You’re sitting on the couch enjoying the football game when a timeout signals a loathing series of commercials you’ve seen a thousand times. You know the drill. Time to visit the fridge for another cold one when suddenly the TV blurts in a baritone voice: “Not the vast frozen plains or a wall of mountains would get between him and what he was after. The pure Rocky Mountain water he hunted down is still used to brew the beer that bears his name.” Watching Adolph Coors in his quest for his key regional ingredient do you suddenly wish you had a Coors in hand, while riding on horseback before a snow-capped Rocky Mountains backdrop?
This is the question that the Coors Brewing Company has banked on since the mid-2000s in its successful marketing campaign for its original brew, the Coors “Banquet Beer.” Tapping into its historic and geographic advantages with the brand’s connection to the American West, Coors has capitalized on its consumers’ desires to feel a personal connection to a product. While its main competitors in the mass distribution market have suffered to adjust since the advent of the light beer craze of the 1970s and 1980s and the craft beer movement that continues today, Coors has enjoyed a resurgence in profits by playing an old and steady hand.
The story of Adolph Coors is a quintessential “American dream” success story: an immigrant’s journey to secure a legacy and capitalize on it through his pioneering spirit. In 1868, at the age of twenty-one, Adolph Kohrs immigrated to the United States from Germany as a ship stowaway. Upon arrival, his name was changed from “Kohrs” to “Coors.” He had no money and could not speak any English. Deciding to head to the West in search of new opportunities, he made his way across the country, working a series of odd jobs from bricklayer to gardener to foreman. Coors arrived in Denver, Colorado in April 1872 where he purchased a Denver bottling company. Having previously worked in apprenticeships in the brewing industry, Coors had dreamed of brewing the perfect beer with an emphasis on the water that would be used in the brewing process.
In 1873, Coors was hiking in the hills west of Denver when he stumbled upon a valley watered by a stream of the Clear Creek Watershed, just outside the town of Golden, Colorado. Coors had found the source of the water he had sought, one that would distinguish his beer from the rest. Having found his gold mine, Coors decided that Golden would be the ideal location for his brewery. Going into business with Jacob Schueler, the tandem bought an old tannery building and opened the Golden Brewery. Coors took over as sole owner of the company in 1880 and renamed it Coors Golden Brewery, later Coors Brewing Company. The brewery still utilizes water from the 70-80 springs around Golden that Coors first discovered. By a little over a century later, the brewery rose to become the fourth largest beer manufacturer in the United States and today remains the largest single brewery in the world.
Although today a ubiquitous and symbolic American brand, Coors was not even accessible across the fifty states for the majority of its history. Between the end of Prohibition and 1976, Coors beer was only available in eleven states, all west of the Mississippi River. Coors beer was unpasteurized and consequently had to be kept cold or would otherwise perish. It simply was not economically possible to transport Coors beer over vast stretches across the country. National distribution would not be fully realized until 1991, when it finally arrived in Indiana. Yet despite its limited distribution, Coors and its original “Banquet Beer,” achieved national prominence in the 1970s.
Due to its limited accessibility, a “mystique” began to crystallize around Coors in the 1970s. Easterners grew increasingly enthralled by the elusive brew born out of pure Rocky Mountain water. Local Colorado bartenders remarked how it was a big deal for patrons to bring back cases of Coors to friends and relatives on the East Coast. Many began to refer to the beer as “Colorado Kool-Aid.” They heard the legends about its founding story and how it gained its nickname “the Banquet Beer.” Tales told of how Adolph Coors personally delivered cases of his elixir to the miners that labored in the surrounding hills of Golden, that they would indulge on during their “banquets” after long days in the mines.
Coors’ image also expanded from celebrity interest. President Gerald Ford had the Secret Service tuck away cases on Air Force One when he returned to Washington from a skiing trip in Colorado. President Dwight Eisenhower also supposedly had his own personal supply airlifted to the White House aboard an Air Force plane every so often. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would often bring back cases from his trips to California, and Butch Cassidy himself, actor Paul Newman, refused to drink any other brand. He once told film critic Roger Ebert, that “the best domestic beer, bar none, is Coors.”
