United Colors Of Miller

It's ditching ethnic marketing for cross-cultural ads

All this summer, "Jamizon" will bring the hottest urban-music acts and the logo of its sponsor--Miller Brewing Co.--to hundreds of thousands of young African-American fans in dozens of cities. Even before the show hits the road, though, Miller is already vowing that this summer's Jamizon blitz is likely to be its last. Why? Jamizon will be one of the brewer's final flings with targeted ethnic marketing on a national scale.

In an internal memo on May 2, Miller told managers of its plans to disband its ethnic marketing department--which dreamed up Jamizon as well as dozens of national print and TV ads aimed at black, Hispanic, and Asian consumers. Instead, it will develop ads and special events that try to cut across all cultural groups. "There are no more boundaries," insists Jack Rooney, who took over as Miller's vice-president for marketing on Feb. 1. "The common denominator is youth, not ethnic background."

NO CHOICE. The strategy is almost heretical for the beer business, which, like many other consumer industries, has embraced demographic segmenting as marketing canon. The move is partly about money: Miller, the No. 2 brewer behind Anheuser-Busch Cos., reckons it will save about $5 million off its $200 million media budget by producing fewer ads. More important, in repudiating ethnic segmentation, Miller is gambling that its campaigns can play to the similarities that link its core, 21-to-28-year-old beer drinkers across ethnic groups.

It's vital for Miller that the new approach hits home. Ethnic groups now comprise about 20% of Miller's market, and are growing by up to two percentage points a year. But so far, Rooney concedes that Miller has failed to draw its share of those buyers with its segmented advertising. Its overall share of the ethnic market has been eroding, in some areas, like Texas, "alarmingly," he says. Rooney admits there's some risk--he expects some of Miller's distributors to resist--but argues Miller has no choice. "This is a Jim Crow way of doing things; separate but equal," he says. "The old method wouldn't yield the gains that we need."

To stem the erosion, Miller is rolling out new ads over the next few months that will play off hot urban trends, most likely those emanating from black communities. But the spots will include a pastiche of Asian, white, Hispanic, and African-American actors. Hispanic drinkers may see versions of the ads in Spanish, though all of the dialogue and images otherwise will remain the same. "The ads should be as relevant to a Hispanic in San Antonio as a suburbanite in Highland Park [Ill.]," says Rooney.

If it works, the payoff is clear: more bang for the marketing buck. Aside from the cost savings, such cross-ethnic campaigns have played well for marketing powerhouses such as Nike Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co. "When you put out one message with enough money to this age group, which is less divided along color and sexual lines, you can reach the consumer effectively," says Bradford H. Williams, Levi's U.S. marketing manager.

Miller is also counting on some internal benefits. By breaking down its ethnic marketing unit, Rooney hopes that recruiting Hispanics, blacks, and Asians for broader management responsibilities--a chronic problem--will become easier. In theory, it will open opportunities for Miller agencies such as Fraser Smith Group, which now advises on marketing to blacks, to pitch to a bigger audience.

Still, Miller's rivals are skeptical. Adolph Coors Co., the industry's No. 3, is ramping up its ethnic marketing. And Anheuser actually is increasing its Spanish-language ads. While Anheuser says it does see merging tastes among youthful white, black, and Asian consumers--it's working with movie director Spike Lee to develop new crossover ads for Budweiser--it believes extending the same message to Hispanic consumers is more difficult. "All of our research shows that Hispanics want to be looked at differently," says Alejandro Ruelas, Anheuser's director of ethnic marketing.

Will the new, cross-ethnic Miller Times bring more people to the bar? One of Miller's Hispanic agencies is also cautious. "We're all going to have to watch to be sure we hit the right sensibilities," says Steve Rutledge, president of the Hispanic unit of Marti Flores Prieto & Wachtel. But it worked for jeans, soda, and sneakers. How different can beer be?

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