Pabst Blue Ribbon marketing: Then and now
Listen to this article:
It’s barely 2022 and we’ve already seen the first brand $&@! up of the year from Pabst Blue Ribbon.
In a tweet that has since been deleted, Pabst Blue Ribbon attempted to make fun of the Dry January trend by suggesting people replace alcohol with … something else.
What the tweet lacked in wit it made up for with virality. Some people thought it was edgy (was it?) while others took offense to the original tweet and some of the brand's replies, particularly one that quipped, “Ask your mom” when someone compared the taste of ass to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Still others thought Pabst Blue Ribbon planned to delete the tweet all along, understanding that screenshots of a deleted tweet often spread faster than a tweet that’s been allowed to live. Pabst Blue Ribbon will probably never admit to this strategy after the backlash, but it’s not so far-fetched if you understand meme marketing.
Whether you were offended or not, the most important thing was that Pabst Blue Ribbon got to be main character for a day. On that day, you could talk about ass eating without mention of PBR at all, but most people on Twitter knew what you were really talking about, iykwim.
The day may have ended with an apology from Pabst Brewing Company’s vice-president of marketing, who explained that a staff member had “gone rogue”, but we’re willing to bet PBR marketing folks aren’t entirely upset by the result.
The tweet, while maybe a little crass for some, didn’t mock any marginalized people, make light of a global pandemic, or cover up any unsavory corporate practices. A canceling event it was not; a moment of relevance it was.
And Pabst Blue Ribbon could use the help. While the 178-year-old brand saw a resurgence in the early aughts due to its strong attachment to hipster culture, the brand’s relevance has plateaued in recent years as the hipster millennial trope has faded away.
Keep reading to find out how Pabst Blue Ribbon’s brand has twisted and turned throughout the years, by paying attention to geographic differences in sales … particularly in Portland, Oregon.
Spoiler alert: Sometimes your target demographic is not actually your target demographic.
Pabst Blue Ribbon brand timeline
Pabst Blue Ribbong company founding
1836: Frederick Pabst is born in Prussia.
1844: Jacob Best and his four sons start The Empire Brewery (later called the Best Brewing Company) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
1848: Pabst’s family settles in Chicago.
1862: Pabst marries Maria Best, daughter of Philip Best.
1863: Pabst becomes a brewer at the Best Brewing Company and buys 50% of the company.
1866: Pabst becomes president of the Best Brewing Company.
1867: Philip Best retires to Germany.
Early growth as America’s largest brewer
1871: The Great Chicago Fire destroys 19 Chicago breweries, and Milwaukee emerges as the leading beer-producing city in the United States.
1874: The Best Brewing Company becomes the largest brewer in the United States.
1890: Pabst changes the company’s name to Pabst Brewing Company.
1893: Pabst begins tying a blue ribbon around every beer, and people start asking bartenders for "the blue-ribbon beer."
1893: Pabst Brewing Company becomes the first brewer in the United States to sell more than a million barrels of beer in one year.
1899: The company changes its flagship beer’s name to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
1920: Pabst Brewing Company starts making cheese due to Prohibition.
Early innovations and advertising
1933: Pabst Brewing Company sells their cheese company to Kraft and returns their focus to beer.
1935: Pabst Brewing Company works with American Can to produce its first beer can.
1943–1944: Pabst Brewing Company becomes the titular sponsor of the radio comedy show Blue Ribbon Town, starring Groucho Marx.
1950–1952: Pabst Brewing Company sponsors the radio mystery show Night Beat.
1951–1957: Pabst Blue Ribbon adopts the slogan "What'll You Have?"
Dark years for PBR
1977: Pabst Blue Ribbon sales peak at 18 million barrels before a steep decline that would last more than two decades.
1978: Pabst Blue Ribbon features bodybuilder Frank Zane in a commercial.
1979: Pabst Blue Ribbon features a young Patrick Swayze in a disco-themed commercial to position itself as part of the club scene.
1985: Paul Kalmanovitz, a beer and real-estate baron, buys the Pabst Brewing Company for $63 million in a hostile takeover through his holding company S&P Co.
1986: Pabst Blue Ribbon enjoys some product placement in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet when Dennis Hopper screams, “Pabst Blue Ribbon” as his beer of choice.
