Thursday, October 25, 2007

Baltika WOM

You’re gonna start thinking that Signalwriter is a beer blog – back-to-back posts about the world’s oldest beverage and all. Sue me.

This is really about word-of-mouth, WOM for the uninitiated.

I ran across and sampled Baltika (“The famous beer of Russia”) when Barbara and I had dinner at a new Houston restaurant, Bohemia. Don’t rush, despite the B4-U-EAT reviews; but it had several varieties of this Russian beer. I had the Baltika No. 9. It turns out that [a] the number on the label indicates the alcoholic strength of the beer and [b] the Baltika line includes 2-9. No. 9 was a fine pale beer…and strong like bull. Reminded me of a Bulgarian beer I had in Athens last year, but crisper.

Last week, we attended the birthday party of artist Howard Sherman, at his Commerce Street Art Warehouse studio. We brought some beer along for the party and gifted him with a smuggled-in bottle of He’Brew Monumental Jewbilation beer.

He pulled out a couple of bottles of Baltika No. 4 which is a dark beer with 5.6% alcohol: very tasty. I like a dark beer. He said a friend of his turned him on to it and he’s been drinking it for the past few weeks. There’s a No. 6, a porter that I’d like to try, and No. 8 is Baltika’s wheat beer. (Jewish beer, Russian beer...maybe we can have a progrom.)

Off I went to the website (by Web Design New York), which has a pleasant Flash opening with balalaika music. Along with Baltika Beer history and descriptions, there’s a long segment from CNBC’s “Lunch Break.” Somebody really did a great PR job on this: the talking heads taste-tested Baltika against Heineken and Beck’s on camera and had some fun doing it.

So here’s this broad line of beers from Russia. I get the impression that its US marketing is mostly WOM, backed up with a good website and some decent public relations activity. There’s an opportunity for premium imports here in America, though beer sales are “sluggish” domestically, according last week’s Wall Street Journal. The same article (October 18, 2007) notes that Baltika could end up being owned by the giant Danish brewer Carlsburg, because of consolidation efforts.

How come? Economics. Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, Heineken’s chief executive, said in an interview last month that the beer industry today takes so much capital, it isn’t worth the expense being in many of the world’s markets unless your company is either the No. 1 or No. 2 player.

Baltika is the No. 1 selling beer in Russia. Its website proclaims, “…the OAO Baltika Brewery is in no way inferior to the world’s leaders in beer production.” I suppose the question is, will WOM be enough to make Baltika Nos. 2-9 a bigger player in our market? Likely not. But if the brand gets big-brewer horsepower (and advertising) behind it, there’s no reason why it can’t be right up there with the other premium Euro-imports. Besides, it’s good beer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Orange Miller?

Signalwriter thought it was a Halloween promotion: the Miller High Life beer can in orange and black. It feels like Halloween, complete with the famous “Girl in the Moon” symbol; she looks somewhat like a witch sitting on the crescent, that age-old symbol of the Old Religion. This is actually a very attractive can in traditional trick-or-treat dress.

It’s really all about this year’s hunting season, part of a special promo for hunters, announced back at the end of August:

Since its introduction in 1903, Miller High Life has joined countless hunting trips throughout the United States, providing high-quality refreshment as hunters swap stories after a day in the woods, field or marsh. This fall, Miller High Life is donning its own blaze orange attire and hunting-themed packaging to make sure consumers are properly equipped for their post-hunt celebrations.

To this day, I’m more familiar with the clear glass bottles (my daddy used to drink Miller High Life, way back before “Miller Time.” Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee was a house staple in those days, a regular part of the Paul Baron Saturday lunch.)

Any road, Miller intro’d a complete package for hunters – the carton has a hunting motif and the cans are supposed to be blaze orange. Interesting, because the photograph Miller itself released makes the can look golden.

