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Miller Lite Brings Back Its White Label, Possibly Also Its Mojo

(Corrects ranking of Miller Lite by U.S. sales in the second paragraph.)

Miller Lite’s new bottleCourtesy MillerCoorsMiller Lite’s new bottleThe return of Miller Lite’s original white can design was supposed to be a three-month novelty with an Anchorman 2 tie-in. The brand replaced the blue cans that have been in beer aisles since 2001, and an unexpected thing happened: Miller Lite sales immediately increased in the U.S. Encouraged, MillerCoors made the white cans permanent. Now bottles and tap handles will get the white label treatment, too.

This is not quite a Hail Mary—Miller Lite is still the No. 4 beer in the U.S.—but the brand, which is jointly owned by SABMiller (SAB:LN) and Molson Coors (TAP), needs the help. MillerCoors’s share of the North American beer market has been dwindling for several years; it’s down to 6.2 percent from 7.9 percent in 2005, according to Euromonitor International.

Aside from standing out on shelves, the new design also has the effect of making people think they’re not buying the same old Miller Lite (it is, in fact, exactly the same old Miller Lite). “A lot of people said, ‘I think the beer even tastes better,’” says Ryan Reis, senior director for Miller’s family of brands.

The problem, as Reis explains it, was that light beers often are blue—particularly Bud Light (BUD), America’s best-selling beer. MillerCoors’s marketers decided a white can would set it apart. And although they had considered tinkering with the original white can, they ended up just bringing it back as a nod to the 39-year-old brand’s history. Perhaps more important, the retro design was the favorite in tests with a panel of men ages 21 to 29, Miller Lite’s core demographic.

Miller Lite bottles since 1974Courtesy MillerCoorsMiller Lite bottles since 1974

Miller Lite seems to be putting a lot of faith in the power of a label change. After the initial white can bump, sales in the U.S. slipped again: For the 12 months ended Aug. 10, sales are down 1 percent from a year earlier, according to market researcher IRI.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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