6:10 p.m. Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street NE
VanHoozer delivers box of plastic cups, emblazoned with PBR logos. “These are like gold,” he says.
In the corporate parlance of the Pabst Brewing Co., Dan VanHoozer is a “creative.”
VanHoozer, of course, hates that term. The way he sees it, he and his 20 or so analogues across the country are folks “who want to make shit happen in their cities.” It’s just that they happen to work for a firm that understands the marketing upside to making shit happen—a strategy that’s still going strong seven years after cultural thinkers started dissecting it.
Pivoting off the unlikely discovery that PBR had a following among bike messengers and indie rockers, the beer’s brand managers opted for an approach that eschewed television ads and big-ticket sponsorships in favor of potlucks and art shows. In the process, people like VanHoozer may have become unlikely patrons of their local arts scenes.
A theater type when he’s not working for PBR, VanHoozer maintains a professional calendar that regularly crisscrosses the District’s youngish, smallish creative class. With beer, cash, swag, or all of the above, he links arms with local names like The Pink Line Project, Hillyer Artspace, DC Rollergirls, Worn magazine, and the photographer Adam de Boer. In April, he supplied Andrew Wodzianski’s live-in art stunt on U Street NW with beer and PBR stickers. When area coffeehouses battle in Thursday Night Throwdowns—latte-art competitions, basically—VanHoozer’s there to lend a brewsky. Next weekend, he’ll help artist Kelly Towles drape Strathmore Mansion’s façade in parachutes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude style.
And on this beautiful early-October weekend, VanHoozer’s agenda contains a handful of D.C. bars that include hipster haunts and rooms full of Hill staffers. But the main event is the grand opening of Arlington County’s new Artisphere in Rosslyn. The space will be blanketed with PBR cans and PBR balloons for a fête thrown by The Pink Line Project, Philippa Hughes’ art calendar and social incubator, and the art-scenester megasite Brightest Young Things.
To go by BYT editor Svetlana Legetic, VanHoozer won’t have to do much convincing to woo her savvy crowd. “The best thing about PBR is that you know exactly what PBR is,” Legetic says. “PBR is not trying to persuade you that they’re some microbrewery that will change your life. It’s a great brand for a certain audience—a badge of honor for certain things.”
6:41 p.m. Hamilton’s Bar & Grill on Capitol Hill
VanHoozer hands a bucket of PBRs to table of drinkers. “Are you shitting me?” yells oafish beneficiary. Revelers have stacked the empty cans in pyramid; VanHoozer snaps a picture.
Officially, PBR hates the word “hipster.” VanHoozer’s boss, PBR Vice President for Brand Building Bryan Clarke, says he isn’t comfortable with the term, even though a half-decade of overuse has left it mostly meaningless. When he sees “hipster,” Clark says, the reference is usually pejorative.
Besides, he says, “We’re just as happy with other people drinking it.”
All the same, Clarke’s description of PBR’s die-hards sounds awfully hip. “The most loyal people who drink it are super-interesting people, whether its artists or people who play in bands or rugby players—as long as interesting people are drinking it, that appeals to a broader group of people,” he says. “If you cultivate loyalty among interesting people, other people will want to drink it, too.”
It’s a strategy whose creation myth Rob Walker captured in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article. The brand, created in the 1800s, had for two decades been in decline. Then, in 2002, it saw 5.3 percent uptick in sales. In Portland, Ore., a sales rep reported that “these alternative people’’ were “starting to get into the brand,” explained Neal Stewart, Clarke’s predecessor.
Marketing managers took it from there: There were no marquee sponsorships (NPR Music is about the biggest); instead PBR threw its weight behind heaps of low-impact, high-cachet events. It kept the retro design of its can. It became an “underdog” brand.
“It’s a way to differentiate themselves from other people,” Clarke says. “Ski-instructor and snowboard culture, people who play rugby—they’re not concerned with being on the corporate ladder. They’re doing what they love.” He thinks Walker’s article slightly over-academicized PBR’s efforts. “Our approach is, ‘How do you support those people who helped put us back on the map?’”
The strategy has worked. Sales of the beer totaled $165 million last year. In D.C., bar sales are up 60 percent this year, according to Clarke, and were up 85 percent in 2009, VanHoozer’s first year on the job. The company considers D.C. an “emerging market.”
“Three to four years ago it was barely on the map in D.C.,” Clarke says.
VanHoozer and Clarke are cagey about sharing exact numbers, but say VanHoozer dispenses several hundred cases of PBR each year (he also arranges for cheap bulk buys). VanHoozer says his cash budget is “less than you’d think” and that most of the support he offers is product—that is, beer and swag.
VanHoozer says he’s not a hipster, whatever that means—“I joke with my bosses that I look like a deadbeat lawyer”—but that he shares the company’s ethos. “I want people to drink the beer if they like the beer,” he says. When he’s helping out an event, he tries to avoid lending a PBR banner. Stacks of cans and more inventive swag seem to do the trick better. Not looking like every other beer marketing scheme in the world is a plus, too.
But the best advertisement is putting the beer in the right hands. If those hands end up in front of, say, a Brightest Young Things photographer, it’s only good for PBR.