Making it OK for guys to drink coolers

Back in the Durango days, any red-blooded guy who showed up at a party with a case of pink coolers was in for a rough time. These days, 55% of all cooler sales are to guys - up from only 20% six or seven years ago.
Sociologists could conjure up all sorts of reasons why guys suddenly decided they weren't castrating themselves by ordering an alcopop, but there's actually a single force behind this seismic shift - a powerful yet humble guy who's so shrouded in mystery, some say he doesn't even exist.

Back in the Durango days, any red-blooded guy who showed up at a party with a case of pink coolers was in for a rough time. These days, 55% of all cooler sales are to guys – up from only 20% six or seven years ago.

Sociologists could conjure up all sorts of reasons why guys suddenly decided they weren’t castrating themselves by ordering an alcopop, but there’s actually a single force behind this seismic shift – a powerful yet humble guy who’s so shrouded in mystery, some say he doesn’t even exist.

Meet Mike. He’s honest, straightforward, unpretentious and irreverent. His name has been on a line of Hard Lemonade since 1994, and he now sells Hard Cranberry Lemonade, Hard Raspberry Iced Tea and Hard Orange. He has controlled 95% of the hard lemonade market for six years, and while he recently lost top cooler spot to Smirnoff Ice, his sales are still growing year over year.

He’s based in Vancouver, but he’s one of the few Canadians who has made a killing in the States, where he sells about 10 times the volume he sells in Canada. He’s made inroads in Australia, Puerto Rico and Brazil, he’s currently moving into the U.K., and he has his eyes on at least three more countries. Total sales by volume is on the scale of tens of millions of cases, and he has over 400 employees in Canada and the U.S.

How has he done it? Alvin Wasserman, president and CD at Vancouver’s Wasserman & Partners, says it ain’t because he makes a good lemonade. ‘Their brand has loads of character and personality, but I think the product itself is marginal to poor. Everything they’ve accomplished has been on the strength of a clear vision of their brand personality.’

It all started when reclusive former wine merchant Anthony von Mandl, president, founder and CEO of the privately owned Mark Anthony Group (maker of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Mission Hill wines and Okanagan Cider), met up with Mike back in 1994.

‘Mike was a guy with a dream,’ says director of marketing Paul Meehan, ‘a simple dream to make hard lemonade. This lemon-obsessed, lemon-crazed guy had a personality unlike anyone else’s. Anthony liked the feel of that character, and said this is a perfect fit for my company.’

Bob Froese, EVP at Toronto’s BrainStorm Group, the agency entrusted with guardianship of the Hard Lemonade brand, says at first Mike’s Hard was sold without mass advertising, but it did well based on word of mouth. Then about three years ago, the major breweries took notice of the emerging category, launched their own entries and Mike’s turned to BrainStorm to help guard its turf.

‘The initial assignment was to do two things,’ Froese recalls. ‘One was to communicate the personality of the brand out to a larger market, and secondly to firmly entrench Mike’s as the owner of this category, so that anyone else who came along would really look like a johnny-come-lately.’

Since then, two years of television and several more of outdoor have subjected Canada to Mike’s smart-ass attitude. Froese says that advertising push managed to elevate the brand from an awareness of 30% within the target group three years ago to a present awareness of almost 100%.

Tags such as ‘Grab life by the lemons,’ ‘Lemons were hurt real bad’ and ‘An excellent source of vodka’ established Mike’s way with words. The most recent campaign, which launched in May to promote new plastic chub bottles and the two latest flavours, continues the tradition with copy such as ‘When the sun kissed these oranges, tongue was involved’ and ‘Relax your jaw’ (for the new chub bottles) – which Meehan considers Mike’s raciest yet.

Copywriters wondering who writes this stuff might be surprised to discover that a lot of it comes from the client, and that includes the guys in accounting and the fiancé of what’s-his-name-down-the-hall.

‘I spent all morning trying to convince our ad people that the next billboard for our chub bottle should say: ‘If your right hand gets tired, move it to your left,” says Meehan. ‘And then I was countered by someone in accounting with ‘If you drink it in your left hand, it feels like someone else is drinking it.’ And I said, wait a minute, I’m the creative guy here. Damn that’s good. Let’s use it.’

Meehan says his team has a unique relationship with BrainStorm: they don’t just work together on the larger positioning, they get right down and dirty to write the copy together. BrainStorm’s ultimate role, Meehan says, is to police the ideas to make sure that only ‘Mike-like’ executions make it to the public.

‘A lot of agencies wouldn’t like the way we do business,’ Meehan says. ‘They wouldn’t want us actually writing the copy. But with BrainStorm, sometimes we start a line and they finish it.’