This mystique and cult status translated to tangible sales results. By 1975, Coors had grown into a $585 million business employing 7,500 employees, attaining the rank of fourth in national sales behind Budweiser, Schlitz, and Pabst Blue Ribbon despite its limited distribution. This limitation led to a new era of alcoholic smuggling, not seen since the days of Prohibition. A growing number of people crossed the Mississippi River simply for “Coors runs.” Beer distributors smuggled cases of Coors eastward to sell at inflated prices. In the Washington, DC area, Redskins Liquor sold 1,000 cases by the day. These bootleggers would often sell cases at $15, about three times the Colorado retail price. The combination of limited distribution and the resulting bootlegging trend with the beer’s standing among the celebrity class continued to bolster the cult status of Coors Banquet. This cult iconism was cemented by the beer’s starring role in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, one of the most popular films of the decade, which revolved around an illegal shipment of Coors from Texas to Georgia.
Coors’ main rivals, Anheuser-Busch and Miller, both utilized pasteurization, however, and quickly achieved national prominence and distribution. In fact, both were two of the first breweries in the world to use pasteurization. Anheuser was one of the first companies to transport beer nationwide using refrigerated railroad cars and trucks. In the eyes of Coors executives, however, their product was born in the West and to stay rooted in the West would help preserve its Western image. In turn, they believed the authenticity created would equate to profit. Expressing a disdain for his competitors’ mass marketing techniques, William Coors (grandson of Adolph Coors and CEO) remained confident in the appeal of authenticity. He even claimed in 1975, “We don’t need marketing. We know we make the best beer in the world.”
The traditionalism of Coors, however, caught up with the company in the succeeding decades. Domestic premium regular beer accounted for 98% of the U.S. beer market in the 1970s, but by the turn of the new century, the premium category’s market share shrunk to just 33% with rise of craft and light beers. By 2006, the Coors Banquet brand was in free-fall, plunging to -17.9% market share. Forced to adapt to save its original brew, Coors began a marketing campaign in 2007, running counter to William Coors’ defiance in the 1970s. With nationwide distribution, Coors now faced the challenge of finding a way to market itself beyond its exclusivity. The answer lay in highlighting its legendary heritage and tapping into the nostalgia for its most successful era.
Since 2007, unlike its main competitors, Coors Banquet has seen an upward trend in volume. A 22 point trend reversal to 3% market share has marked the first time in 22 years that the Coors brand has trended positive.These results speak to the power of Coors’ marketing strategy of the late 2000s to today. Consumer and market research revealed that most consumers were interested in brands that stood for something and had compelling stories behind them. Coors cleverly understood that it could thus use its regional identity, formed by harkening back to its legendary roots and its era of mystique to entice new consumer loyalty.
Commercials detailing the legend of Adolph Coors and the miners helped to elicit an emotional connection for the consumer. Coors brought back the famous yellow-bellied cans of its heyday and even the 1936 “stubby bottle,” both of which gave consumers a connection to a storied past and brewed a nostalgia for its cult status from the 1970s. Coors enlisted actor Sam Elliott to provide Western drawl narration to its advertisements, which further equated Coors as synonymous with the West.
By emphasizing its heritage, Coors proved its authenticity. Confronting the challenges of the light beer and craft beer movements of the past few decades, Coors repositioned its original beer as both a legendary beer and a cult icon, romantically formulated in the American West. Coors won the West and now sought to export its Western image to the nation by tapping into American allure for the pioneer story of its founder. Although its main competitors Anheuser and Miller were created by German immigrants, what set Coors apart was how its story was tied to the land itself. It was founded three years before Colorado even attained statehood, which further spoke to its pioneering spirit. Its most marketable ingredient was unique to its location.
In 2004, Coors won an award at the Great American Beer Festival, its first such award since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Although determined by taste, the large gap in time between these recognitions of the beer can perhaps also be attributed to its new market of customers, a generation for which the “Banquet Beer” was perceived as something iconic and unique. The taste and the product as a whole did not change in the 2000s, and frankly the identity did not change. Coors rather sought to remind drinkers about its legendary backstory and enduring legacy. The fact that Coors has succeeded by remaining stubborn to the nostalgic past of the Banquet Beer exemplifies the importance of history as a means for conveying authenticity, a quality of crucial, yet perhaps undervalued, importance in marketing.
Baum, Dan, Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, New York: Morrow, 1999.
Greene, Bob. “The Strange Case of the Coors Beer.” The Free Lance-Star, June 23, 1977.