Bottoms Up: One exec’s quest to turn down the bro in beer marketing

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In 2009, Britt Dougherty was reviewing ads for MillerCoors along with its agency. The group was going through storyboards for a new television campaign, and it included lots of and lots of women. Great.

Just one problem: All of them were wearing bikinis.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who is going to speak up about this?’,” recalls Dougherty, 37. “And no one did. As I worked here longer, I realized it was just sort of the way beer was.”

It was an a-ha moment that led to where Dougherty is today. Her official title is senior director of marketing insights, but in public, as on her LinkedIn profile, she says she is in charge of “humanizing beer.”

That means no more frat guys in ads. No more pinkwashed beer ads specifically only targeting women by touting “citrusy” flavors. And definitely, certainly, no more bikini babes serving beer to men in sports bars.

That means taking beer marketing out of the frat house and into the hands of adults of both genders, reflecting a nuanced view of the beer world. Project Luna sits inside a group Dougherty leads called “human experience, or H-Ex,” at the company, which is broadly reimagining the role women play when it comes to beer in the hope of getting rid of cringeworthy sexist advertising and getting more women to pick a brewski over wine. That includes changing how beer consumers are thought of, how they’re marketed to, and how to create a beer culture as open to women as it is for men.

If there’s a good place to start, it was that Dougherty herself was a woman in the beer business. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville in the ‘90s, part of a big Irish Italian Catholic family. She spent more of her childhood and adult years there, participating in the Irish pub culture of the city.

“Chicago is a Miller Lite town, and that’s what we drank,” she says. “We all considered ourselves beer girls, beer women who grew up here,” she said. Dougherty’s father worked in marketing and went to night classes at Northwestern to get his MBA. Her mother was a teacher who also worked at the local church — and eventually, went on to get a Master’s in pastoral studies from Loyola. Both her parents focused on doing what they loved: One of the mottos she was raised on was “do what you love and you’ll never work in a day in your life.”

In the mid-90s, she was visiting New York for a high school field trip. “I remember being on the subway and suddenly realizing that every person on that train had their own story,” she says. “It was such a moment of awareness… I’ve been interested in other people’s stories ever since.”

So after college at Naperville, Illinois, liberal arts school North Central, she went to culinary school, where she said she got fascinated by the idea of pairing food with alcohol — specifically, beer. (Her favorite pairing is a classic: Coors Light with a ballpark hot dog. And toppings: “You New Yorkers would be appalled, I’m sure,” she laughs.)

Asked whether she thinks whether she noticed what she did during that bikini-heavy ad review because of her gender, Dougherty pauses for a second. “Oh man, perhaps,” she says. “But I’d like to think as an insights team we’d be noticing regardless of my gender the dramatic changes. I would have hoped that a man in my boots would have noticed the same thing or we’d be in a little bit of trouble. But perhaps I’m more sensitive to it, as a woman.”

There is a pretty good business case to be made for getting more women to drink beer.

Beer sales are slipping with more customers moving to spirits and liquor. Volume sales declined in 2015, and while craft beer is growing — according to Nielsen, craft beers are now 10.7 percent of the dollar share and beer has lost 10 percentage points of volume share to wine and spirits since 2002 — it’s not growing enough to make up for what’s been lost to spirits.

Light beer is a real opportunity: It represents 47 percent of volume shares of beer, and according to Mintel, there is a need to reposition the segment for “drinkability,” not weight loss.

About 29 percent of women said they drank beer regularly, while 59 percent of men did, in a demographic survey by Mintel held last year. About 35 percent of men said they drank it because it tastes good; only 19 percent of women said that.

Recently, Dougherty’s team was in Portland — a “craft beer town” — talking to women there.

One woman was telling Dougherty how she used to not like beer because of its bitter taste, but is learning to like it, through craft beer, because it’s “what we do here.”

“It reminded me that we do hear that from legal drinking age men that they don’t like beer but they like it because they’re hanging with their buddies.” says Dougherty. There is a societal benefit for men to participate in beer. And it’s our job to create a societal benefit for women to participate in beer as well.”

A national survey presented at the Craft Brewers Conference found that women continue to be underrepresented in beer drinkers. Some of the reasons “why” are telling: Beer drinkers tended to be women who self-identified as “confident,” implying that cultural mores told women that beer drinking wasn’t something natural, or normal. And 72 percent of craft beer drinkers were also frustrated by brands that treated them as an afterthought.

