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Just as the coffin was seemingly being lowered into the ground, a faint tapping was heard. After decades of stagnation and seven straight years of decline, Miller Lite is on the upswing: The company sold 43 million more cans of Lite in the second half of 2014 than it did in the equivalent period of 2013.Shipments have been steadily ticking up a few percentage points each week during that time, relative to their 52-week average, according to Miller Coors.
As we’ll see, it was a seemingly modest change—and it happened more or less by accident.Still, the incipient comeback provides a window on the beer industry, where success hinges In recent years, it was hard to say what a can of Lite said about the drinker—and that was a problem.Long, 56, a youthful, slow-talking North Carolinian, speaks a lot about “authenticity.” Though he won’t come out and say it, it seems Lite no longer conveyed authenticity. Last year the company began offering beer in Lite’s original can as a short-term promotion.Sales were so strong that Miller Coors quickly switched to white labels on all bottles, cans, and coasters, ditching the blue it had used for more than a decade. It was a phenomenon, surging from its 1975 debut to annual sales that foamed above the 10-million-barrel level within a few short years.People loved the ads: retired jocks like Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus “arguing” in bars over whether the brew’s chief appeal was that it “tastes great” or is “less filling.” That juxtaposition was inscribed in the memories of an entire generation of TV watchers.
Lite accomplished what was then seen as an impossible feat—selling a diet beer to men—thereby creating a whole new category: reduced-calorie brews.
That sort of epic success spawns imitators, needless to say, and soon Budweiser and Coors were selling their own Light lagers.
Miller Lite’s sales topped out at 19 million barrels in 1990, bumped up and down for a couple of decades, and eventually went flatter than a warm IPA.
By 2008, after Miller Lite and Coors Light were gathered under the same corporate roof in the joint venture known as Miller Coors (which handles the U. markets of products from SABMiller and Molson Coors), the original faced a new indignity: It wasn’t even the top-selling light beer at its own company.
Add the incursions by craft breweries, which made national brands seem hopelessly dull to many, and the return of hard liquor—beer dropped from 56% of alcohol consumed in 1999 to 48% in 2014—and it made for a depressing picture for mainstream giants like Miller Lite.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Lite’s funeral.