Mike's Hard Lemonade Company

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Mike's Hard Lemonade Company

159 S. Jackson St., 4th Fl.
Seattle, Washington 98104
Telephone: (206) 267-4400
Fax: (866) 350-4095
Web site: www.mikeshardlemonade.com



Mike's Hard Lemonade Company, a Lakewood, Colorado-based subsidiary of Vancouver's the Mark Anthony Group Inc., in 1999 introduced Mike's Hard Lemonade, a sweet, malt-based alcoholic beverage vying for a place among an emerging group of products commonly called "malternatives." Malternatives, or ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages reminiscent of sodas and other sweet nonalcoholic drinks, were aimed at young people who wanted the experience and cachet of drinking alcohol but who did not care for the taste of beer, wine, or hard liquor. In an effort to establish a clear brand image in the face of increased competition, Mike's Hard Lemonade enlisted Cliff Freeman and Partners, a New York-based ad agency known for producing edgy, offbeat work, and in 2001 launched a campaign called "Hard Day."

The "Hard Day" campaign, whose two-year budget was estimated at $30 million, consisted of three television commercials in 2001 and three more in 2002. It established a distinctly beer-like, masculine product image while simultaneously sending up classic notions of masculinity as presented in beer commercials of an earlier era. The first year's spots featured blue-collar workers who, after being impaled by construction materials or losing limbs, cared more about their after-work Mike's Hard Lemonade than their injuries. In the second year the slapstick execution continued but was applied to horror-movie scenarios and was used to support an additional product, Mike's Hard Iced Tea.

Amid a flurry of new malternative products, Mike's Hard Lemonade positioned itself, thanks in large part to the "Hard Day" campaign, as one of the few brands in the category with a clear identity. As such, it outlasted the category's initial rush of increased competition and maintained its position as the number two malternative while other brands floundered.


In the late 1990s a new category of beer-like beverages hit the U.S. market. Called "malternatives" by their partisans and "alcopops" by detractors who believed that they appealed principally to underage drinkers, the beverages were malt-based (like beer and whiskey) but much sweeter than traditional alcoholic drinks. Among the first wave of these products was a lemonade-like drink called Hooper's Hooch, popular in Australia, which arrived in America in 1996. Several competing citrus-flavored brands appeared in quick succession, among them Mike's Hard Lemonade, which was launched in 1999.

As more and more companies entered the malternatives arena, widespread industry speculation began about the future of the category. Many predicted that the new wave of products would go the way of wine coolers, which, in the 1980s, similarly relied on sweetness to appeal to drinkers who did not like the taste of traditional alcoholic beverages. After generating big-budget advertising campaigns and scores of new brands, the wine-cooler category faded dramatically in the latter part of that decade. Another noteworthy beer-like alternative, the Adolph Coors Co.'s Zima, had seen sporadic market success since its 1993 launch but had in general failed to live up to expectations, despite significant marketing and promotion efforts.


Mike's Hard Lemonade, like other malternatives, projected a beer-like image to appeal to twentysomething young adults, especially newly legal drinkers who did not have a taste for beer or other alcoholic beverages. The sweetness of the product's flavor promised a natural transition for young people used to drinking soda, and Mike's strove to create a bold, exciting sensibility in its marketing. The spots in the first year of the "Hard Day" campaign each focused on masculine toughness, thereby distancing the drink from potential charges that it might be insufficiently manly—an image problem that had haunted malternative predecessor Zima—while simultaneously sending up that very idea to appeal to irony-savvy young people. Whereas a previous generation's beer commercials had sincerely extolled hard work and endurance and had positioned particular beer brands as a man's natural reward at the end of a long day, "Hard Day" offered scenarios in which workingmen were severely maimed on the job but still looked forward, absurdly, to their end-of-day Mike's Hard Lemonade.

