In 1987, Labatt Brewing Company, a dominant Canadian brewer, bought little ol’ Rolling Rock beer from Latrobe Brewing Company. Rolling Rock was a regional beer at the time, a mid-priced brand with a blue collar following and steeped in the appeal of small town authenticity. An entire mythology (and, presumably, countless bar bets) had been created around the mystery of what the numeral “33” means that appears at the end of their quality pledge.
Of course, Labatt wanted to grow the brand as a way of getting more U.S. market share, and they did so quite well. In four years, they were able to more than double sales and achieve national distribution. And they did this, in part, by actually raising prices. Labatt saw the opportunity to market Rolling Rock as a premium call brand at bars where it has never been sold, especially outside of the regional market that saw it as more comparable to Miller than Heineken. The Rolling Rock brand was positioned as, essentially, a microbrew of its time, a beer with an interesting backstory made in a quaint small town in Pennsylvania.
Labatt spent as much as $14 million a year on advertising the brand, after reportedly paying only $15 million to buy the whole company. Their slogan was “Same as it ever was.” In a “Business Week” article in 1992, Rolling Rock Marketing Director, John Chappell, was quoted as saying, “Budweiser is brewed in Newark, N.J. That’s not a great image.” He may have been more right than he knew.
In May of 2006, Anheuser-Busch, the beer brand giant that owns Budweiser, bought Rolling Rock and Latrobe Brewing from InBev (which had purchased Labatt’s USA operation earlier) for $82 million dollars. Two months later, they moved all production of Rolling Rock products to…wait for it… Newark, New Jersey. A-B had similar ideas to Labatt as to how they planned to make the Rolling Rock brand a winner in their extensive portfolio of beer brands, which was to position it against the craft beer segment that was continuing to grow while many major beer brands stagnated.
Of course, a tagline of “Same as it ever was” would be a little disingenuous, so the A-B folks changed the tagline to “Born small town,” which echoes a bit with the Budweiser “born-on” date that they place on their bottles to validate their freshness, especially as compared to, um, craft beers. But I digress.
Long story short, it didn’t work. Sales of Rolling Rock tanked from 11 million cases in 2004 to 7.4 million cases in 2008. By 2009, Anheuser-Busch (now owned by InBev; I know, it’s hard to keep up) was trying to sell the brand to yet another brewer. It remains on the block today.
If you visit RollingRock.com, you will see a website that appears to be 100 percent authentic Rolling Rock, right down to the copyright by Latrobe Brewing Company. Except that the locations that follow that copyright—St. Louis, Williamsburg, Newark and several others—are all Anheuser-Busch locations.
When Labatt bought Rolling Rock, they kept all the elements that made it what it was—including where it was brewed, an essential element in the positioning of any craft beer or microbrew. The only change Labatt made was to position the beer as a premium brand outside of its traditional market, using the authentic story and content of the brand. But when Anheuser-Busch took over, it kept most of the backstory, but removed one critical element—where it was made. The “Born small town” tagline is wickedly clever because it’s true. Rolling Rock is no longer made there, but, hey, it did originate there.
Of course, in an industry as competitive as beer, there are many reasons why any particular brand could fail. And there could be an inherent flaw in the concept of positioning a brand as a craft beer or microbrew and then trying to grow it into a mega brand. (It’s the paradox of exclusivity and mass appeal in brands. Pretty hard to have both. Unless you’re Apple.) But where one large brewer handled the Rolling Rock brand as an asset for all its attributes and supported their positioning of the brand with it, another even bigger brewer essentially said, “We’ll keep the story and call it a microbrew, but we’ll just leave out the part about making it in a giant factory far from the origin of the beer.” Except, apparently, Rolling Rock drinkers noticed.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Reading Eagle and Lehigh Valley Business.