Pabst tests an off-beat approach to vodka soda

From can design to ABV to its campaign, the plan for PBR's first RTD is to do things differently in a crowded category.

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Pabst Blue Ribbon is launching its first ever ready-to-drink beverage, testing the Alberta market with retro-futuristic creative to elbow its way into an increasingly crowded space.

Dubbed Clear Blue Razz, the beverage is stronger than most vodka soda RTDs at 6.9% ABV, and debuted in Alberta over the August long weekend.

A video leading a campaign for the launch shows a makeshift tasting machine holding a disembodied tongue to lap up the product, while old computers and antiquated dot matrix printers spit out the results.

“Since our brand has that counter-culture, rebellious image, we wanted to create an ad that felt completely different from the saturated RTD category of ads,” according to Dana Brochu, director of marketing for Pabst parent company Sleeman.

Brochu says the PBR “brand feel” is sprinkled throughout the spot from the sound effects, the irreverent labels on the “taste-metre,” the language on the printouts, and the skateboard-like branded stickers on the machine. She adds that it opted to represent the unique product with a unique tasting machine that a Pabst drinker might build in their own basement if they had the tools and a bit of know-how.

“Since our brand is retro-cool…we didn’t feel like a shiny, high tech-looking tasting machine made sense,” she says. Pabst Blue Ribbon, established in 1844, experienced a revival beginning in the early 2000s and became a fixture in hip dive bars when young urban consumers began embracing the “authenticity” of its working-class associations.

In its latest earnings report, Sapporo says although there was weakness in the commercial-use market in Canada – a challenge all brewers have been facing during COVID – Sleeman Breweries saw sales of its medium- and low-priced canned beers increase in the home-use.

In 2018, Sleeman launched Splash Spiked sparkling water under Squeez’d Beverages, a new division established the year prior to capitalize on opportunities in the RTD space, which has been once of the major drivers of sales growth in the spirits category in recent years. Splash was positioned as a no sugar or sweetener alternative to the many other RTD SKUs already in market, which has since become the standard for many new entrants and challenger brands.

Standing out from the standard in RTD is the main goal across all elements of the PBR vodka soda launch. On the can, the brand has eschewed design elements that are common to the category, such as a minimalist white and austere look. With the help of Oakville, Ontario-based branding and design Aardvark, PBR instead opted for a far more active, image-heavy aesthetic, with sharks and berries illustrated around its recognizable “blue ribbon” logo.

PBR Blue Razz

Brochu adds that the blue raspberry flavour is also a way to stand out in a category that tends to opt for more “subtle” flavours, as is the stronger-than-normal 6.9% ABV, informed by success the brand has had with its Pabst 5.9% ABV strong beer. She adds that Alberta was chosen as the test market given the maturity of the RTD category there, as well as the fact that it is a test market that has provided accurate insights to the company in the past.

The brand is prepping for a national roll out in 2021 and will be looking to create excitement around the launch, though details of timing and plans are yet to come.

Vancouver agency 123W, with which the brand has had a relationship since 2017, started working on advertising for the new PBR strong vodka soda product over the last year.