Little Kings looking to rule again

Little Kings looking to rule again
Local ale aims for younger crowd
By David Holthaus • • April 2, 2010

The little green bottles haven't changed, nor has what's inside them, but the
new owner of Little Kings Cream Ale wants to change its image to appeal to a new
generation of beer drinkers.
Beginning this week, an unconventional advertising campaign begins for the
longtime Cincinnati brand, relying mainly on social networking sites such as
Twitter and Facebook in an effort to reach 21- to 29-year-olds.
The beer got its start in the 1950s, designed to be part of a "boilermaker,"
that most old-school of bar drinks - a shot and a beer chaser. Its reincarnation
will be as a "retro-hip" libation - cool, but with a history.
"We're repositioning the brand to make it more relevant to today's consumers,
but we went to hearken to its heritage," said Greg Hardman, CEO of Christian
Moerlein Brewing Co., the new owner.
Hardman's Middletown-based company bought the brand on the last day of 2008 from
a Pennsylvania-based investment firm, SBT Group. That added yet another
well-known Cincinnati brand to the company's collection, which now includes
Hudepohl, Burger and Moerlein.
Of all those, Little Kings was the most widely known, sold nearly nationwide,
with 6 million cases a year being consumed in 44 states in its heyday. But sales
dwindled to less than a million cases under the previous owner.
Over the next six months, Hardman plans to sign up distributors in virtually
every state, with the exception of those in the Pacific Northwest and upper New
England. At the end of March, Little Kings launched in Texas with one of the
largest wholesalers there.
"By the end of 2011, we anticipate we'll be a nationwide brand," Hardman said.
In its hometown, sales already are up 20 to 25 percent from a year ago, said
Todd Patterson of Heidelberg Distributing, which is wholesaling the beer in
Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The beer is no longer brewed here, but by a
contract brewer in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Those in the target market weren't born until well after Little Kings hit the
drinking scene in 1958. So instead of an expensive, traditional campaign, Little
Kings will be marketed almost entirely on the Internet. A virtual brewery called
"Schoenlingville" is being created, ruled by the Little King. Visitors to will be able to make virtual beer. The King will issue boozy
"Kings' Proclamations," such as "If nobody remembers, it never happened," on
Twitter and the Web site.
The brand will enjoy a more visible presence in stores, as green displays
holding 14 cases will be installed. In bars, green buckets with the logo are
available to order rounds for the entire table. Hardman plans to tie into
comedy-related special events and comedy clubs and has been talking to the
Comedy Central cable network. "It's a jester brand," he said.
Pumping up sales won't be easy. Nationally, beer sales have gone flatter than a
two-day-old draft, falling 2.2 percent in 2009. But much of the decline has been
in the big, mainstream brands that giants such as Anheuser-Busch sell. Little
Kings has long tried to set itself apart, both with its marketing ("Too good to
be beer," and "Where beer will never be" were earlier slogans) and with the
product itself.
As a cream ale, it has more flavor than mainstream beers, and more of a kick,
with 5.5 percent alcohol, but is still brewed to be light and refreshing. The
little green bottles have been a selling point since the beginning.
Tim Brown, who sold the beer regionally, then nationally, for
Hudepohl-Schoenling, said it also has a nostalgic appeal for Baby Boomers, who
may remember some of their first beer-drinking adventures.
"They want to remember the first time they went to a drive-in movie," he said.
"Everybody's looking for that fountain of youth."
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