1996: Pabst Brewing Company shuts down its Milwaukee headquarters and contracts out its production to the Stroh Brewery Company.
2001: Pabst Blue Ribbon switches its producer to MillerCoors, who would brew the beer until 2020.
Early 2000s PBR hipster revival
2002: Pabst Blue Ribbon sees a massive revenue increase in Portland, Oregon, and marketing executives travel to the city to investigate the reason behind the resurgence.
2002: Pabst Blue Ribbon identifies its actual target market as “hipsters”—“anti-corporate, anti-marketing, nostalgia-loving members of subcultures living in specific urban centers”.
2003: Pabst Blue Ribbon begins rolling out a geographic marketing strategy in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver.
2003: Pabst Blue Ribbon begins to establish its presence at indie music festivals, niche clubs, dive bars, and amateur sports events.
2005–2010: Pabst Blue Ribbon’s operating profit increases by 81%.
2010: Investor C. Dean Metropoulos buys the Pabst Brewing Company for $250 million.
2011: Pabst Brewing Company headquarters move to Los Angeles.
2012: Pabst Blue Ribbon sells 92 million gallons of beer.
2014: More than 15,000 people attend the inaugural Project Pabst music festival in Portland, Oregon.
2014: Beer entrepreneur Eugene Kashper and TSG Consumer Partners acquire Pabst Brewing Company for $700 million.
2014: Pabst Blue Ribbon launches their PBR Art content, offering artists the chance to win a cash prize for their artistic design of a PBR beer can.
2018: Pabst Blue Ribbon partners with Vice to create a documentary series about how millennials are “living the American Dream”.
2019: Pabst Blue Ribbon releases a hard coffee and begins testing a hard tea, hard seltzer, and whiskey to diversify its product line.
2021: Pabst Blue Ribbon launches their in-home advertising program that pays people to stage PBR swag in their home.
2021: Pabst starts gradually transferring its production from MillerCoors to City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The process will be complete in 2024.
2022: Pabst makes a huge brand error with it's "dry january" tweet.
A geographic marketing strategy from the start
Pabst Blue Ribbon’s early years are marked by a labyrinth of ownership and name changes, but one thing that remains consistent is the importance of Milwaukee and Chicago to the company’s roots.
Pabst Brewing Company was first formed in Milwaukee as The Empire Brewery in 1844 by Jacob Best and his four sons, recent German immigrants. Later known as the Best Brewing Company, the brewery was eventually purchased in part by Frederick Pabst, who married Jacob Best’s daughter Maria.
Just after the company was founded, the 1850s saw the emergence of tied houses, which were pubs that were obligated to buy a significant portion of their beer from one particular brewery. The first such tied house in Chicago was Best & Weiss, which purchased most of its lager from the Best Brewing Company in Milwaukee.
Best Brewing Company’s move to target Chicago as a place to grow was one marked by both fortune and foresight. In the 1850s, Chicago beer culture was driven by an influx of German immigrants who craved the beer they loved back home. At the same time, Chicago was quickly becoming an important metropolitan hub for business and finance.
As the Civil War erupted in 1861 and violence disrupted St. Louis down south, efforts to expand the American railroad diverted north to Chicago. Important industries followed the line soon enough, as they gradually stopped relying on Lake Michigan to transport goods. More industry meant more workers meant more beer drinkers.
But in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed most of the city’s breweries. Chicago’s loss was Milwaukee’s gain, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Milwaukee brewers controlled more than 30% of Chicago’s beer supply, with Best Brewery—by then called Pabst Brewing Company—at the forefront of the market.
But the real kicker of Pabst’s long-term geographic growth strategy is that the company’s early twentieth century Chicago sales weren’t lucrative. Pabst Brewing Company operated at significant losses in Chicago during the 1900s and 1910s, but Frederick Pabst refused to pull the plug on the investment. Why would he stubbornly hold on to a market that wasn’t yielding much of a profit?
Frederick Pabst understood the importance of Chicago’s growing influence on the rest of the American Midwest, which expanded even further west later. He knew Milwaukee would remain small potatoes compared to Chicago, and he saw the city as his ticket to long-term growth. As one Omaha-based reporter said, “Omaha eats Chicago groceries, wears Chicago dry-goods, builds with Chicago lumber, and reads Chicago newspapers.”