Meehan credits that close working relationship for Mike’s ability to turn on a dime, an attribute that came in handy last year when Canada’s cooler category leader came under massive attack. After years of enjoying top spot, Mike’s was displaced to runner-up when Smirnoff moved in with its stylish Ice entry. Meanwhile a second, rum-based entry, Bacardi Silver, has been moving up the ranks, backed by yet another global brand and correspondingly huge ad budget.

Asked whether he’s worried about Mike’s declining category share, the frenetic Meehan gets philosophical. ‘You know what,’ he says, ‘you can’t cash someone else’s paycheque, and you really shouldn’t sleep with their wife. What does that mean? It means you make your money, I’ll make mine, and let’s not worry about the things we can’t control. But when it comes to the things we can control, we have to make sure we make the right decisions.’

One of the decisions that Mike’s made was to reformulate to improve taste and lower sweetness. Meehan says that the new taste, which was quietly launched about four months ago, beat Smirnoff Ice almost every time in over 2,000 taste tests.

But while the product may be subject to change, Meehan says the brand character isn’t, and in fact, it’s the existing brand character that will keep Mike’s a player for years to come.

That character was originally modelled on the easy-drinking beers, such as Budweiser, with the understanding that if you go for the guys, the girls will follow, but if you go for the girls, you’re finished.

‘On the beer side, the imagery is so masculine because the women almost never – and this is backed up by a lot of research – almost never choose a feminine brand. There’s nothing about the beer mentality that’s feminine, for girls or guys. So you market to the guys, and you get the girls anyway.’

But the easy-drinking brand is more than just masculine, it’s relaxed, and that’s what sets Mike’s apart from Smirnoff, its stylish club-hopping nemesis. ‘The key is you want to meet a specific consumer need, state or occasion,’ says Meehan. ‘And the number of times that people want to feel stylish, or clubby, that’s only about 5% of the total drinking occasions. That’s where you see brands like Smirnoff Ice. Ninety per cent of the time you want a beer, it’s when you’re sitting around with a brother or a sister or a pal – they’re very unpretentious moments.’

These are the occasions that Mike’s is looking to own in the cooler category, and Meehan sees no reason to change that strategy.

Besides, the addition of two global brands has caused the cooler market to grow so quickly that total sales are continuing to increase for Mike’s even as it loses share. ‘We want them to grow,’ says Meehan of the competition, ‘because what they do is they knock down barriers in consumers’ minds about the category as a whole. People change the way they shop and the whole category grows.’

That doesn’t mean the brand won’t turn the marketing up a notch, though, and this summer’s MuchMusic tie-in promo, ‘Do it like a rockstar,’ embodies the kinds of high-profile marketing Mike’s is using to fight back.

The promo, which launched June 17 and will run through mid-August, is built around a challenge to submit the most creative rockstar rider – a list of backstage demands such as bowls full of red Smarties or bath tubs filled with milk. The prize? Everything listed on the rider, of course, plus the chance to appear on a glam rockstar billboard in downtown Toronto. Eight Mike’s Hard bar fridges for runners-up round out the offering.

Two 30s are currently airing on Chum TV properties to support the promo, and Mike’s has pitched in an outdoor campaign as well.

Smaller ‘through-the-line promotions,’ such as taste tests and samplings will all tie back to this summer’s ‘Do it like a rockstar’ theme, which in itself was designed to be as ‘Mike-like’ as possible.

It’s even possible that Mike himself will make an appearance, says Meehan. ‘He’s been spotted. Have you ever heard of the Michael Jackson sightings? It’s like that. But as soon as there’s wind of him being there – he’s gone. By the way, he would hate the comparison to Michael Jackson. Please don’t write that.’

Does Mike really exist?

‘Anthony’s partnership with Mike is taboo for us to discuss, because he’s such a non-celebrity. In the U.S. he’s even been invited to appear on talk shows, but the answer comes back ‘No’ every time.’

- Paul Meehan, director of marketing, Mike’s Hard Lemonade

‘I’ve never actually met him, but I understand that he works quite closely with Anthony von Mandl. He doesn’t come to any of our meetings and he’s very much been the silent but loudly spoken entity behind all of this.’ – Bob Froese, EVP, The BrainStorm Group

‘I haven’t ever met him, but apparently, yeah.’

- Jessica Smith, senior account manager, The BrainStorm Group

‘I have no idea. He’s a brand character, as far as I know. I don’t have any intelligence on that.’

- Tom Shepansky, partner, Rethink

‘No, I think Mike is the personification of an attitude. When he’s all hung over, and he just wants some good food, he probably hangs out with Earl [from Earls Restaurants].’

- Alvin Wasserman, president, Wasserman & Partners