At the same time, the sheer number of women who do drink beer — and yet, aren’t talked to in beer advertising — is also staggering. Market research company Ipsos said that women drank 17 billion servings of beer in 2014, 25 percent of the volume in the category. (But that’s down from a decade ago, which means women are now moving away from beer.)

So there are women who drink beer, even though many have moved away from the category, potentially because they haven’t been talked to in advertising. But if they drink beer, they’re going to craft beer, because of a growth of female beer sommeliers and communities like Women Drinking Beer, all of which focus on small-batch craft brews. In some ways, the small craft beer industry managed to attract women without trying; while big billion dollar brands managed to alienate them.

“Beer has been rooted in the male culture,” says Duane Stanford, editor of Beverage Digest. “There’s a feeling that women like bitter drinks less than men. The truth is, a lot of people don’t like beer when they start, but when drinking beer is rooted in the culture, you end up acquiring the taste. There are plenty of bitter things like coffee and brussels sprouts, too.”

And that “culture” is what Dougherty wants to fix. The first thing she did is try to figure out why she was seeing the kinds of advertising she was seeing when it came to Big Beer. “We did talk to a lot of people the business, we talked to our partners” she says. “We were asking ‘Why haven’t we paid more attention, why haven’t we evolved our dialog with a quarter of the volume of the category?’.” It came down to myths that had been passed down from generation to generation of marketers.

Focus on heavy users. The female market is saturated. Women don’t even like the taste of beer. To market to women, we’d have to alienate men. Beer is manly. Sexism is OK, as long as it’s funny.

“We really had to debunk those myths, otherwise it was going to prevent us from making progress in the industry.” says Dougherty, who recently made a presentation about the new realities of beer advertising at the annual MillerCoors distributor convention, asking distributors to help her debunk those myths and in return, she’d get them marketing that was relevant to every customer.

Usually, the stage at distributor conventions is reserved for C-suite executives. There was trepidation among those distributors, a cohort of people that get kegs, bottles and cases from brewers to local bars, stores and restaurants. Pete Marino, chief communications officer at the company, says Dougherty’s presentation managed to assuage many of their fears.

Among many other points in the presentation, one slide put the onus on everyone, not just MillerCoors employees: “We can create the most appealing, gender-friendly TV spots on air today, but it won’t matter if on premise sampling teams show up wearing short shorts and tight t-shirts.”

“Beer makes you fat? Women don’t like the taste of beer? We can’t sell beer to women?”

When projects that aren’t in the official budget are thought of by employees, MillerCoors assigns a sponsor in the executive team to each one. Marino was the sponsor for Project Luna. When Dougherty started explaining why she was championing it, he says he was sold. “Beer marketing had devolved. There was a need to evolve it,” he says. “And Britt had the passion and energy to do it. But also, she has universal respect. So when she speaks, people pay attention. That goes a long way into pushing something like this through.”

Dougherty sees her job as bringing empathy into human behavior. And one big part is her transformation of marketing inside MillerCoors to never think about beer drinkers as consumers, or even “targets.” The people buying products are people, human beings. One key shift was changing market research into going beyond focus groups into more anthropological studies. Then, it was to be clear on what Miller’s values were so the brand could create what Dougherty calls “an emotional connection with the brand.”

What that looks like is varied: Internally, it just means MillerCoors is more cognizant about how it thinks of its customers. Externally, it’s resulted in more ads that speak to all genders, not just to men or even just to women. That’s because you don’t need separate brands “for women” and also, takes out the potential risk of alienating men.

Probably a good thing, since there have been plenty of hamfisted attempts to “get women to drink beer” through pinkwashing: creating specific brands that are made for women. In 2011, Molson Coors launched Animee, a beer made for women that came in yellow, light yellow — and you guessed it, pink. Women thought it was patronizing and also just tasted bad.

Dougherty says that ads in recently campaigns like “Climb On,” which features a series of ads showing both men and women conquering personal goals like a marathon or a rodeo; a female chef working hard all day before enjoying a Coors Light with her staff, are the outward manifestations of her mission at MillerCoors to invite women into a conversation occupied by men. Dougherty said the brand has seen increases in penetration in women with no ill-effects on men. According to Ace Metrix, which measures video ad impact, the four ads from the Coors Light “Climb On” campaign scored “below” the normal for women and performed better among men than women. Women used terms of admiration 11 percent of the time when watching these ads, compared with 14 percent of the time with men.

“We know we have millions of barrels of opportunity if we do this right,” she says.

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