Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beer Holder Rheingold was the classic lunch-pail and hard-hat brew. For its comeback, though, it went after the hip, way- downtown crowd.
By Ellen Neuborne

(Business 2.0) – When the seven-person branding agency Powell won the Rheingold beer account in July 2002, the client's instructions were simple: Relaunch a brand that had been dead for almost 25 years, do it for less than $500,000, and, oh yeah, target Manhattan hipsters who hate commercials. (That's "simple" as in "clear," not "easy.")

Powell's solution: Hold a beauty contest--a brainstorm that may appear at first glance to be simple as in "dumb." For this, our judges voted Rheingold the Best Brand Relaunch? But as the panelists noted, the idea worked on several levels. It harked back to a wildly popular annual beauty contest that the original brand used to promote itself. That not only resonated with the brand's heritage but also exploited Generation Y's fondness for nostalgic kitsch. "Among these consumers, there is a return to simplicity," says Josh Rogers, the agency's strategy director. "You see them with Chuck Taylors and Levi's and Marlboros and listening to rock 'n' roll."

Back in the brand's heyday of the 1940s and 1950s--when one of every three beers hoisted in New York City was a Brooklyn-brewed Rheingold--the selection of the annual Miss Rheingold was as highly anticipated as the race for the White House. Indeed, according to corporate lore, in 1959, New Yorkers cast 22 million ballots at 30,000 city taverns and delis--a voter turnout second only to presidential elections. For a generation, the product was the official beer of the New York Mets. But times changed, and Rheingold ditched the contest during the '60s. (The Mets' high point came in '69 as well. Coincidence?) Ten years later the company was out of business and its century-old brewery was abandoned.

Terry Liebman, a descendant of the company's founder and the force behind the brand's revival, approved the nostalgic touch. Unlike prior Miss Rheingolds, however, the modern version would not wear a ball gown and white gloves: The agency asked the owners of 15 hip bars in the trendy East Village and Lower East Side to nominate the female bartender who best embodied the "bold energy" of the Rheingold brand. There were 13 nominees. "They were all beautiful, but they were not 5-foot-9, 115-pound beauty queens," says Neil Powell, president and creative director of Powell. "They had tattoos. They were pierced. They were badasses." The company chose Kate Duyn, a 27-year-old dancer and part-time tender at Lit Bar in the East Village. (Next year, bar patrons will get to vote, like in the old days.) "This is the Miss Rheingold contest brought back in a non-misogynistic way," Powell says.

Rheingold promoted the beer with a series of billboards on the sides of buildings in trendsetting downtown neighborhoods. One displayed Duyn bathing in a tub of bubbling beer. As the campaign gained momentum, the number of New York bars on Rheingold's customer list swelled from 100 to 800 in just six months, with a monthly average of 22 cases per bar account.

If you do the math, you'll find that Rheingold's return on investment is pretty good--$500,000 in promotion to win about $1.3 million in sales. But that's just extra fizz: The judges' focus in the Best Brand Relaunch category wasn't on immediately recouping the investment. It was on rebuilding lasting brand equity that had been lost or tarnished over time. "This is superb restaging of an old brand, viral marketing at its best," says Peter Sealey, CEO of ad agency Los Altos Group and one of the Business 2.0 Sweet Spot Award judges. (One jurist strongly dissented, however. "Ever notice how seldom beer ads are about the beer? Why is that?" asks Larry Keeley, president of Doblin, which advises on innovation strategy. "I hope my daughters don't grow up eager to become Miss Rheingold.")

Several judges also gave the campaign credit for cleverly co-opting local bartenders into the marketing. While it's hard to measure, support from behind the bar doubtless won Rheingold better placement and even a recommendation or two from the servers. "Bars are where the brand is going to be sampled and rebuild its relevancy," says Howard Steinberg, president of Source Marketing in Westport, Conn. "Enlisting bartenders is a smart way to ensure the brand is front and center on premise with the demographic that counts."

Now if only someone can figure out how to bring back those Amazin' Mets. --ELLEN NEUBORNE