Marketing the Silver Bullet
Three lessons for designers, marketers, and leaders from Coors Light’s Marketing Platform
The Coors Brewing Company was a relative latecomer to the light beer market among the major breweries in the United States. After briefly stagnating on the shelves shortly after its launch, Coors Light, nowadays produced by the Coors Molson Beverage Company, has risen to become the number two brand of beer sold in the US.
When Coors Light launched in its original buff-colored can, it was failing to distinguish itself from its elder sister brand, Coors Banquet, which adding to the confusion, had hitherto been marketed as America’s Fine Light Beer. Customers couldn’t tell the difference, and therefore, they were not picking up the new product.
To remedy that, Coors introduced the Coors Light Silver Bullet campaign. It has since become one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of Marketing Americana.
We examine this story from the perspective of two of its protagonists.
“The first Coors Light can design was way too close to Coors Banquet,” said Marc Barrios, then a graphical artist at Coors. “They just put the word ‘Light’ in there, at the bottom. And that was it.”
“I did something close to Coors Banquet, looking at it like it was a line extension. Then I looked at different colors. I thought: ‘My God, this silver is kind of nice. It’s refreshing. It’s young’,” Barrios said.
The new can stood out. The minimal tweaking of the design meant that Coors could save time in the approval of the new graphic design and manufacturing the printing plates. And the silver background required one less color than the original design, which saved ink. Bill Coors, the CEO at the time, was keen on saving time and cost, and championed the new can.
It was a hit. And Barrios would eventually rise to head Creative Services at Coors. After leaving the company in the late 1980s, he would go on to work on the promotional material for major films, including Apollo 13, Space Jam, Jurassic Park, and Batman.
One day in the early 80s, Bill Coors’ daughter called him.
“Dad, you know what college kids are calling our beer can?” She asked him.
“A Silver Bullet,” she said.
College students were going to bars and would say in the voice of the Lone Ranger: Hi-Ho, Silver Bullet! when asking the bartender for a can of Coors Light.
“What a tremendous idea! I couldn’t wait to get our people together the next morning, and tell them about the silver bullet. I couldn’t think about a better promotion,” Bill Coors thought to himself.
Next morning came. But as Bill shared his insights, eyes started rolling.
“It was the NIH factor,” Bill Coors explained. “It’s a devastating factor everywhere. If it was not invented here, then it’s no damn good,“ he said.
Coors recognized that his team was not going to be receptive to the idea at the time. So, he dismissed the meeting. Two months later, his Vice President of Sales called excitedly. He wanted to present his team’s breakthrough idea for a marketing campaign for Coors Light to the Board.
Coors politely sat through the very same idea he had pitched just eight weeks ago, congratulated the team on their brains, and sponsored the idea. Thus, The Silver Bullet campaign was born.
Constraints unleash creativity
Thinking outside the box has become such a cliché. But the truth is, if there is no box, there is no outside of it. By embracing the time and cost constraints he faced, and focusing on playing with what he could change, Marc Barrios came up with an iconic design that so effectively communicated the product’s lightness and freshness that its legacy endures after more than 40 years.
Not Invented Here gets in the way of Customer Centricity
Good marketers have to be clever, and clever people often have big egos. But that big ego can also get in the way of a marketer’s most important function: To be customer-centric.
The intelligent marketer knows when to put ego aside, and follow the lead of others. Brands live, first and foremost, in their customers’ heads. So, more often than not, the one to follow is no one other than the customer. In this case, it was the college kids who consumed their product that showed Coors the way.
Leaders that give credit to others can accomplish anything
As Chief Executive Officer, Bill Coors could have forced his ideas through in that first meeting. However, he realized that he needed his team’s full and willing support to execute the idea, so he wisely chose to exercise leadership with restraint, and quietly influenced his key stakeholders instead.
And when they came around, he gave them all the credit.