With clout in mind, Pabst purchased Chicago’s Union Hotel and the Great Northern Theater, using both destinations as large-scale advertisements for Pabst beer. By the time the World’s Columbian Exposition arrived in Chicago in 1893, the Pabst Brewing Company had a strong presence in the city—and a precursor to what would become its most recognizable brand symbol.
One million feet of blue ribbon
The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was an elaborate event that celebrated the 400th anniversary of the beginning of Christopher Columbus’ cruel colonization efforts in the Americas. Of course back then Columbus was still a celebrated figure, and the city’s investment in the fair matched America’s grand fascination with any of its founding members.
Running from May to October 1893, the Chicago World Fair included some of the world’s first uses of electricity and the first ferris wheel, invented by civil engineer George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. It’s also where Americans were first introduced to products such as Juicy Fruit, Crackerjack, and Shredded Wheat. Spanning 630 acres, the fair attracted more than 27 million visitors and cost $43.2 million in today’s currency.
The fair hosted many events, including the “America’s Best” beer competition. It’s unclear whether or not Pabst won a blue ribbon at the event, but the competition gave Frederick Pabst an idea: Tie a blue ribbon around every bottle of Pabst Brewing Company beer, and people would more easily recognize the brand.
It worked—people began asking bartenders for the “beer with the blue ribbon”, and sales grew. By the time the 1900s rolled around, Pabst had officially changed the beer’s name to Pabst Blue Ribbon. He was also going through one million feet of blue ribbon per year, until a silk shortage in World War I brought the bow-tying party to a halt.
Pabst Blue Ribbon continued to use real silk ribbons on its beer bottles until the 1930s invention of the beer can, which Pabst Brewing Company helped test for viability with producer American Can. Fast forward to the 1950s, and the beer can had proven to be the innovation Pabst thought it would be. The company stopped using ribbons and designed its iconic logo for much cheaper labels on cans instead.
Early content marketing through radio shows
In 1943, radio shows were all the rage. Before television emerged as the new cool medium in the 1950s, the Golden Age of Radio from the 1920s to the 1950s was the primary form of entertainment for most Americans. According to a C. E. Hooper survey, 82% of Americans listened to the radio in 1947.
Pabst Blue Ribbon jumped on the radio show bandwagon by sponsoring two notable shows: Blue Ribbon Town hosted by Groucho Marx and Night Beat starring Frank Lovejoy.
Hosted on CBS from March 27, 1943 to August 5, 1944, Blue Ribbon Town was a comedy variety show set in the mythical American community of Blue Ribbon Town “where men were men, women were women, and the jokes were mainly puns.”
On February 5, 1944, the program’s hosts visited Milwaukee to celebrate Pabst Blue Ribbon’s 100th anniversary. While gazing at Lake Michigan, Groucho says, "Yes, isn't it wonderful? You get near the place where they make Pabst beer, and even the lake has a head on it."
Check out this episode of Blue Ribbon Town, which doesn’t wait even a little bit to mention Pabst Blue Ribbon as the sponsor:
In the 1950s, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s target market couldn’t have been further from their current one. At the time, Pabst’s ideal customer was the stereotypical “man’s man”: He was the guy at the restaurant who loves pretty waitresses, probably works in the oil industry, lives in the suburbs, and definitely has a wife to feed him and his friends snacks.
Pabst Blue Ribbon’s slogan at the time was that man’s simple answer to the question, “What’ll you have?” (The answer, ICYMI: Pabst Blue Ribbon.)
What may be most compelling about Pabst’s early “man’s man” target market strategy wasn’t that it was particularly effective at the time, but rather how it set the stage for the brand’s surprise resurgence 50 years later.
Driven by a certain type of gen Xer/millennial who worshipped nostalgia, “uncool” brands, and the ironic commodification of niche subcultures, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s iron grip on the stereotypical man as its ideal customer would lead them to their true target after years of decline.
Hipsters save the day: Pabst Blue Ribbon’s audience surprise
In 1977, Pabst Blue Ribbon sales peaked at 18 million barrels. The next two decades after that, however, were marked by declining sales as the brand struggled to appeal to their core audience of older men who liked manly things like boats and fishing.
