Moosehead recasts itself for a younger drinker

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SEEN THOSE posters for Moosehead around town? They’ve been popping up on telephone poles on South Street, Old City and elsewhere. No names, no ad copy, just a green silhouette of a moose head.

You’re witnessing the start of a quirky marketing campaign to revive one of Canada’s classic but forgotten lagers. Whether it works or not, Moosehead’s effort to rebuild its brand reveals much about how beer-makers struggle to win hearts and mouths in a world dominated by BudMillerCoors.

Not surprisingly, it has more to do with image than actual flavor.

Twenty years ago, Moosehead was the No. 3 imported beer in America, behind Heineken and Lowenbrau. Today, unless you live near the brewery in St. John’s, Canada, it’s practically extinct.

Blame the decline on aggressive marketing by the competition, as imports from Mexico, especially Corona, leapt forward. Or on changing tastes, as consumers switched to light. Or just lack of attention, as the brand’s U.S. importer switched hands over the years.

Whatever, Moosehead faded till it became almost a nostalgic thirst-quencher. According to Shamus Hanlon, brand group director of marketing for its current importer, Gambrinus Co., the average Moosehead drinker is 42. Its biggest fans are guys who guzzled it with abandon in college but who now have gray hair, a mortgage and a wife who’s on his case to lose that gut.

“In the beer business, it’s a young person’s game, a numbers game,” Hanlon said. “Your consumption from the time you start drinking at 21 will halve by the time you’re 25. And it will halve again by 29. By 29, you’re drinking one-quarter what you did at 21. So, as a brand that wants to remain healthy and grow in a tough industry, you’ve really got to do a good job of getting consumers into your franchise when they’re young. Otherwise, it’s much more expensive for you later.”

Time for a little Grecian Formula.

“The effort,” Hanlon said, “is to get the brand younger and get the brand back onto the radar with our primary target, 21- to 29-year-old males.”

Gone is the familiar but old-fashioned outdoorsy image. Even those proud Canadian roots – once a synonym for strong, naturally brewed lager – are getting soft-pedaled.

You want to sell something to 20-somethings, think tattoos and flashy graphics. Think edgy culture and rebellion. Think iPods and takeout pizza and alternative newspapers and Death Cab for Cutie.

Think Moose.

Forget the beer’s flavor or its price. When the brewery’s marketers and ad agency, Tom, Dick & Harry of Chicago, asked its target audience what one image they had of Moosehead, they kept coming back to the damn moose. Not the goofy one in Saturday morning cartoons. For younger people, there was something appealing – positive and independent – about a 7-foot tall creature with skinny legs and a rack of antlers the width of a Winnebago.

“Young people don’t view the moose as Bullwinkle-ish,” Hanlon said. “They don ‘t really remember ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle.’ It doesn’t come off as a cartoonish character, big, dumb and lanky, like a different take on a cow.”

Moosehead’s marketers realized, Hanlon said, there was “a tremendous equity and relevance in the animal itself.”

If they could sell the moose, they could sell the beer.

We’re not talking Marlin Perkins, stalking-the-wooly-mammoth kind of moose here, though.

Moosehead’s moose is meaningful, intelligent and… horny.

A copy on one upcoming ad explains, “Before mating, a male must follow a female around for a week. One night in a bar doesn’t seem so bad.” Another says, “During courtship, a moose’s neck becomes swollen, his eyes bloody and his temper short. But at least he doesn’t have to dance.”

The idea, Hanlon said, was to take the moose “then cross-mate it with a 21- to 29-year-old guy… They’re practically the same!”

Those ads are still a couple of weeks down the road. For now, Moosehead is simply promoting the moose as a recognizable icon, a la Apple’s silhouette or Pepsi’s swirls. Illustrated with concentric circles, heavy on the green and gray, the image is supposed to be, in Hanlon’s words, “contemporary, hip, energetic.” It’s showing up in bars, on pizza boxes, in alternative weeklies, “literally down to the street-level.”

That tack is mostly a matter of necessity. Moosehead doesn’t have the dough for a national TV campaign.

But this non-traditional, or guerilla, approach to brand marketing can work. Red Bull and Pabst Blue Ribbon, notably, have sold tons of cans without glossy magazine ads and 30-second spots on Monday Night Football.

“It’s a type of approach that speaks more effectively to young adults than going toe-to-toe with Bud, Coors and Miller,” Hanlon said. Young people have “grown weary of bad advertising, of the tonnage that crosses their desk, their radio, computer screen and iPods. It requires a much keener message and one that ‘s more relevant to them.”

Hanlon hopes that the graphics and, later, its quirky messages will catch their attention even before the word, “Moosehead,” ever appears on the ads. “It allows them to make the message their own as opposed to having it forced down their throat,” he said.

As the campaign was launched in Philadelphia and three other cities this week, Hanlon said he had already seen signs of success.

“I literally saw young adults tearing down the postings, hauling them off for their own,” he said. “It’s very interesting, the response. It’s not like anything we’ve seen before.”

Swallowing the advertising is one thing. Moosehead hopes that, next, they’ll actually swallow the beer.

Beer radar

As you’d expect at this time of the year, the shelves are full of Oktoberfest. In addition to the six official Munich versions (Spaten,  Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Lowenbrau, Augustiner, and Hofbrau), look for the always spectacular Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen(available locally on tap). Erdinger spins a new twist with a wheat version of the malty lager, called Oktoberfest Weizen. No shortage of Oktoberfest from the Yanks, either. Try Oktoberfest from Sam Adams, Harpoon, Brooklyn, Appalachian, Victory, Flying Fish and Stoudt’s…

Also new on local shelves: Peg Leg Imperial Stout, Harpoon Amber Ale and Birrificio Italiano Cassissona…

And keep an eye out for Lion Brewing’s 100th Anniversary IPA. Early tasters put the one-time-only Wilkes-Barre specialty in a league with the highly regarded Stoudt’s Double IPA. The steal: You should find it under $20 a case, about $5 less than the going price for a high-octane IPA.  Calendar

Tomorrow- Oktoberfest at Ortino’s Northside (1355 Gravel Pike, Zieglerville). Bring your lederhosen to this gem of a beer joint in the middle of nowhere and wash down a German-style buffet with a hefty selection of traditional Oktoberfests served on tap. Live entertainment. Tix: $25, $28 at the door. Info: 610-287-7272.

Tomorrow- “Ortliebs, Brewers by Birth since 1869,” a history of the now-defunct Northern Liberties brewery, by beer historian Rich Wagner. The lecture, at Yard’s Brewing (2432 Amber St., Kensington), is free. Info: 215-634-2600. Starts: 2 p.m.

Sept. 24- Oktoberfest at Ludwig’s Garten (1315 Sansom St., Center City). An all-day block party at the city’s best German bar. Taps open: Noon. Info: 215-985-1525.

Sept. 25- Sippin’ by the River, the annual beer- and wine-slurp at Penn’s Landing. Taps open: 1-5 p.m. Tix: $25, $30 at the gate, benefits Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. Info: 215-396-9100.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of St. Feuillien Brune.

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