[Editor’s note: This column contains some light spoilers for the series “Yellowstone.”]
The Super Bowl is a good enough place to advertise beer if you want to sell beer indiscriminately to the American drinking public, which is why Anheuser-Busch InBev has been doing it since long before “InBev” was even a glimmer in Carlos Brito’s eye. But the Big Game is bigly expensive, and even ABI is looking further afield these days for captive audiences, ongoing activations, and “sticky” innovations that transcend standard ad spots and social spend. Besides, the days of the flagship megabrand have largely passed the beer business by, forcing beer marketers and brewers alike to identify niches for untapped riches. So if you wanted to lock down the lager dollars of, say, 25- to 54-year old couch-bound cowboys, you wouldn’t bother advertising your former-glory legacy brand during the Super Bowl. You’d embed your beer bottles directly in their Super Bowl: “Yellowstone.”
Last month, Molson Coors did just that, announcing that Coors Banquet would become the “official beer” of the hit Paramount series’ fifth season, which kicked off Nov. 13. After tying into the show in non-exclusive product placements in past seasons, Coors Banquet made an undisclosed but likely large bet that making it official for “Yellowstone” Season 5 would help the beer “ride its brand awareness and brand-love to new heights,” as one Coors marketer, Tracy Schenck, told the company’s corporate blog. (Molson Coors did not respond to Hop Take’s interview request.)
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It’s a rare prestige drama with a series-standard brew brand — I can’t think of another, can you? — but then, “Yellowstone” is anything but ordinary. In the twilight of last decade’s high-dollar streaming wars, the Kevin Costner-led serial burns especially bright, with millions of people tuning in each week and season premieres and finales clocking viewership figures that rival live football games. Watch an episode and you’ll quickly grasp the show’s appeal with diehard fans. It’s high camp in high camp, an American frontier fanfic with a canteen-full of fighting and fucking per hour. Think “Succession” meets an Orvis catalog. But don’t overthink it: It’s a lot more fun to just savor “Yellowstone’s” melodramatic mountain milieu at face value.
The show and the beer have plenty to offer one another. Coors Brewing Company’s Mountain West mystique has been cinematic marketing fodder in the past, and throughout the 20th century, Coors family owner-operators became known nationally as prominent conservationists and (for the most part) dogmatic right-wingers. With their disdain for federal regulation and open hatred for labor unions, the late Bill and Joe Coors would have fit right in with Costner’s reactionary Big Sky Country land baron John Dutton. The Silver Bullet has long since surpassed Banquet, and the Rocky Mountain clan whose name graces the cans no longer controls Coors Brewing Company’s operations or the political bent of its publicly traded successor, Molson Coors. Still, the macrobrewer in recent years has burnished the brown-bottled beer’s pioneer bona fides with sponsorships of Professional Bull Riding, and collaborations with Brixton and Huckberry, two younger apparel brands with strong cachet among fratty fly-fishers and ski-patrol wannabes west of the Continental Divide.
“Yellowstone,” with its six-figure pickup trucks, perfectly weathered workwear wardrobes, and breathtaking Western scenery, rolls all that hay into one bale for Coors Banquet, with a bigtime sports-like audience the brand would otherwise have no business appearing in front of. Even better than sports: Thanks to movie magic of product placement, Molson Coors can pay to play. “Yellowstone” didn’t pioneer this dark art — which has been on the rise in recent years as once-flush streamers seek new revenue streams — but it’s well on its way to mastering it. Product Placement Blog, a crowd-sourced index that tracks the entertainment business, has cataloged over 330 paid and unpaid placements in the show. That works out to nearly eight per episode, many of which are Banquet’s. In addition to “Live like a Dutton” flyaway promos and all the standard co-branding collateral opportunities, Molson Coors’ deal buys Banquet actual airtime within the show’s narrative arc. Imagine if the National Football League swapped a 40-ounce of Bud Light in for a game ball at ABI’s behest. You can’t, because it wouldn’t happen. Not just for the obvious medical and legal reasons; it just wouldn’t belong.
