PBR: It’s All How You Position Old Brands

Beer PF Chang MenuAt one time, Pabst Blue Ribbon was a great brand. Through bad marketing (or no marketing), it declined. Then, some college kids found out that it tasted just as good as Bud. And they renamed it PBR and it became hip again.

Of course it was a bit more complicated than that.

I saw this evolution in action at the P.F. Chang’s in Tampa; the drinks menu is pictured at right. There, the beer menu had Pabst as one of its chosen “RETRO/DOMESTIC” beers. Instantly, beers like Pabst were cool again. You just need to call it “Retro.”

I grew up with Pabst, as it was the beer served at my grandfather’s Virginia Beach restaurant, Duck-In. Sadly, the restaurant is no longer around, but at least Pabst is. My grandfather served Pabst because one of his neighbors was the distributor. Even my mom’s horse was named Pabst. See photo above to see the neighborhood party back in the 1950s.

But one day other beers won out, and Pabst disappeared. But then, in the 1980s and 1990s, it survived as a cheap college beer. And it came back, and now it is in a halfway upscale chain restaurant.

The lesson for legacy brands is that very often, brands die through no fault of the brands. It’s a marketing thing. Sometimes a brand is lucky enough to survive, and become hip again. In fact, if a brand is WAY unhip, then it can have a very quick route back to hip. When you see kids driving around a converted Mercury Grand Marquis or Buick LeSabre, you can see how they are making something old new again.

Advice to Bring Back a Classic

  1. You don’t want hip: Of course, you do want the brand to become sort of trendy again. But you don’t want it hip. You want, instead, the brand to become classic. Classic is the perfect stasis point for a brand. You always want to move to classic.
  2. Pay attention to what college kids do: Find out about pockets of brand fan-dom, and nurture it.
  3. Keep the quality up: You will need to advertise that the beer is the same as the old. Very often, when a brand has declined, consumers believe that the new company has changed or ruined the formula.
  4. Don’t change it up: Necco Wafers have been ruined by new packaging and flavors. The whole thing is gross. You want, instead, to keep the old.
  5. Give away some T-shirts: I am surprised at how few folks use T-shirts to promote their legacy brands. Startling. Be generous, and give the T-shirts to homeless folks AND hot chicks, and everyone in between.
  6. Sponsor some events: Small university and regional events can be sponsored cheaply. You can own these regional events for the same price you might be spending on Google Adwords.
  7. Use In Store Displays: It’s surprising how few of these I see with older brands. Instead of competing for shelf space in national retailers, why not “own” the shelf space in local retail shops? Point of sale is one of the best things for brand awareness. I read that somewhere this week.
  8. Brand associations: Its all in the brand association. Here, Pabst got associated with Bud and the rest. So if you want to revive one brand, you associate it with another brand. That’s what Lady Gaga did with Kraft Miracle Whip, and it seems to have worked, though not sure it is the best long-term thing for the brand.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website BrandlandUSA.com has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.

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