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Earned Media, Irony-Style: What PBR Learned

Brands given some street cred can get an unexpected boost, but when hipness reaches a saturation point, sales can fade.

Paid media and owned media have a secure place in marketing tactics, but a true marketing coup is earned media: Getting viral shout-outs from customers is marketing bliss. The Pabst Blue Ribbon beer story is an expression of earned media with an unusual twist: hipsters latched on to a faded brand and took up its cause with a nod and a wink. The PBR tale is a narrower slice of consumers and trends, something we might call “irony cred.”
PBR is the irony cred paradigm. Pabst is the brew dads used to drink 50 years ago, because it was cheap and it tasted remotely of beer. “Cheap and almost-beer” kept PBR alive, somewhere toward the back of the beer cave in stores, but it remained a ho-hum brand. But then, some hipster pubs  — and indeed it may have first been in Portlandia — started serving PBR on tap.
So, in the midst of a craft beer explosion, there strutted forth a no-craft backlash by a certain crowd, proudly brandishing PBR as a badge of iconoclasm. An unexpected plus for Pabst Brewing Company, whose sales had been tanking for years. In its familiar ribbony cans and in pints from the tap, PBR started being requested in hipster watering holes in urban settings.
This Fast Company piece on positioning Hendrick’s Gin details some of the dynamics of coaxing earned media without heavy-handed marketing, using the PBR phenomenon as the model. Pabst got wind of the unusual, hipster-spurred sales spikes, and approached marketing with a restrained and clever tack: don’t advertise in mainstream media — abhorred by the hipster contingent — but have the brand be a sponsor at uncommon events, like alternative music festivals or skateboarding competitions.
Of course, irony can turn on itself: since hipsters allegedly identify with non-mainstream events, films, foods and fashion, when something, like the ascendancy of PBR, becomes average or starts appearing everywhere, it ain’t hip. And what about the old consumer contingent diluting the new message with the old: The horror of seeing grey-haired dads, unironically drinking PBR. Dads will never understand armpit tattoos or angular haircuts, but some still drink PBR because their dads did. (Cue hipster eye-rolling.)
The mainstreaming of PBR finds those booming sales not booming so loudly the last couple of years. And it might be the culminating death knell that the new owners of Pabst announced in 2015 that they were going to start producing new craft beers. So unhip.
Irony cred really can put some wind in the sails of sales, but winds have a tendency to die down. Some time ago, Ugg boots were kind of a niche product, beloved by surfers and perhaps pet cats who loved to crawl into the pairs thrown into the back of closets. But then some star — was it Gwyneth Paltrow? — was seen wearing them on a N.Y.C. street, and they exploded, so that they then appeared on top models and other stars, and then much later were worn with pride (“they’re ugly but I love them”) by regular folks out doing regular things.
Unexpected viral trends can lift a brand or product to swift, unexpected heights (though those are ideal places from which to fall). Even though Ugg does still sell a lot of strange shoes, and spawned a bunch of copycat spinoffs, things are quieter in Uggland now because the irony cred fizzled. Earned media is obviously precious to brands, but is a tricky thing to cultivate. Brands never want to be seen as the Great and Terrible Oz, manipulating consumer lust behind the screens. That’s what paid media is for.
The same sort of lost wind is taking place at American Apparel and Urban Outfitter—suddenly the hoodies that were the cool thing are now a suburban thing. Individuality as a commodity doesn’t break any boundaries or toy with any stereotypes. Authenticity is elusive when it’s posed.
T-shirt sales rocketed after Marlon Brando was seen wearing them in Streetcar Named Desire. The story goes that no one made those tight, fitted Ts that Brando wore in the film—they were customized for him. But an anti-hero like Brando was as hip as it got back in ’51. Brando couldn’t have imagined how T-shirts would become billboards, but he probably would wear a vintage Joy Division T now if he were still around.
So hipness waxes and wanes, and what’s ironic now might be tragic later. Who knows, maybe Ryan Gosling will bring back Doc Martens, adding platform heels. And maybe those folks that got those PBR tattoos can have them altered into handlebar mustaches. Are those still hip?

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