In 2000, Pabst sales bottomed out at 1 million barrels. That’s when the company hired Neal Stewart, senior brand manager and person who was tasked with turning more than 20 years of failure into success.
But Stewart’s (and Pabst’s) success didn’t come so much from doing as it did from noticing. In 2001 and 2002, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s distributor in Portland, Oregon recorded doubling sales every month—a clear outlier compared to lagging markets.
When Stewart flew to Portland to investigate what was driving sales, he talked to PBR lovers and found out they drank the beer for three reasons:
- Pabst Blue Ribbon was retro.
- Pabst Blue Ribbon was cheap.
- Pabst Blue Ribbon wasn’t cool.
After spending time with new customers, Stewart began the work of fitting their characteristics into a new customer persona. Pabst Blue Ribbon executives didn’t know it at the time, but when they defined their new target market as “anti-corporate, anti-marketing, nostalgia-loving members of subcultures living in specific urban centers”, they were defining the stereotypical hipster.
So what to do with that information? If Pabst’s new target market hated anything corporate, how could the brand also squeeze out every last ounce of beer sales from them?
First, Pabst Blue Ribbon developed a targeted geographic marketing strategy that launched in cities similar to Portland: Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver. Similar to how Frederick Pabst used Chicago as a launchpad to the west more than 100 years prior, the PBR of the early aughts used Portland’s hipster cultural capital as a tunnel into a developing subculture most brands didn’t yet know existed.
After they determined the where, they began to execute the what. Pabst Blue Ribbon began to establish its presence at indie music festivals, niche clubs, dive bars, and amateur sports events. As a way to forego traditional advertising, Pabst focused on events and swag as a way to embed the brand more organically into common hipster experiences.
Then, between 2007–2009, the recession in the United States prevented Pabst Blue Ribbon from having much of a marketing budget, which turned out to work in their favor. Hipsters didn’t want advertising, and PBR couldn’t invest in it. PBR was forced to amp up its regional strategy even further by empowering 40+ field marketing managers to own their markets.
In an interview with The Challenger Project, Steve Nilsen, a previous Pabst Blue Ribbon lifestyle marketing manager, says, “We championed [the field marketing managers] to own those markets and we let each of them have their own social handle for that city. They would post on Instagram what was relative and would resonate with that city versus it coming from headquarters. When I or my counterparts in the brand team would go to a town, we would expect to not only see the coolest bars, but the tattoo parlours, the record stores, the skate shops, the bike shops, whatever was cool in the town: wherever the cool kids were. We would literally get cans in hands.”
Just as it did in the company’s early days, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s understanding of geographic nuances increased sales. Between 2005–2010, PBR’s operating profit increased by 81%. The PBR brand had found its relevance—but would they be able to keep it?
Death of the hipster = death of Pabst Blue Ribbon?
The year the hipster died is disputed, but most people agree the trope faded away gradually in the 2010s. We’ll always see hipster traits lurking in the shadows of many a customer persona—remember “yuccies”?—but the hipsters that drank PBR grew up and can now probably afford a high-end craft beer.
In 2014, Pabst Blue Ribbon began an aggressive pivot to align its brand with art and music, starting with the Project Pabst music festival in Portland, Oregon. More than 15,000 people attended the festival to see artists like Modest Mouse and Tears for Fears. After relatively successful expansion to Denver, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, the festival ended in 2017.
While offering a solid extension of PBR’s brand relevance in the face of the dying hipster, the festival wasn’t quite enough to get PBR cans to stick in the hands of new youth. In 2017, Pabst Blue Ribbon was ranked fifth in overall U.S. beer sales volume—down from third in 2016.
While Pabst Blue Ribbon seems to have plateaued as a brand, the company is finally starting to move on something suspiciously absent from much of their history: product innovation. In 2019, Pabst Blue Ribbon released a hard coffee and began testing a hard tea, hard seltzer, and whiskey.
Hard coffee is a good bet for Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 2020, hard coffee saw 11,000% growth during a year-long period ending on July 18. Consumers see hard coffee as a way to consume alcohol without sugar and carbs, while being able to maintain a high level of energy. (Like a modern-day Jägerbomb?)
It will be exciting to see how Pabst Blue Ribbon’s beverage diversification pans out for the brand—especially if people start talking about how much they like the taste. Finally.