strike to protect its Genuine Draft, or whether a separate ice brand with a different identity can actually survive and thrive without hurting its best-selling full-flavor premium brand.
It's an ironic position that underscores the speed at which all three major brewers are racing to find the next successful premium beer launch. There hasn't been such a success since the mid-1980s when Miller launched Genuine Draft. And there are signs now that GD's rising star may be falling, if ever so slightly.
'Our objective is to try and gauge whether there is a market for ice beer in the U.S.,' said Miller director of new business development Richard Lalley. 'We are looking at things like trial, repeat and product perception.'
'Miller's strategy is a smart one,' said one ad executive that handles a competing brewery. 'Theirs is to dabble in it, but be careful about it. But it's too early to tell anything.'
No doubt Miller will be looking at whether the brand will cannibalize sales of Genuine Draft, which were off for the first six months of this year compared to the first six months of last year, according to Information Resources. Combined Genuine Draft and Genuine Draft Light sales were virtually flat, up from $172.4 million to $173 million for the same period. A-B isn't faring any better. Its top-selling Budweiser brand continues its downward slide that has yet to show any signs of abating.
But A-B is desperate for a Genuine Draft killer. Company officials have said it will pit its ice draft head-on with Miller Genuine Draft and has said that it plans to market the brand as the 'next step' in cold-filtered draft brands.
Analysts believe the early signs in Canada point to a possible successful ice beer niche in the U.S. But they caution that it will take the right communication in order to pull it off. Young & Rubicam/Chicago has the Icehouse assignment, although the brand will only see minimal point-of-sale spending initially.
'Ice beers show tremendous potential,' said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark. 'It looks simple enough as long as the brewers don't blow the message.'
Mixed messages were problematic for dry beer entries during the late 1980s. Consumers were confused with the benefits of a dry beer, especially when A-B abandoned its 'no aftertaste' premise early on.
Meanwhile, Coors is biding its time by sitting on the sidelines, but it certainly isn't ignoring the ice device. In a new campaign for Coors Light from Foote, Cone & Belding/Chicago, Coors tackles the ice question head on.
Beginning with scenes from the Rocky Mountains, a voiceover says, 'Think of this as a large block of ice.' As a six-pack of Coors Light is shown, the narrator says, 'Think of this as a chip off the old block.' He then asks the viewer to try the beer that's cold brewed but never frozen, while the word ice in big letters fills the screen.
Despite the ad, Coors officials have said the company is at least looking at the ice category.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)