According to High Life senior brand manager Kevin Oglesby, quoted in the company news release, “Miller High Life has been closely associated with the outdoors and hunting for more than 100 years, so this initiative is truly a reflection of many of our consumers, and a way to acknowledge their support of Miller High Life.”

“Plus, now it will be even easier to spot a can of Miller High Life in a hunter’s crowded refrigerator.” That’s one option, though it wouldn’t have occurred to me…I’ve never had any trouble locating the beer on any hunting trip I’ve ever been on.

Better yet, because the orange-and-black cans really do carry the Halloween spirit forward, I’m thinking I’ll get a couple dozen and use them as handouts when the little Britney Spearses and Spider Men come ringing our doorbell on October 31st.

“Trick or treat,” they’ll say. And I’ll deposit a beautifully themed can of Miller High Life in every sack and bag. Conscientious parents, checking their kids’ take for the evening, will appreciate that – for them – it really is Miller Time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tree Assignment

This is a test of the Emergency Poetry Writing System.
Your assignment is “Tree,”
The thing you never hope to see
Something more beautiful than.

You plain don’t see a tree the way you see a cloud.
You’re never on your back beneath one
Thinking of the leaves’ mast: There’s a rabbit.
There’s a running man.

You do hear it warning, though, on windy days.
Shaking its head to slip the blow, it hopes.
What can it do but stand tall, take it
As only a big tree can.

If this had been an actual emergency, your assignment would be “God.”

Copyright © 2003, Richard Laurence Baron. Photo courtesy of University of California at Santa Cruz, with thanks.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Bean Price

“I hear you have a potent magic,” Shabaka finally said to the far older man in front of the hillside cave.

Shabaka was dark; the ancient darker still. By firelight, half their bodies were in shadow but their faces gleamed as they drank beer and made polite conversation. There was silence for a time. Then: “If I had such magic,” answered the old man, “would I reveal it to every traveler who passes by?”

Long before he was King of Nubia, Shabaka walked the length and breadth of Kush, from Abu Simbel to Meroe. He met many people and listened carefully to many tales, always enjoying a good one himself. “I just wondered if there was a story in it.”

“Well. A good story is a different matter. I do have a powerful magic,” the old man began. “I have it from my own travels across the Sunrise Sea, in a land where the men and women take small berries from trees.”

“A magic plant then?” asked Shabaka. “Not the plant, but the berries of the tree – the beans,” replied the oldster, turning his face away from the fire. “They are much stronger than this beer we have been drinking.”

“You have shared your beer with me,” replied Shabaka. “Will you share your magic?”

The old man sighed heavily. “It will take some time to prepare. Tell an old man a story and you will get your magic.”

So while the oldster puttered about in the cave, Shabaka told about the women of the Lower Nile and their strange ways (one woman in particular). As the man filled a pot with water and put it on the fire, Shabaka described the unsettling animal-headed gods of other lands.

Finally, the old man threw out Shabaka’s beer and filled the cup with a hot, dark brew. “It will at first seem bitter, but then you’ll know its magic,” he said. Shabaka sniffed the cup and a wonderful smell filled his senses. Before he took his first sip, he poured a tiny quantity on the ground – “For our own gods,” he said.

Then he drank. The liquid was bitter alright, but not unpleasant. Being young, though, he drank off the entire cup. The old man refilled it and Shabaka drank more. “I can feel it! I can kill a lion tonight – maybe two!”

“The bean gives power indeed,” cautioned the old man. “But it comes with a price, youngster. Two prices, really. Two curses.”

“What are the curses?” asked Shabaka, who could feel the effects of the brew in his fingers and his toes. His senses were suddenly sharper. “Have you poisoned me, a guest at your fire?”

“No, no – no poison, but there are curses nonetheless,” answered the man. “It is late. We should sleep now and soon you’ll see what I mean.”

The two men lay on the ground near the fire and closed their eyes to sleep. Shabaka turned on his side. Turned back the other way. Moved a small pebble from under his back. Rolled over on his belly, then on to his back again. The moon rose and set and still Shabaka could find no rest, no sleep. He sat up suddenly, realizing that he’d been restless and wakeful through the entire night. In the gray of dawn, he could see the old man resting on an elbow, staring at him across the dead fire.

