Quick, which beer made its first-ever Super Bowl appearance in the past couple years, but has struggled with sales anyway? What was that? Bud Light Next? Well… uh, yes, actually, but I’m not talking about that one. (Is anybody?) I’m talking about a beer brand that’s been around for much longer, and frankly has much more to show for it: Blue Moon.

The craft-esque wheat beer only enjoyed a brief cameo in February 2023’s Super Bowl LVII, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it debut at the end of Molson Coors’ already crowded devil’s threeway with Miller Lite, Coors Light, and the betting platform DraftKings. But it was there, and some people “in the trade” thought that its debut was a bold stroke of beer-marketing genius. Adweek called the bizarre, multi-brand mashup “a killer return to the Big Game for Molson Coors.” Ad Age gushed, “Blue Moon hijacking the ad at the end — frankly it’s perfect. This is one of the more impressive campaigns of this Super Bowl season.”

Even some of my colleagues here at VinePair liked it. I thought it was try-hard and uninspired, particularly given that it came at a time when the macrobrewer’s workhorse flagships were firing on all cylinders, and its longtime foe, Anheuser-Busch InBev, had finally relinquished its death grip on national air during the Big Game. But there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.

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Beer companies use Super Bowl ads to emphasize priorities and fire up the troops in the middle tier for the all-important summer selling season. Blue Moon, first introduced to the American drinking public in 1995, had just about the best running start a brand could possibly hope for headed into 2023 (from a marketing standpoint, at least.) Molson Coors thought it had a hit on its hands. But the ensuing months have been underwhelming for the agéd orange-wheeled beer.

Though it continues to lead the craft segment (not as the Brewers Association defines it, but as most market research firms do) nationwide, topping a famously local/regional segment in national sales with the backing of the country’s second-biggest brewer is a little bit like being the fastest kid on a tricycle. Year-to-date, the brand family is down mid-to-high single digits in both volume and dollars in off-premise scans. (NB: It’s tracking more or less with the segment, depending on which data you look at and how you slice ‘em.) On-premise, Blue Moon is up a smidge, Brewbound noted from Molson Coors’ distributor meeting last month, though that comes with the usual caveats that draft is taking a pandemic-agnostic beating, and Americans buy the strong majority of their beer to drink elsewhere.

“While [the] Super Bowl helped to kick 2023 off strong, we acknowledge that overall this has been a challenging year,” said Courtney Benedict, Molson Coors’ vice president of marketing for above premium brands, per Brewbound’s Justin Kendall. “The business has softened, and our brand and our plans have not been where we need them to be.”

Those plans are headed in a new direction in 2024. Or really, a few old ones.

On the heels of its September wholesaler rendezvous, Molson Coors revealed a new marketing campaign and a full refresh on Blue Moon’s brand-family packaging designed to “show – not just tell – drinkers that Blue Moon is the bright, vibrant, modern brand we all know it to be,” as Benedict put it in the rollout announcement. Updating an old beer brand’s, er, branding is a time-honored way to try to convince younger drinkers that it’s not just the stuff their parents drank. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but it’s a smart dose of incrementalist lever-pulling before taking more drastic steps. (Like, for example, the ones New Belgium Brewing recently took by reformulating and rebranding its own aging stalwart, Fat Tire.)

Same goes for its also-announced release of Blue Moon Non-Alcoholic Belgian White. NA isn’t a big segment, but it’s way hotter now than it was when Coors Brewing Co. first rolled out Blue Moon in the mid-’90s, and you could imagine the citrus-friendly gateway brand competing moderately well in the space. Sure, why not?

Far more fascinating is what Molson Coors is doing to Blue Moon’s 95-calorie line extension, LightSky. The slim-can offshoot was a big success when it hit shelves in 2020, helping to protect the brand’s flank from the then-surging hard seltzer segment while carving into Michelob Ultra territory, but it’s lost a little luster lately. Now, in an effort to simplify the line and zhuzh up LightSky to attract the next generation of drinkers, the brewer will lop off the back half of the extension’s name. As of March 2024, when the rollout arrives in stores, Blue Moon LightSky is dead! Long live Blue Moon Light!

On its face, it’s a banal move, sort of like when Diddy decided the “P.” was coming between him and his fans, or when Sean Parker’s character in “The Social Network” (played by Justin Timberlake) encourages Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg to drop “The” from Facebook’s name. I think it’s fair enough — LightSky was too cute by half, and sounded like some sort of privacy-invading surveillance technology to boot. I don’t see it dramatically reversing the beer’s fortunes on its own, or that of its brand family. But I do think it’s revealing in a historical context.

Line extensions really hit their stride in the final quarter of the 20th century as the “Light Beer Wars” kicked off in earnest between the likes of Miller, Coors (then still separate companies), and the pre-InBev Anheuser-Busch. Back then, tacking “Light” onto the end of your flagship brand was considered a bold, even risky innovation. (So risky, in fact, that A-B rolled out Natural Light to test the waters before putting the Budweiser brand behind the trend in 1982 by releasing what we now know as Bud Light.) Those brewers, and many others, couldn’t resist rolling out newer, more absurd extensions to chase incremental growth over the intervening decades, eventually rendering the technique less of an innovation and more of an industry in-joke.

Then craft beer came along and seduced the American drinking public with the then-novel idea of full-flavored, sometimes outrageous beers bearing sometimes outrageous, one-off names like “Old Leghumper.” Then hard seltzer came along, cutting against a marketplace awash in over-the-top brands and complex flavors with ascetic, clinical commodity offerings. Extensions failed to compete meaningfully in either segment — not that established brands didn’t try. I think you could interpret Bud Light Next’s positioning and profile as an effort to glom onto hard seltzer’s success in beer form; I do not think you could interpret it as successful.

Now, with category sales struggling and spirits stealing share, we’re witnessing beer drinkers seek out familiar trends and brewers retrench around old but powerful ideas. Craft brewers are trying out light lagers. Modelo is following in Corona’s footsteps, laid four decades ago, in its march from Mexico to clear-bottled supremacy stateside. In a Goldilocks moment, when the category is trying to find its aesthetic footing between “too much” and “not enough,” calling the light version of Blue Moon “Blue Moon Light,” then calling it a day, just might be plenty.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

We talk a lot around here about how beer has struggled as a category to defend its market share against its surging spirits foe. If you think there are occasions that beer has always owned and will always own, you’ve got another thing coming, man. “Beer is losing at Buffalo Wild Wings,” said the sports-bar chain’s beverage director at Brewbound Talks in Denver last month. If people are swapping spirits for beer to fuel their all-day football fartfests at B-Dubs, that’s when you know it’s serious. And here we are.

📈 Ups…

The Smithsonian secured a trove of Anchor Brewing Co. artifacts for preservation, beer program curator Theresa McCulla announced this weekIowa’s best-selling craft beer brand is no longer Blue Moon, because Big Grove Brewing finally overtook it earlier this year… Tilray Brands officially closed its acquisition, announced earlier this year, of eight ABI brands… The #1 and #2 IPAs in the country are both Voodoo Ranger varietals, further clarifying a craft blueprint for success iN tHiS eCoNoMy… Stone Brewing Co.’s whopping $56 million trademark-suit victory over Molson Coors last year is upheld on appeal

📉 …and downs

Echoing the Brewers Association’s recent barrelage analysis, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione calls draft decline “a generational problem”… The National Beer Wholesalers Association’s monthly Beer Purchasers’ Index shows ordering trends still flat to down year-over-year after a stronger first half of 2023… Inflation is outpacing at-the-brewery beer sales year-over-year, suggesting craft brewers have hit price ceilings

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