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7 key milestones during the Miller Lite evolution

March 23, 2015, 1:01 PM UTC
Courtesy of MillerCoors

Miller Lite isn’t trying to be more than what it is: a 96-calorie beer.

Executives at MillerCoors are confident that rebounding demand for Miller Lite, as reported by Fortune recently, is a sign that the beer is back in favor after decades of stagnation and decline. Shipments have steadily ticked up a few percentage points each week in the second half of 2014, relative to their 52-week average, according to MillerCoors. The gains followed a decision by the company to repackage the beer with label that harkens back to its initial launch in 1975.

Customers immediately embraced the retro-look, which was initially supposed to be a temporary promotion. But now, MillerCoors executives say they intend to stick with the white can and permanently ditch the blue packaging first used in 2001. The blue can looked too much like a soda, MillerCoors executives now say. And until recently, commercials for the beer almost never talked about flavor or taste, instead marketers focused more of their attention on being funny.

“It is not trying to be more than it is,” says MillerCoors CEO Tom Long. “It has the perfect balance of lightness and taste so it’s the perfect beer when you are going to have more than one.”

But for a long time, beer drinkers weren’t convinced. That was partly because of the entry of two competitors: Bud Light and Coors Light (though Coors Light is now a sibling brand controlled by MillerCoors in the U.S.). Miller Lite, insiders say, lost its way.

Ryan Reis, who heads Miller Lite’s day-to-day operations, has been a student of the brand. He says he watched every advertisement Miller Lite ran over the past four decades. He closely studied packaging and label variations throughout that time period.

“I tried to understand what Miller Lite said and what worked,” Reis said. “I came to the conclusion that after trying to contemporize the brand, what needed to be done is Miller Lite needed to go back to storytelling.”

Fortune took a look at seven of the most significant label changes and advertising campaigns that Miller brought to the market since the 1970s.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Britt Dougherty’s name. The story has been corrected.

Miller Lite 1975

The Miller Lite launched nationally in 1975, though the beer's roots lie in the 1960s when it was called Gablinger's Diet Beer. The new look dropped the "feminine" "L" and made the words "A fine Pilsner" even larger to suggest the beer wasn't a watered-down formula. "The original can was the look for 15 years," said Reis. He said Miller Lite's look at the time -- a white can with blue and red lettering -- mirrored the predominate colors of beers at the time, like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser.

Tastes Great, Less Filing

Miller Lite began running ads in early 1976 under the iconic all-star campaign that featured well-known football stars including Bubba Smith, Dick Butkus and John Madden. The concept behind these ads: masculine men were comfortable drinking light beer, so you should be too. "They found socially relevant former athletes and movie stars -- people that were able to masculinize a beer brand that it was a low-calorie beer that had 'great taste, less filling,'" said Don Faust Jr., chairman and CEO of beer distributing company Faust Distributing. "It took off and caught the industry by surprise." Bob Lachky, a marketing executive who spent 25 years working at competitor Anheuser-Busch gave this campaign some high praise: "It was arguably one of the greatest campaigns over the past 30 to 40 years."



Miller Lite 1992

Through savvy marketing, Miller Lite created the so-called "light beer" category but by 1992, the brand was facing stiff competition from both Bud Light and Coors Light. Before then, Miller's beer was marketed as simply "Lite." "When Bud Light and Coors Light entered the scene, we had to encourage our sales people and customers to say 'I want a light beer from Miller,'" Faust said. Years later, bar customers were encourage to say "I want a Miller Lite." To strengthen the brand from a marketing perspective, the word "Miller" was added to the can in 1992.

The short-lived "Dick" ad campaign

In the late 1990s, Miller Lite tried to inject some humor into the beer's ads with a highly unusual campaign called "Dick." It flopped. "When they came out with the 'Dick' ads, sales were hurt," said Harry Schuhmacher, editor of Beer Business Daily. Schuhmacher said the ads later made Miller Lite afraid to take chances in advertising -- the company leaned heavily on "bro" ads that could be considered borderline misogynist. Beer ads at the time featured women mud wrestling or made fun of a man's attire if he wasn't deemed "manly" enough.



The "Man Up" ads that look flat today

Of all the ads that Miller Lite ran during its hyper-masculine period, the "Man Up" campaign that ran in 2010 most epitomized the tone of the times. In the ad below, a man orders a light beer but is quickly mocked by a female bartender who makes fun of his "purse" which the gentleman defends as a "carry all." "We lost our way and made consumers less proud to hold us," said Britt Dougherty, who studies consumer insights for MillerCoors. "It was presenting a frat image, it wasn't presenting something that they were proud of." MillerCoors executives said they don't intend to run such overtly masculine ads going forward, acknowledging the ideology of masculinity in the U.S. has changed. Executives say they can't simply think of their core drinkers as only men.



Miller Lite 2001

Miller Lite switched to blue in 2001, only to see Bud Light choose the same color shortly after. The company continued to tinker with the blue-can look over the next several years, touting the "action" and "energy" look of the can, terms that MillerCoors executives say today were straight up marketing hype. When MillerCoors dug into some research in 2014 about how consumers recognized the blue can, they kept hearing over and over that it looked more like a soda than a beer. "We would hear 'I used to love that blue can but now that I look at it, it looks like a soda,'" Reis recalled. "That flipped a trigger for us. We thought 'We look like a soda, so how are we going to be perceived as a beer?'"

Miller Lite 2014

After decades of stagnation, Miller Lite's return last year to the iconic can of the 1970s, as well as a greater emphasis on more inclusive marketing have helped the beer come back from the dead. The company sold 43 million more cans of Lite in the second half of 2014 than it did in the equivalent period of 2013. Distributors and bar owners have praised the change. For example, Faust's operations in Texas had reported 20 years of declines in sales for Miller Lite, including a 10% drop in 2013. For 2014, Miller Lite reported a 0.2% increase. "To turn around a giant brand like that in 12 months is amazing," Faust said. John Taylor, a distributor in Florida, also saw a notable upswing in demand. "I think it has always been a marketing issue for Miller Lite," Taylor said, reflecting on Miller Lite's past mistakes. "I hope they continue to respect the beer and respect the people that drink the beer. If they do that, it will continue to grow and earn its [market] share back."