That’s not to say placing product is easy to pull off, says Andrew Feigenson, the chief executive of advertising intelligence at the data analytics firm Kantar and its consulting subsidiary, Numerator. With traditional advertising, brands buy well-defined inventory on a set marketplace, and control every aspect of the content’s message. Product placement deals are much more complex. No two are alike, and brands have to understand that the showrunners’ first priority is selling the story, not the widget, he says. “‘Yellowstone’ created a goldmine of stuff for consumers because they figured out what the consumers wanted, and they used their creative aesthetic to do that, not to sell Coors.” But successful product placements can deliver massive returns for marketers, too, for reasons both simple — they can’t be skipped, which is what the vast majority of us do when confronted with traditional ads — and subliminal.
“Think about ‘Knight Rider’ and the [Pontiac Firebird] Trans Am,” says Feigenson. “You couldn’t ask for a better ad than that, because you’ve built this entire feeling around something.” When it works, research shows that product placement can boost viewers’ likelihood of talking about and searching for the integrated brands. But when it fails, it’s embarrassing for both the show and the brand. “That’s where the rub comes in,” says Feigenson, pointing to Hyundai’s infamously incongruous cameos in “The Walking Dead” as an example of how unsubtle product placements can take fans out of the viewing experience and generate negative conversation about the brand online.
There are other pitfalls, some of which Banquet has fallen into itself. In “Cobra Kai,” Netflix’s popular “Karate Kid” sequel series, a character routinely gets drunk off the beer, an unpaid coincidence that Molson Coors was reportedly none too pleased about. (Or… was it?) But the company thinks its “Yellowstone” placement is working, and the beer’s sales figures are strong: It’s up 14.2 percent in dollars over the past four weeks, and 3.6 percent in volume year-to-date, according to some recent NielsenIQ and IRI number-crunching from Beer Business Daily.
It’s not my nature to take beer execs at their word, so I binged my way through the entire first season, a bunch of random episodes from Seasons 2, 3, and 4, and all of Season 5 (so far) to see how Coors Banquet’s placement in “Yellowstone” has evolved alongside its characters. Early on, it barely shows up. One-time rival Budweiser is the ranch hands’ preferred vice; the Costnerian patriarch and his variously flawed brood mostly opt for wine, and whiskey from unmarked decanters. By Season 4, though, Bud Heavy has vanished, and Banquet’s “Stubbies” are making semi-regular cameos.
And you know what? For the most part, it does work, dammit. Unlike the relentless parade of pristine Dodge Rams, ubiquitous Dell Computers, and fancy Fiji water, I think Banquet’s bottles mostly gelled with the context and characters on the strength of their look and legacy. It’s not the holy grail of product placement: It doesn’t make me want to run out and grab a 12-pack. But for a brand with a strong Western legacy and limited opportunities to capture mainstream momentum, “Yellowstone” is about as Super Bowl as it gets. And Coors Banquet came to play.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
The Wall Street Journal’s consent manufactory editorial board finally got something right for once this past weekend by spotlighting to the world’s Murdoch-aligned minds the on-premise plight of New Jersey’s craft breweries. Recall that the Garden State this summer rolled out long-delayed, bizarrely specific licensing rules that (among other things) tamped down on taproom events. It was an apparent kowtow to the powerful restaurant lobby that left beer producers in the state hopping (ahem) mad, and rightly so. Now one of them is suing Trenton’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control with the help of the very same Koch Bros.-funded libertarian legal foundation currently standing athwart student debt forgiveness yelling “STOP!” Weird pairing? Maybe, but as Swill Shakesbeere once said, “Red tape acquaints a brewer with strange barfellows.”
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📉 …and downs
After Qatar’s last-minute World Cup beer ban, Anheuser-Busch InBev seeks $47 million refund from FIFA… New week, same rail strike possibility, as four unions have rejected deals; Pres. Biden expected to ask Congress to intervene… Is non-alcoholic craft beer getting, uh, non-affordable? (Allbirds owners, disregard)…
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