Commentary

What title meant to Miller Lite

Updated: February 4, 2013, 6:13 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Brad Keselowski has a steel-trap memory. But some of the finer details from the immediate aftermath of winning his first career Sprint Cup championship are a bit blurry for several reasons: emotion, physical and mental fatigue … beer. Lots of beer.

Throughout a thoroughly entertaining five-minute interview with ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kevin Connors, Keselowski -- who opened the banter by admitting he had a buzz -- swilled often from a massive pilsner glass full of Miller Lite, which sponsors his Sprint Cup team.

MillerCoors would never admit it publicly. But it was a sponsor's dream.

With every sip, the legend of the on-air buzz grew. Keselowski was a real, raw billboard.

"I always lose my beer in Victory Lane," Keselowski says now. "Couldn't lose that one."

That moment served as a fitting bookend to a season that started with one of the most famous tweets the sport has ever seen.

Rewind nine months. On Lap 160 of the Daytona 500, Juan Pablo Montoya was racing around the bottom of the track under caution in the effort to catch up to the rest of the field before the race returned to green-flag action.

As he entered Turn 3 he suddenly shot up the track and collided with a track dryer, powered by a jet engine. The ensuing explosion halted the race and become international news. During the resulting red-flag stoppage of the race, Keselowski, seated in his car, tweeted a photograph of what he saw. It went viral.

Brad's Twitter followers tripled that night to more than 200,000. The tweet had around 5,000 retweets, which was significant especially relative to Brad's follower number at the time. Justin Bieber may get 5,000 RTs easily, but he has 30 million followers.

"… "Fans watching from home were suddenly transported onto the track at a huge racing event and had a view that they'd never seen before," said Twitter spokesperson Elaine Filadelfo in an email. "It also introduced a broader audience on Twitter to the incredible perspectives coming from NASCAR drivers, who do a great job of using Twitter to bring fans closer to the action on the track."

Leading tech/pop culture destination Mashable named Keselowski's Daytona 500 tweet one of its top 13 sports social media moments of 2012. And so began an unprecedented year of NASCAR sponsorship for Miller Lite.

"It was tremendous. It set the game on its ear, meaning all of NASCAR," said Justin Bailey, MillerCoors' Sports & Entertainment manager, of Keselowski's in-car tweet. "We talked about it internally and felt it really gave the sport a springboard into the future. It gave NASCAR a boost. It set the sport up as the leader in social media. And Brad was perfectly positioned.

"The reaction the next day in the office was pandemonium. We realized we had a huge opportunity here, but how do we leverage it? What are things we can do to help raise Brad's following?"

The next weekend during the Cup race at Phoenix, Miller Lite purchased an in-car camera, basically footing the bill to pad Keselowski's Twitter following with the ultimate goal of building brand awareness. They placed @Keselowski in plain view both inside the car and on the rear end television panel.

"We wanted to drive people there, and get them into the feeling that this is a guy with a unique vantage point and unique access," Bailey said. "And not only that, it's a guy who's got something to say. And if you're not listening you're missing out."

It worked. In the time between the Daytona 500 in-car tweet and the end of the Phoenix race, Keselowski gained more than 160,000 followers. From there his voice within the medium grew, all the way through the first Cup championship for both him and legendary owner Roger Penske.

And the first for Miller Lite.

"I think winning the championship opened a ton of eyes at (MillerCoors) corporate to the possibilities that NASCAR success can have on their brand," Keselowski said. "Seeing your name on SportsCenter -- and consequently on top of repucom [marketing research] sheets -- goes a long way with marketing people."

But what all that means at retail, in terms of beer sales, is difficult to quantify, Bailey said. He did note that MillerCoors "certainly" sees a sales lift and increased awareness among fans and retailers as a result of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

"Fans come in and know about our beer and are looking for it. They connect with it," Bailey said. "Retailers are asking for it. They say, 'Hey, Brad's hot right now, so we'll give you the first position in the grocery store versus Budweiser.'

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski participates in one of the best marketing moves of 2012 after winning the Sprint Cup championship.

"So it's helping us with a lot of jump-balls out at retail with fans and retailers. It's given us a lift in that sense, and that's the reason we continue to invest, and why we've historically invested with this [Penske] organization. They help us sell beer. Getting Brad out in trade, in the bars and at grocery stores and retail stores in race markets, and connecting with our fans."

That's the fundamental reason why Miller Lite sponsored Penske Racing and the No. 2 car for more than 20 years before the organization delivered a championship: NASCAR fans drink beer. Penske helps. His brand is one of the strongest in the world.

"From a Miller perspective, they're looking at publicity and notoriety, the type of driver that we have and also the success. And there's no question from a Miller standpoint: They want results," said Penske. "They're in sports and they want to be with the best.

"We help them deliver monetary benefits through more sales and notoriety of the brand by winning the championship. That's important. Because to me they want to take this success and they want to monetize that, and I think they're able to do that with this championship."

Rusty Wallace was the face of the Miller brand for 16 seasons. When he retired, Kurt Busch drove the brand for five years. But Bailey said Keselowski's ability to personally connect with consumers has invigorated Miller Lite in the domestic beer battle against Budweiser.

"When we look at what he's meant specifically to us, he connects with people on an individual level," Bailey said. "Beer has a tremendous badge-value, so for us it's about establishing what Miller Lite, and your choice to drink it, says about who you are.

"A lot of the things we look to be on Miller Lite and that we stand for as a brand, Brad embodies: Authenticity. Character. Working hard. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Not getting something handed to you, but working for it yourself and being diligent."

Marketing a championship driver is new to MillerCoors and presents challenges that began to take shape late in the 2012 Chase. The closer Keselowski got to the championship, the more distributors and retailers called for his time. Aside from champion-branded product in stores, one key area to activate Keselowski's championship is in the social media realm.

Twitter is a relatively new venture for MillerCoors. Given the myriad restrictions on the alcohol industry and making certain products are properly communicated to of-age consumers, they're engaging slowly.

They tested that process in the season finale at Homestead in November. As the weekend progressed, brand representatives live-tweeted the goings-on of the No. 2 team in a new effort to bring the fans along on the historic journey. All said, the Homestead activation in social media resulted in Miller doubling its Twitter following.

"It was greater than anything else we did from a brand standpoint in social media, period. It's big," Bailey said. "We learned a ton last year, and it had a huge impact on the business, and that comes with carryover from that for this year as well. That's unique for us.

"When we look at our plans for 2013, we've got the champion of NASCAR. Until somebody knocks him off the track our guy is the champion. We've worked closely with NASCAR to be able to leverage the 2012 NASCAR champion mark at point-of-sale, on packaging and special 24-ounce cans in selected race markets.

"We've doing everything we can to maximize this championship to set us apart, as a point of differentiation. Not only do we have the guy, but we have the championship. That's a killer one-two punch."

Ultimately, Bailey said, the NASCAR championship marks the return of Miller Time.

"We have fans telling us, 'Miller Lite is about Miller Time,'" he said. "When we talk about it internally, there's no truer Miller Time than a Victory Lane celebration. So we take a look at what we're able to do together with a team of guys working together with these shared experiences and being able to celebrate their victories and their wins.

"Take a look at that real, authentic, raw celebration you saw at Homestead and at Vegas during champion's week, that brings it all home for us. To have people see that and connect with it, it's huge for us. Whether they're fans of Brad or not, they've seen him come up through the ranks, and they see that say, 'I get that. I've lived that. I've felt that.' For us at Miller Lite there's no better branding than that."

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