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Party bear revives NW brand's cachet

Low Tide

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

None of us who is forbidden from setting garbage outside more than a few hours before pickup needs reminding that bears will be bears, that they're omnivorous and will guzzle anything in sight.

But can they be beer snobs with regional pride? That's hard to swallow.

It's apparently what happened, though, and the timing couldn't have been more fortuitous for a Northwestern icon.

When news of a beer-quaffing bear went global out of Washington state this week, it seemed too good to be true. In the middle of a re-energized marketing campaign for one of the region's most venerated but increasingly forgotten brews, a wild bear came to the rescue.

The black bear, as reported by both The Associated Press and Reuters news services, wandered into a campground near Bellingham, Wash., and started popping and pounding cans of Rainier beer. When he encountered Busch cans, he tried one but then turned up his nose and stuck with the Rainier. Ultimately he downed 36 cans and passed out.

When a wildlife agent tried to chase the bear off, he simply climbed a tree and went back to sleep. Later, officials trapped and relocated the bear, using doughnuts and Rainier as bait.

Anthropomorphic bears have a long association with beer commercials from the Hamm's land of sky-blue waters and, these days, from Canada's Labatt Brewing. But here, supposedly, is a choosy wild bear.

"It's true," said Jen Scott, Rainier's public-relations agent in Portland. Then, "I swear to God we had nothing to do with it."

Even so, Scott and her colleagues were quick to jump on the international publicity, updating the company's Web site to include a contest asking Rainier fans to name the bear. The winner gets a Rainier gift basket.

"I can't believe it either," Scott said of the bear's rejection of a competitor. "You wouldn't think that bears had taste buds that could discern between the two beers, but he made it pretty clear which one he liked."

No comment from the Anheuser-Busch people as yet.

Scott was giddy with her client's attention Thursday. She noted 180 Web sites around the world that had posted the story, including ones in New Zealand and Scotland. Hundreds had e-mailed name nominations. "Not bad for a beer that's only available in four states," she said.

Those states would be Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, though Rainier also filters into parts of California, Montana and Wyoming.

But while the region long held a loving affinity for Seattle's beer, the product has languished of late. Despite the international news story's claim that the bear is a "beer sophisticate" because he chose the "local ale," Rainier no longer is considered either sophisticated or local. It's still widely available on tap, including in Juneau's bars, but Scott acknowledges it has suffered an identity crisis since Pabst bought the brand and moved production out of the region.

In the 1970s and into the '80s, Rainier had some of the Northwest's most memorable TV and radio commercials. The wild Rainiers - legged bottles that ran through the woods - were sort of a mascot for a time. And the gear-shifting motorcycle that said "rayyy-neeeeeer-beeeeeeeer" remains on the region's lips these years later. Mickey Rooney evidently shilled for the swill at one point. But, like the mountain for which it's named, the brand went dormant in the '80s and did very little advertising. And personal Web sites that were erected as electronic shrines to the beer still lament the passing of the Seattle brewery. One even calls for a boycott of the Northwestern beer from ... San Antonio?

"They were literally in a 20-year (sales) decline," Scott said.

Her public-relations company, Cole & Weber/Red Cell, sought to rekindle Northwesterners' pride in an old friend this year with an ad campaign called "Remember Rainier." Surveyors went bar-to-bar collecting people's thoughts about Rainier, and found them wistful.

"They weren't necessarily drinking it. They weren't necessarily buying it. But they all had wonderful stories about it from when they were young," she said. The company resumed airing some of the old-style comic ads, and sales got a boost this year.

And now: this party bear, the kind of advertising you can't buy. While Scott says Rainier advocates responsible drinking - never three-dozen beers in one sitting - "I think an 800-pound bear can probably handle it a lot better than a person."

But any black bear that weighs 800 pounds might consider trying Rainier Light.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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