Project Pabst, Superfly and the Still-Evolving Brand-Band Singularity

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Brian Bell and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer perform during Project Pabst 2015 at Zidell Yards on July 19, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.

The second annual Project Pabst in Portland, Ore., July 18-19 drew more than 15,000 fans to see such bands as Blondie, Weezer, Passion Pit, TV on the Radio, The Both and Against Me!.

Project Pabst, produced by Bonnaroo and Outside Lands co-producer Superfly, is an outsized example of a next-level branding experience as brands search for new ways to engage with passionate fans of music and, in the case of Portland-based Pabst Brewing Company, fans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

The festival took place once again at the restored Zidell Yards, featuring two stages on its 10 acres in the heart of Portland's South Waterfront District. Additional late-night shows at music venues around Portland drew about 6,600 fans, with one dollar from every ticket aiding the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, dedicated to providing financial assistance in times of medical crisis and to improving the overall well-being of individual musicians and their families.

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Founded in 1844, Pabst is now the largest American-owned brewery, and its flagship beer Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) has enjoyed a striking resurgence among the younger demographic since the turn of the millennium. "Pabst and music have been intertwined ever since Pabst has had the resurgence," says Pabst Brewing Company's CMO Dan McHugh. "We work with musicians and music venues a lot, and we were interested in doing a festival mostly because we went to a lot of festivals [and] often thought we would do things differently."

Enter Superfly, a pioneering festival producer which has become increasingly active in the branding space by strategically helping brands navigate the cultural marketing landscape through programming, design, digital, social and experiential platforms. "From what we saw Superfly had done at Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, we really felt they were the company that probably gets our brand the most," says McHugh. "We do have a unique brand, and we weren't interested in handing over our brand to other companies to co-op and do with it what they will. We felt that Superfly understands what Pabst is about, and would be careful about what our brand and consumers are about."

The Pabst team worked closely with Superfly in creating, launching and, now, sustaining Project Pabst. "We know how to market and sell beer, we don't necessarily know how to throw a music festival," says McHugh. "The reason why e were comfortable with Superfly is we didn't want to write a check and go away, we wanted to get dirty with them and pick the bands that are playing, how the creative will look inside, we want everything to reflect what PBR beer is about. Even though they're great at what they do, they've allowed us to share in the vision of it. They're obviously very successful with visions they created, but they also understood we know the Pabst brand and wouldn't be comfortable writing a check and saying, 'here, we're underwriting it, go throw us a festival.'"

Superfly partner Rich Goodstone says the PBR team obviously knows the brand better than anyone and brought a lot of creativity to the project. "The people who work there [at Pabst] embody the ethos of the brand, and they wanted to create something that was sort of the 'anti-festival," as far as these large gatherings and what Project Pabst could be," Goodstone says. "We sat down with their team and learned about them and who they were as a brand, and created something that really reflected authentically who they are. It has been a great partnership in that regard; they're very creative over there, too, so they added a lot of value to what we were able to accomplish together."

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Once a blue-collar beer of the 1950s-1970s, PBR managed a comeback driven by younger, hipper consumers since the early 2000s. Asked how the brand managed to pull off this turnaround, McHugh says the marketing plan was... to not market. "A lot of it, for lack of a better term, is we kind of got out of our own way," he says. "We don't do Super Bowl commercials, or girls in a bikini on a snow-capped mountain. We were just Pabst, and that spoke to a lot of people who didn't want to be advertised to. I think traditional beer marketing is 'let's beat them over the head with this imaging,' and we didn't do that, we just tried to stay true to who we are and hoped the consumer picked up on it."

Much of PBR's increase in popularity is driven by an association with music. "We don't do TV commercials, we get down and dirty with musicians and music venues," says McHugh. "We have a rate of sale that is 18 per cent higher in music venues than normal bars. Pabst, music and music venues always went hand in hand, it was always a marriage there, the message is that [PBR] always seems to be there when people are enjoying themselves. You're in a bar at midnight playing the Clash on the jukebox, having a PBR, people identify with that."

Project Pabst is unique in that it works as a festival but also is considered a marketing expense. "We didn't go into this thinking we were going to be rolling in money by throwing a music festival," says McHugh. "I definitely think it's a marketing expense, because we wanted to show what our personality was, and thought this was a pretty good way to do it. We're not a big company, we don't have big budgets, and in a lot of ways we're an underdog compared to the big beer brands.

Last year's Project Pabst headliners were Modest Mouse and Tears For Fears, and both years the format was the same, two days, eight bands each day, on two stages.

Another component of Project Pabst is night shows at seven different clubs, 14 shows over three nights hosting such acts as The Mummies, The Obvious, Coathangers, comedy, all "with a more punk rock/garage vibe," says McHugh. "We have the day festival, obviously the crown jewel we work with Superfly on, it's over at 9 o'clock, and everybody floods the clubs. Of the 14 shows we did, 12 ended up selling out."

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So how does Pabst quantify the success of the project? "Obviously by ticket sales; when we first started this, 10,000 was a realistic goal over two days, and we got 15,000," McHugh says. "The first year was about just pulling it off, and getting a good crowed, and we did that. But the attention and feedback from people was exactly what we were hoping for. This year, we trended worldwide No. 1 on Instagram. You want as many people in there as possible, and you want your core PBR drinker saying, 'this is what PBR is about,' and we got that in spades."

Goodstone's barometer of success was, largely, seeing 15,000 people drinking PBR and having a good time. "When I see people touching and feeling exactly what Pabst wants them to touch and feel, I consider that to be a success," he says. "There are all sorts of metrics outside of attendance, media impressions, and social conversations and engagement, but at it's bare bones seeing tens of thousands of people having a great time and rallying around that partnership, community, brand, that's success."

Project Pabst represents a significant spend for an indie brewing company, about 12 percent of its total annual marketing operating budget, according to McHugh. "This is our Super Bowl, the biggest thing we do all year as a company, and the biggest thing we've done in the history of the company," he says. "We just finished year two, and we're very bullish about year three. It has been a great way for us to interact with our consumers. I know in Portland we were 25,000 cases of Pabst up over the previous year, as far as what we sold in the market, so it's a great tool for us."

Project Pabst "sits at the nexus of everything we do," says Goodstone. "We're working on behalf of a brand, but we're creating what we call 'consumer funded marketing. Pabst is creating a festival, and people are willing to pay for that experience, yet it's an incredible brand platform to leverage against all of their media, point-of-purchase, on can stuff, retail promotions, in-store, it all ladders into this overall event festival. That feels really good, especially when there are revenues coming in from those experiences."