CLEAR THINKING

TAKING STOCK OF A NATIONAL LAUGHINGSTOCK.DRINK YUP! WHY ZIMA IS THE DRINK EVERYONE LOVES TO HATE.

From "The Top Ten Signs Your U.S. Senator Is Nuts." Number 9: Breakfast, lunch and dinner? Zima.

When David Letterman jokes about an alcoholic beverage night after night, something's going on. Just what, exactly, isn't clear--unlike the drink itself.

Coors Brewing Company, the nation's number-three brewer, devoted one and a half years--and a reported $3.5 million--to developing what it terms an "alternative" alcoholic beverage. But that was just the start of Coors's investment. The beer company backed its fledgling brand with an advertising budget rumored to be as high as $50 million because, unlike with new beers, the brewery had to explain what Zima was--and what it wasn't. It wasn't a beer. It wasn't a wine cooler. With Zima, Coors claimed it had established a new alcoholic beverage category altogether: the clearmalt.

Through direct marketing, interactive focus groups and 1-800 hotline calls, Coors said it had discovered that 59 percent of the adult drinking population was dissatisfied with the current alcoholic beverage choices, including the twenty Coors products (not including seasonal beers) distributed in this country. "Consumers told us they wanted something easy to drink with a light, refreshing taste," says Mark Lee, Zima's brand manager. "They wanted their drink to have a mild alcohol content, to be convenient but not too sweet, and have no aftertaste. So we took those characteristics and went back to our research and design folks, who came up with literally hundreds of prototypes. Then we took samples out to different markets across the country and asked consumers, `Does this product deliver what you want?'"

Chemists, flavorists, carbonation experts and research teams spent months conjuring up prototypes and sending them out to be tested by focus groups before Coors hit on Zima's current genetic makeup. Though the company won't detail exactly what's in Zima's fizzy, foam-free formula, the brewery will say that its "unique alcohol beverage" is first brewed like a beer, then goes through a special filtration process to remove any similarities to beer--except, of course, for the alcohol content. Finally, natural flavors are added to give the drink a mild citrus taste.

A 12-ounce serving of Zima has 147 calories, 0 fat grams, 13.4 carbohydrate grams, 18 milligrams of sodium and an alcohol content of 4.7 by volume, essentially the same as a regular beer.

Once it pinned down its top-secret formula, Coors needed a name for its new beverage. "We researched various names, because the product established a new category of alternative alcohol beverages, so we wanted to identify the product with a name that was unique but that also described its characteristics," Coors spokeswoman Lori Handfelt explains.

After consulting research-and-marketing firms, Coors decided to christen its new beverage Zima. The Russian word for winter, Zima was a name the company thought would convey the idea of refreshment as cool and crisp as the Siberian snow.

Letterman on Russian president Boris Yeltsin's five-day visit to the U.S. in the fall of 1994: "Yeltsin said he accomplished every goal of his visit except getting to try that Zima stuff."

After almost two years locked inside the lab, the clear glass-ribbed bottle, now dressed in a minimalist blue-and-black logo, was ready to break into a few test markets. In September 1992 Zima was introduced in Nashville, Sacramento and Syracuse. Coors chose medium-sized cities with a high population of young professionals between the ages of 21 and 34--the Generation X group it had targeted as Zima's market, people who like to "experiment and try new things," according to the brand team. This group also couldn't balk at paying premium prices, since Zima's suggested retail tag is $4.99 a six-pack.

When Zima tested well, Coors bought a brewery in Memphis from Stroh's and went into full-scale production. According to the Arizona Republic (Coors declined to provide detailed financial records for Zima to Westword), the company spent $38.3 million--nearly one third of its entire advertising budget--on the roll-out campaign of a drink that wound up accounting for 6.4 percent of the brewery's sales.

The Denver Post estimated Zima's advertising budget for 1994 at $50 million, which is as much as Coors spent in 1993 on its lead brand, Coors Light. With plenty of money behind it and a major ad campaign touting the drink, Zima was finally ready for its national debut.

Then you tasted it.
"A flat Sprite...a weak gin and tonic... Fresca with a shot of vodka...icky beer... tonic water and antifreeze," dissatisfied drinkers moaned.

"Zima is basically a sissy drink for people who don't drink or don't like the taste of alcohol," says Karen Chreene, a bartender at the Wynkoop Brewing Company. "Young women who just turned drinking age and those who don't drink alcohol like it."

"If Coors asked me, I would tell them that the younger generation is very attracted to it," says Kirk Iikeda, manager of Boulder's Liquor Mart. "She would buy Zima," he adds, pointing to a skinny blonde wearing a Pearl Jam T-shirt. "The average Zima drinker is 21 or 22. Wine-cooler people also like it, and generally more women than men buy it. But Zima's not our bestseller. We sell around ten cases of Zima on a weekend night compared to a hundred cases of Coors Light."

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