The Diaspora Report: Ex-Pittsburghers, Iron City beer wants you
Iron City made a cameo appearance at the Portland International Beerfest last weekend, to the indifference of approximately everyone. But expect more out-of-state sightings and advertising if the president of Iron City Brewing makes good on his word -- and if the company intends to survive as an independent brand.
You've read by now that Iron City Brewing Co. has moved its production to Latrobe, which itself lost a homegrown brewer when Rolling Rock left town a few years ago. As the unofficial drink of the Pittsburgh Diaspora, Iron City beer (along with I.C. Light) figures to lose some unknown share of the local drinkers who supported it not because the Monongahela Bubbly was the tastiest beer around, or even the best value, but because it was a Pittsburgh institution, brewed here and bottled here since the Civil War.
Tim Hickman, Iron City president, told The Wall Street Journal that he plans to direct marketing money to the Pittsburgh Nation, "people who moved out of the city in recent decades, when its manufacturing base weakened, and settled in places like New York, Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C.
"What we lose here in Pittsburgh we're going to be picking up two and three times that in these outer markets," he said.
That seems awfully hopeful, especially given their stated marketing budget of $1.5 million, which is less, for example, than the $4 million that Latrobe Brewing was spending on its annual Rolling Rock media campaign -- back in 1988.
And even then, Rolling Rock was struggling to staunch the "brand drift" typical among 20-somehings. "Many who enjoyed it during their college years drifted to other brands, frequently because of poor marketing on the part of Rolling Rock," reported The New York Times. Affection for the beer didn't disappear, but you have to meet the buyers halfway on price point and availability.
Today? Rolling Rock has been sold, moved and is for sale once again by its corporate master, Anheuser-Busch InBev. Sales fell 13 percent from 2007 to 2008, and 33 percent since 2004. It's tough out there for the small-town lagers, even when they're owned by huge multinationals.
So where does that leave the likes of Iron City Brewing, allegedly too small to take on the big boys and too big to position itself as a microbrew?
Think of this as a nice beta experiment for the people out there who hope and believe that the Pittsburgh Diaspora has the potential to be a potent economic force. Everybody misses their hometown, but Pittsburghers, the theory goes, are uniquely fond and defensive of their city, their sports teams and, perhaps, even their beer.
"We've been saying all along that the Pittsburgh Nation is" an untapped audience, said Evan Contorakes, head of Ronin Advertising Group, the Miami-based ad agency that is organizing Iron City's new campaign. The campaign's name?
"One City. One Nation. One Beer."
Sounds pitch-perfect for the far-flung, Steelers-loving Diaspora. But don't expect a huge media rollout. Back in 1988, when Rolling Rock was spending its ad money on billboards and radio and TV spots, there was no e-mail, no Twitter, no Facebook. Mr. Contorakes hopes to use the Internet's social networking capabilities to not only promote the brand in Texas, Florida and California, but also -- and more importantly -- identify the bars where Pittsburgh expats go, and use that information to get Iron City and I.C. Light stocked at nearby beer distributors.
By his figuring, the hundreds of thousands of people who left the city in the '70s, '80s and '90s (and he's one of them -- he lived in Washington, Pa., until moving to Florida in the 1980s) all have kids now.
"This could be a million people," he said. "They're going to do the work for us," by feeding the data to Iron City, reducing the money and legwork that goes into product placement. "It's going to be really interesting, this experiment."
The experiment is now under way: Iron City began production began at the old Latrobe Brewing Company facility on Wednesday. The new ad campaign, meanwhile, is expected to debut within the next few weeks, and the new Web site -- onecityonenation.com -- is set to go live on Aug. 1.
So can an old brewer fend off years of bad management, industry consolidation and the rise of craft brews? Can this low-budget, high-hopes ad campaign succeed, or will it be remembered as just another ill-fated grassroots guerrilla marketing plan? For every "viral" campaign that reaches the summit, dozens can't even find a toe-hold.
The coming months and years will supply the answers. But be sure of this: If Iron City survives, the Pittsburgh Diaspora will play a key role.
And if it doesn't?
Plenty of us will be disappointed, but no one will be surprised. People really liked Duke pilsner, too -- until the brewery, and then the label, faded away.
First Published July 24, 2009 12:00 am