CLEAR THINKING

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

In February Gold was introduced in Omaha and Tucson with little fanfare. According to Handfelt, since Zima had already established the clearmalt category, Gold didn't need a hefty advertising budget. The national rollout started May 1 in bars and restaurants; by May 15 Zima Gold was available in supermarkets and at liquor stores.

And those may be the only places you can find Zima Gold today. Citing disappointing sales, last month Coors announced that it would no longer ship Zima Gold. Handfelt says some fans keep calling Coors to find the drink; their only option is to find a store that hasn't sold out its entire stock.

Actually, that may not be too difficult.

From "The Top Ten Signs You Are a Bad Surgeon General." Number 1: Your cure for heart disease is Zima.

But Coors isn't about to give up on Zima. Its Gold incarnation may be dead, but the original version is going global. "We just launched Zima in Puerto Rico, and it's doing extremely well there," Lee says. "Now we're working on the U.K. and all over Europe."

And local bartenders can vouch for Zima's international appeal. "Foreigners tend to really like Zima; they think drinking it is a hip thing to do," says Karen Zaczkowsi, a bartender at Gate 12. "A bunch of Koreans were just here and ordered it. I think the advertising makes them want to buy it."

Closer to home, though, Coors may have to work harder. Although Zima sells well in the Midwest, and even better in parts of the South, it's a bust in urban California--home of all those hip Generation Xers.

"The challenge for Coors now with Zima is to figure out how to keep it fresh," says Michael Bellas, president of Beverage Marketing Corporation in New York. "The initial trial period is a natural high. Now Coors may need to add more flavors, since the low-alcohol refresher category is not a long-lasting one.

"The consumer is young and will move on to the next product. Zima had its peak; now Coors needs to rekindle interest," says Bellas.

The brewery is working hard to lure Generations X-ers back to the bottle. Today Zima not only has new ads, it has a new slogan. No longer is the drink "zomething different"; instead, it represents a group that has "zomething in common." The latest campaign, also designed by Foote, Cone & Belding, consists of a series of stylish black-and-white spots featuring Generation X-ers playing co-ed football and eating in a diner. There's no dialogue, only music by San Francisco composer Michael Boyd.

Consumers can have their say about Zima by calling the hotline number printed right on the bottle. The recorded voice on the other end of that number asks the caller's age and about his drinking habits, then lets him listen to nine people give their opinions about Zima. After that, the caller has fifteen seconds to quickly add his own two cents' worth. Zima customer-service reps report that most phone inquiries concern Zima's caloric and alcohol content.

And in keeping with its emphasis on attracting hip young drinkers, Zima not only has its own e-mail address (fans have suggested new flavors of mandarin orange and raspberry via e-mail), but also a page on the World Wide Web (see sidebar, page 26).

"Just imagine a big Victorian house with a wraparound porch that sits on the ocean near Santa Cruz," says Jim Davis, creator of the Zima web site. "There are chairs outside on the porch and some candles. It's about 7:40 p.m. and the sun is just about to set. It's the magic hour. The candles are just starting to have a life of their own, and there's just enough daylight left for you to see each other. You are sitting outside enjoying the sound of the waves and the people you're with. Next to your side sits a big, tin washbasin of icy-cold Zima bottles. That's what the Zima lifestyle is all about."

(Try telling that to Francisco Barren, a stocky towerman for the Burlington Northern railroad. "Zima is my last drink after a night on the town," he says. "When I want my last round, I want a Zima. It's not too strong and it goes down smooth, like brandy after dinner. At the end of the night my buddies and I know when to look at each other and say, `It's Zima time.'")

"Zima is a very sensual drink," Davis says. "I think the archetypal Zima drinker is Rachel that Jennifer Aniston plays on Friends. Rachel has a very strong, comfortable sense of her own sensuality. She is a bubbly, effervescent, warm, loving person. She's not dumb and flighty like Phoebe and she's not as serious and self-dedicated as Monica. Rachel's more of a mixture of Monica's maturity and Phoebe's flightiness."

But then, Coors is banking on people like the characters on Friends and the twentysomethings who love the sitcom to consume Zima. In fact, Lee jokes that he wishes the brand team could afford to pay the Friends crew enough money to drink Zima on the show.

"A lot of the cast of Friends is very typical of the Zima personality," Lee says. "Zima is really about an understated confidence. Zima is not about arrogance; it's not about showing off. Zima drinkers are confident in themselves, and they don't feel like doing things just because everybody else does. These people make their own choices because individuality is important to them.

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