“I didn’t sleep.” I found no rest,” Shabaka mumbled.

“That’s the first curse,” said the old man. “The beans rob men of their sleep. Come, we will find something to eat and welcome the new day. You’ll feel better with something besides my magic in your belly.”

As Shabaka groaned to his feet and tried to shake off the effects of a sleepless night, he asked. “That’s quite a price to pay, old man, to have my sleep so disturbed. Can the second curse be worse than the first?”

“Oh yes,” replied the oldster with a tiny smile. “In all your travels, have you ever heard of a cardiologist?”

“Coffee Cup II” by Mary Beth Zeitz, from All rights reserved.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Spice Islands

I’m a fan of companies who use their own products in creative ways. I wasn’t aware that Spice Islands was doing this ‘til Barbara showed me one of its new ads in Cooking Pleasures magazine. The company has launched a fresh print and online campaign targeting “consumers who love to cook,” according to Amy Corr, writing for MediaPost.

In the ad above, Ed Tadiello used Spice Island products like curry, turmeric, cumin and mustard to create “Curry Heat,” complete with palm trees, sand dunes and a pair of tiny camels. (You can see a video of artist Tadiello at work on the current Spice Islands website.) The copy is punchy-quick: “Spices so intense you can taste the world in a single teaspoon.”

The advertising campaign was created by a great, long-time agency, Cramer-Krasselt in Milwaukee. It’s supposed to drive traffic to a redesigned website that’s set to relaunch 15th October.

I hope they hurry: two years back, brand blogger Robert Roth nutshelled his thinking about the then-new company tagline, “What the world tastes like.”

So why do I like their tag line so much? First, it elevates the Spice Islands brand position, differentiating Spice Island spices from commodity spice brands. Second, it delivers the Spice Islands brand promise in a smart way. Third, and perhaps most important, the tag line is clever without being corny or awkward.

But he hit one nail on the head when he wondered why the heck Spice Islands didn’t use the tag line anywhere on its website. So far, it still doesn’t.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Paul Progresses

After years in the Houston market, art director Paul Leigh has progressed to the Northeast:

Here's a photo of me in front of the Total Wine sign outside my office door. I’m loving my job. Don’t mind the early morning (point me to the nearest Starbucks) or the dressing up part. People are really nice. Very diverse group.

He’s moved to the Washington, DC area and gone in-house, putting his creative talent to work for Total Wine & More.

Until he took the job, I hadn’t heard of “America’s Wine Superstore.” It doesn’t have units in Texas yet. But that’s what it is: a big-box operation with each of its stores carrying approximately 8,000 different types of wine, 2,000 types of spirits and 1,000 different beers. You can imagine that the last part caught my attention, but the retailer really does have a handle on grape products: their wine consultants are knowledgeable and passionate about wine. Opinion: Leigh will add strong talent to the superstore’s bench.

Having been in Houston for so many years, Leigh was (and still is) one of my favorite art directors. For those of you with good memories, he and I created the award-winning ad campaign for Aquila Energy pre-crash – he’s the one that talked us into using an outstanding German illustrator for the ads. We branded, re-branded and marketed a lot of companies when we worked at The Quest Business Agency together. He created a dozen logos that generated high visibility and more awards. I’m grateful to have had him batting art director and designer for me.

He’s spent the last several years working on Mister William, a children’s character with a rich sense of learning and childhood wonder (if I do say so); and at other design firms here in town.

It’s hard to write an au revoir (not a goodbye) that doesn’t sound like a puff piece, as you can read. I don’t mean to do him that disservice. Paul has been a friend as well as a colleague. His recent note to me concluded with the best line of all:

What’s the best way to ship a case of He'brew beer?

Keep in touch, Paul: live long and prosper.