How Miller Lite Tricked New Drinkers Into Liking Its Same Old Beer

How Miller Lite tricked new drinkers into liking its same old beer

Photograph by Jeff Brown for Bloomberg Businessweek

Miller Lite was in a slump. U.S. sales of the beer had been sliding since 2009, trailing Bud Light, Coors Light, and Budweiser. Revenue dropped 7 percent in just 2013, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights. So in January, in an effort to create some buzz, MillerCoors released a limited-edition version of its original 1975 white Miller Lite can, promoted with an Anchorman 2 movie tie-in. Sales of the cans rose so quickly that the company has decided to expand the white label to bottles and taps permanently.

1. The Concept
Miller Lite tried numerous bottle redesigns. “All our package innovation tested terrible,” says Ryan Reis, senior director for Miller’s family of brands. But when it returned to the brand’s original graphics, people loved it. In 2012 the company decided to rerelease the beer in the 1975 packaging. “But we needed a reason to do it, otherwise it’d feel too out of the blue,” Reis adds.

2. The Partnership
Miller Lite’s sports and entertainment marketing department hooked Reis up with Paramount Pictures, which needed a beer sponsor for Anchorman 2. “We said, ‘Wait, it’s set in 1979? Miller Lite was the hottest beer in the country in 1979!’ ” he says. (Even better: Bud Light didn’t exist yet.) Anchorman 2 came out in December 2013; the new Miller Lite hit shelves on Jan. 1. Within a few months, the company decided to make the change permanent.

3. The Boost
In 2014, Miller Lite has already sold 32 million more cans than it had by this time in 2013—not enough to bring the beer’s overall sales out of the red, but the year isn’t over. In some markets, sales of the white can are up as much as 18 percent. White-label bottles are hitting stores now, and MillerCoors is working with a small Wisconsin company to create vintage-inspired wooden beer-tap handles to replace its blue ones, which, Reis says, “are made overseas out of who knows what.”

4. The Placebo Effect
The label’s success took Miller Lite by surprise. “We asked people, ‘Why do you feel this way about this can?’ ” Reis says. Millennials liked it because it seemed iconic and old—which is also why they like Pabst Blue Ribbon. Their parents liked it because it reminded them of what they used to drink. Strangely, customers started telling the company its “new” beer tasted better even though they were still drinking the same old watery thing.