Earlier this week I sat down on the phone with representatives of MillerCoors, including Vice President of Innovation David Kroll and brewmaster Manny Manuele to talk about their new product about to receive a huge marketing push — Miller Fortune. That discussion centered on the process of innovation and product development for a piece I was writing for Paste Magazine, but I also wanted to write something here with the part of the story I truly found most interesting.
What made me want to interview someone from MillerCoors in the first place was some of the early difficulty the company had in getting accurate branding into the public consciousness for Miller Fortune, their new high-alcohol lager. From just a few words taken out of context, seemingly dozens of blogs and reputable publications ended up spreading incorrect information that could have influenced public perception of the new product. It was an interesting case study in the accidental spread of misinformation and subsequent damage control.
Here's what Miller Fortune actually is: A 6.9 % ABV “golden-amber lager” that comes in a jet-black bottle, designed to compete directly against the rapidly expanding spirits market in America. Kroll and Manuele admitted as such: Liquor has been on a great run for the last decade and has been swiping precious percentage points from beer. Miller Lite sales have been slumping for years now. Fortune is their attempt to recapture some of that market share by going after the drinkers (presumably young drinkers) who are favoring hard liquor as their drink of choice. They're looking to co-opt everything about the imagery of liquor they can to play off some of those same product associations.
Where those associations END, however, is how Fortune actually tastes. After an off-hand line in this Bloomberg feature that said the beer's taste profile “hinted at bourbon,” many publications began posting things about Miller's new “bourbon-flavored lager.” Some made it sound as if the product was artificially flavored, which it simply isn't. Others showed a basic lack of understanding about beer, such as Time Magazine, which said “Miller Fortune is brewed with Cascade hops to give it its bourbon-like flavor.”
That's all well and good, except Cascade hops tend to taste more like grapefruit and nothing like bourbon. I could get high and mighty, telling them to “do their research,” but this isn't the sort of thing you can really expect some business writer to know and it's a pointless thing to condemn. Their actual mistake was not in a misunderstanding of beer flavors but in not seeking accurate information from the brewers, who would no doubt have corrected them.
Unfortunately, this was the danger inherent in trying to package the product in such a way as to mimic everything else about bourbon and whiskey. MillerCoors even recommends Miller Fortune be poured into and consumed from a rocks glass, where slow and careful sipping/contemplation will allow more nuanced flavors to emerge as it warms. It was inevitable, with such a close association to that sort of bourbon imagery, there would be people confused about what they should expect to taste. MillerCoors should have been prepared to go out of their way in disabusing any notion that it was an artificially flavored product, because it LOOKS like it would be an artificially flavored product and many people are too lazy to do the research.
As for how it actually tastes, I haven't had a chance to find out yet. Miller Fortune has hit beer shelves, but I'm currently waiting for an official press kit/samples to arrive in the mail. I can't say that I'm expecting much, but I do believe that every product deserves to be fairly assessed and written about in an accurate way.
In the coming weeks, national TV, print and radio ads for Miller Fortune should start showing up, which should continue helping to define what the product actually is and isn't. Hopefully, MillerCoors is prepared for any future confusion it generates with its calculated spirits imagery.