Critics contended that both the sweet taste and the bold image of drinks like Mike's Hard Lemonade were evidence that the true target market for the malternative category was 14- to 18-year-olds. As George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the New York Times, "these products are designed to disguise the taste of alcohol and are jazzed up to more resemble nonalcoholic beverages … Forty-year-olds don't drink this, nor do they respond to the advertising." Another advocacy group, the National Consumers League, in 2000 filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding Mike's Hard Lemonade, claiming that it was "the perfect introductory drink for teenagers raised on soda and other sweet beverages." The FTC took no action on the complaint.


After leading the malternative category in 2000, Mike's Hard Lemonade saw its competition increase dramatically in 2001, the year that "Hard Day" was launched. Its most noteworthy competitor, and the category leader for that year and subsequent years, was Diageo's Smirnoff Ice. With the rapid growth of the top-two malternatives, domestic beer giants began teaming with hard-alcohol brands to offer numerous new product entries, flooding the category in 2002. Industry estimates put malternative-related ad spending at $300-$450 million for that year.

In the first six months of 2001 Smirnoff Ice—which, despite its association with the Smirnoff Vodka brand, was malt-based, like Mike's Hard Lemonade—was the beneficiary of a national, $50 million ad campaign. Similar in tone to "Hard Day," the campaign was called "Smooth Move" and showed drinkers of the beverage going to outlandish extremes to secure their Smirnoff Ice. In one spot a young man was shown putting honey on his friend while on a wilderness fishing trip, so that the friend would be busy fending off bear attacks and therefore would be unable to drink any of the Smirnoff Ice they had brought. Not only did Smirnoff Ice benefit from its association with its hard-liquor namesake, but it was believed that advertising for the malternative lifted brand awareness and sales of Smirnoff Vodka. Smirnoff Ice sales reached $615 million in 2001; the brand sold almost twice as many cases as Mike's, its nearest competitor. Diageo anted up $100 million for a 2002 advertising campaign, and the company purchased and refurbished an old Pabst beer brewery to accommodate increased production of Smirnoff Ice.


Cliff Freeman and Partners, the advertising agency behind "Hard Day," was known for its edgy, outrageous ideas. In addition to its Mike's Hard Lemonade work, the agency had made waves in the industry for using cannon-fired gerbils in a spot for online superstore Outpost.com. Notable flops, too, were blamed on the agency's penchant for the extreme. For instance, a commercial for Midas Mufflers that used a topless elderly woman lost Freeman the Midas account. Despite its reputation, however, the agency's résumé included some of the most prominent mainstream American advertising in recent decades, including the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" and the Little Caesars "Pizza Pizza" campaigns.

America's leading domestic beer makers, Anheuser-Busch and Miller, were slow to enter the malternative category, presumably believing, along with many in the industry, that the beverage type represented a fad unworthy of the enormous expenditures associated with product launches. As the category grew, however, the brewing giants changed course dramatically, rushing to find branding partners and introduce liquor-associated malternatives. Anheuser-Busch and Bacardi introduced Bacardi Silver with an estimated $60 million ad campaign in 2002, using the tagline "Your night just got more interesting." Miller partnered with Skyy Vodka to promote Skyy Blue, earmarking more than $40 million for the product's marketing while preparing to unveil additional malternative lines Sauza Diablo, Stolichnaya Citrona, and Jack Daniel's Original Hard Cola. Coors, which had long had a malternative product in Zima, rebranded the ailing beverage with a 2002 campaign intended to appeal to young men and launched a fruit-flavored extension of the brand called Vibe.


"Hard Day" was launched in the spring of 2001 with three 30-second television spots and an estimated budget of $15 million. The 2002 installment of the campaign ran with an equal budget and number of spots. In keeping with the brand's attempt to connect to young males in particular, the commercials aired on such cable stations as Fox Sports Net, ESPN, and Comedy Central.

