The Sledgehammer

The Cheap Beer Challenger Brand

February 2, 2023

There’s no shortage of beer advertisements in this world.

The Most Interesting Man in the World. The quest to find your beach. Mountain views with a can as cold as the Rockies. Clydesdales during the Super Bowl. The list is endless, and the ad spend is enormous. It seems the only way to watch TV without the interruption of big brands urging you to crack open a cold one is to avoid TV entirely.

You could probably recall a multimillion-dollar campaign for every beer your local dive bar has on draft. Well, almost every beer. Because when was the last time you saw an ad for Pabst Blue Ribbon? Probably never. While most light beer brands are funneling cash to television networks in a fight to reach your screen, PBR doesn’t really pour their marketing dollars into that particular glass.

Image Credit: Pabst Blue Ribbon Website

The brand — whose taste has been affectionately described as “soaking Wonder Bread in carbonated water” — has an unconventional trajectory. Founded in 1844, its sales peaked in 1977, only to slide sharply throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In our lifetimes, the company has been a hot potato; it was bought and sold and then bought and sold again. By 2001, PBR’s sales had plummeted 90% since the mid ’70s. The brand was looking… umm, skunked.

But then some PBR sales reps noticed that in the Pacific Northwest, a curious crowd of folks had cozied up to the brand: bike messengers.

There are various theories for the cultural forces at work here, but this (stereotypically) pierced, tatted, and nonconforming audience seemed to have been drawn by the fact that PBR doesn’t do advertising. Sales reps tell stories of going into dive bars in Portland incognito — no Pabst polos, no company logos — and then getting swamped for PBR swag once word got out that they were there. PBR, like the bike messenger, was a “retro-chic” underdog. It lived on the fringes.

At this point, a more foolish brand might recognize the regional trend and then plaster their target geography with billboards. But not Pabst. After all, the lack of flashy promotion is how they carved out their niche group of consumers in the first place. They played it cool. They sat back and let the opportunities come to them, rather than the other way around.

PBR sponsored events like the “bike polo” tournament in Portland, possibly without attendees even knowing. They were happy to contribute prize money without any formal recognition or glossy banners. Instead of concerning themselves with national ad campaigns, they embraced the local events happening within alternative communities. They showed up supporting skateboard movie screenings, scooter rallies, kickball and dodgeball tournaments, art galleries, and independent publishers. But at each of these events they kept their presence minimal and understated. Because trying too hard would defeat the purpose entirely and tarnish their laid-back nonconformist persona.

Images from: PBR Art Live Painting Triangle Tour by Imagine Circus

And so, their decidedly glass-half-empty sales trajectory got a refill. Their numbers turned around into positive territory after the early 2000s slump, and sales soared in certain markets. During the recession of the aughts, PBR’s sales increased about 30X greater than the category average. By 2013, their sales had increased by 200% from a decade earlier. And today, PBR is still cruising as one of the top-selling beer brands in the country.

Since their underground days, PBR’s visibility has grown, but they’ve stayed true to their antimarketing marketing strategy. They continue to eschew traditional advertising in favor of PR-friendly activities that court their most fervent brand evangelists. They launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign,, through which they sent people free PBR-branded home goods and actually paid them for advertising “in home.” In describing this unorthodox campaign, the company claimed “Pabst Blue Ribbon’s ads need a home and they’d rather pay you than a media fat cat.” So, while some folks might sport their favorite beer on a t-shirt, PBR fans could rep Pabst anywhere from their toilet seat to their cutting boards (and even make some extra beer money while doing it).

In 2019, they launched a 99-pack; 2 years later, they launched a 1,776-pack on the Fourth of July. This year, they expanded to an 1,844-pack to commemorate the company’s founding year. So, as you might have guessed, their targeting has broadened. PBR is now speaking to a wider audience than just bike messengers — but their dissenting antiestablishment, antiadvertising mentality has remained consistent.

There are a few reasons we find this Challenger story compelling:

1. Beer. ‘Nuff said.

2. PBR lets enthusiastic customers form the identity of the brand. Pabst was not looking for bike messengers in 2001, and certainly not actively courting them to be spokespersons. But the brand was smart enough to see the opportunity in front of them. PBR realized what was so special about this development: they didn’t need to spend millions on ads to convince people to drink PBR. They had brand evangelists who were willing to do the work for them. So PBR then met the audience on their terms and allowed that audience to be the true voice of the brand.

3. PBR zigs when other beer brands zag. The beer industry likely spends over half a billion dollars per year in TV advertising. PBR’s share of that? Zero. In the last 20 years, Pabst has avoided the urge to jump on the TV (and other traditional forms of advertising) bandwagon.

4. PBR has stayed focused in their marketing strategy. As zany as their promotions are, PBR is pretty disciplined. There’s a clear strategic throughline across all of their activities — one that prioritizes authenticity, is in on the joke, and realizes that marketing and advertising are not the same thing. It’s the reason why they’ve rejected several major deal offerings, including celebrity endorsements and major sporting-event sponsorships.

5. PBR’s marketing is just plain fun! While certainly trickier for healthcare brands, PBR’s marketing plan affords it the opportunity to not take itself too seriously, and the more fun they had in their advertising, the more their fans wanted in on the joke with them.

By taking a step back and discovering an important insight about a new customer base, PBR was emboldened to eschew the traditional forms of advertising and embrace the unconventional. Healthcare brands who are thirsty for a marketing buzz can take a healthy swig of this cheap beer Challenger recipe: Knowing and staying true to your brand’s identity while forging authentic relationships with your audience may do more for your bottom line than even the biggest marketing budgets.

At any given time, there are hundreds of actual sledgehammers floating around the Heartbeat office and resting on shelves in Heartbeaters’ homes. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge — a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way — here comes The Sledgehammer.