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Big Beer Hopes to Lure Millennials With Hard Soda and Nontraditional Advertising

But will it work?

Your grandpa's beer
Your grandpa's beer
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Back in the Stone Age, when people still watched regular old television, Big Beer had a decided edge when it came time to market its products to the coveted 21-to-34 consumer demographic. (It did so most notably with frogs, Clydesdale horses, and sexism.) But in the Internet Age, the industry has lost significant market share to craft beer, wine, and hard liquor.

And despite craft beer's sporadic struggles to embrace female consumers, women make up 15 percent of all craft consumers aged 21 to 34. Moreover, 75% of all drinkers live within 10 miles of a craft brewery. This all spells trouble for Big Beer, and the industry, in typically glacial corporate behemoth fashion, has been slow to react to the needs and wants of millennials.

The problem, of course, is that millennials hate macro beer. Momofuku boss David Chang may come by his love of shitty beer honestly, but the tide has definitely turned — which is precisely why beer giants like Anheuser Busch InBev and MillerCoors have made overt moves to look more crafty. AB InBev has taken over a number of craft producers in the last two years — see Goose Island, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Golden Road, Blue Point — and MillerCoors' craft and import division, Tenth and Blake, has a stake in Saint Archer, and Crispin Cider.

The efforts of Big Beer to capture millennial market share looks less tactical, however, and more like a calculated, and chaotic, corporate ploy. "I know that they’re panicking about that loss of market share. So they’re going after whatever fragment of a market they can. They’re just going in every different direction," beer blogger John Verive recently told Bloomberg.

One part of Big Beer's plan to lure the elusive millennial demographic includes moving away from traditional advertising. "If you look at millennial brands that today are at the top of their preferred list, most of the time the advertising budget of those brands is zero," AB InBev's VP of marketing, Jorn Socquet, tells Bloomberg. The company is instead turning to gimmicky stunts, such as "turning a Detroit billboard into a bar or putting a couch behind first base at a baseball game for 'the best damn seats' in the ballpark," to get people talking about its smaller brands like the recently launched Best Damn Root Beer. Ironically, the industry's attempts to look smaller are occurring amid unprecedented corporate consolidation and fierce backlash from small batch beer lovers.

If Big Beer's Machiavellian craft metamorphosis fails to move — or fool — millennials, perhaps hard soda, America's supposed next beverage frontier, will. Ab InBev has gone all in on the spiked pop trend with the aforementioned Best Damn Root Beer. The alcoholic fizzy drink's most notable competitor is Not Your Father's Root Beer, distributed by Pabst. Not to be outdone, MillerCoors hopes Henry’s Hard Sodas, in flavors like orange and ginger ale, will slay the thirst of millennials weary of beer and wine.

Big Beer has explicitly targeted Generation Yers with these products, and the segment looks to explode in 2016 as new players enter the fray. Industry analyst Spiros Malandrakis expressed skepticism, telling the Chicago Tribune that "the boozy soda rage is a distinctly American phenomenon" with a sustainability factor that was "open for debate." Big Beer hopes — nay, prays — that millennials feel differently.