In 2001 the "Hard Day" spots took the form and principles of classic beer advertising to absurd extremes, showing workers getting horrifically maimed but shrugging off their injuries at the prospect of an after-work Mike's Hard Lemonade. In one spot a construction worker was shown falling 20 stories and being impaled on a steel bar. Noticing the bar protruding from the man's chest, his foreman suggested that the injury might warrant a trip to the doctor. "Or maybe," the injured man answered, "we should get a delicious Mike's Hard Lemonade instead." As the scene shifted to a barroom, a drinking buddy was shown casually using the steel bar, still implanted in the man's chest, as a bottle opener, while a voice-over proclaimed, "A hard day calls for a hard lemonade. Make it Mike's." In another spot the same concept was applied to a lumberjack who accidentally chopped off his lower leg with an axe. Noting sadly, "My wife just bought me them boots yesterday," he retired to a bar, where he and his coworkers jovially clinked bottles, one playfully using the amputated (and still booted) foot instead of a bottle, as the voice-over delivered the "Hard Day" tagline. The third commercial, meanwhile, featured an aquarium worker who lost a hand while offering a snack to a killer whale.

As Adweek's Barbara Lippert noted, the extreme violence of the commercials was not offensive "because the spots are so aggressively and unabashedly dumb, fake and deadpan." In addition to the obvious appeal of slapstick humor, in parodying not only traditional beer advertising but the more widespread advertising tactic of suggesting that a product could cure what ailed the consumer, the commercials appealed to the young target audience's desire to be among an exclusive, knowing group who considered themselves superior to such outdated pitches. As Bob Garfield wrote in Advertising Age, "the blue-collar-reward storylines provide perfect cover for the real message—which is not 'Yo, Joe Sixpack, here's an alternative to beer,' but instead, 'Hey, look at us! We're funny and cool, and if you get our jokes, so are you!'"

The campaign's second season marked an extension of this brand of ironic humor with a similarly deadpan treatment of outrageous storylines as well as a continuation of the "Hard Day" tagline. Rather than continuing to parody classic beer ads, however, the three spots that appeared in 2002 focused on horror-movie scenarios. In one an affectionate couple was seen loading groceries into their car, when suddenly a pack of monkey-like aliens parachuted from the sky and abducted the wife. "Wow, that sucks," a bystander said to the husband. "Looks like you could use a refreshing Mike's Hard Lemonade." After a short pause the man turned to the bystander and said, "You're on!" In the standard closing bar scene one of the aliens was shown stealing the husband's Mike's Hard Lemonade.

The other two 2002 commercials were used to promote a new product, Mike's Hard Iced Tea. In one spot a female coworker approached a downcast man at his cubicle. "What's wrong?" she asked. "I think I've grown a second evil head," he answered. Coolly surveying the evil head protruding from his collar, the woman said, "Sorry. What if we go out to get a refreshing Mike's Hard Iced Tea. Would that help?" The evil head, while ogling the woman's breasts, added, "I didn't know Mike's made a hard iced tea." In the other Hard Iced Tea spot, a man getting an ultrasound found that the stomach pains he had been experiencing were caused by a nest of snakelike fetuses. Told that he did not have long to live, the man asked the doctor if he had time enough to go out and get a Mike's Hard Iced Tea, and the doctor answered that he did not know there was such a product. "You bet!" the patient answered.


Mike's Hard Lemonade managed to establish and maintain its distinct brand image in a flooded market while spending, on "Hard Day," a fraction of the amount allotted to brands backed by bigger companies. Mike's sold 13 million cases in 2001 (up from its 1999 total of 1.1 million cases) and, with Smirnoff Ice, pushed the category's share of the overall beer market to 2.5 percent, a level of success that predecessors Zima and Hooper's Hooch never approached. In 2002 Mike's sold 11.5 million cases in the face of proliferating competition, establishing itself as one of the few malternative brands with staying power. As of 2005 Mike's and Smirnoff Ice remained the top-two malternative brands, together accounting for 74 percent of the category's sales. That year Mike's Hard Lemonade Company left its Denver-area home for Seattle, a move intended to increase the company's ability to attract creative talent while bringing it geographically closer to its Vancouver-based parent, the Mark Anthony Group. The company planned to expand its operations after completing the move.


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                                            Mark Lane