Find Your Branding Beach: How Corona Won with Strategic Partnerships

To feel like you’re on the beach without actually being there in just one taste? Corona mastered the art, and the “Parrot Heads” and “No Shoes Nation” followed.

What’s better than a cold one in your hand, good tunes and your toes in the sand? Not much else. But sometimes, just a cold one in your hand is close enough. Even if your reality is sitting on your patio or at least enjoying a concert, there’s a feeling you get at first sip that sets your mind and attitude to relax like you’re on vacation mode.

One line of brew that’s embraced this “imagine yourself there” marketing message is Corona of the Constellation Brands family. With their “Find Your Beach” advertising campaign, they promoted what their consumers were already thinking — but amplified it to remind them. They also reached a new audience who wants to feel like they’re on a tropical getaway (even if they’re only watering the flower beds).  

Corona’s consistency in messaging aided both the “Find Your Beach” and “Corona Gets Its Lime” in becoming successful campaigns; the most impressive part of these marketing endeavors is that the brand hasn’t relied on just television or print. Corona has managed to align with other brands — most recently with chart-topping artist Maren Morris and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo — to elevate their happy-go-lucky vibe. The bonus of past partnerships with Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney came with additional bonuses — accessing the worldwide fan bases of Parrotheads and No Shoes Nation. 

Intrigued by their commitment and success on gaining a cult following, we interviewed Bill Hackett, the former Chairman of Constellation Brands and long-time veteran of the beer business, on Corona’s story of brand alignment and how just a couple right (and big) choices established them as the go-to beer for chillin’ out. Brett Palmer, former Brand Partnership Agency for Kenny Chesney and CEO of AbiJack Management, joined us as well.

Sit Back with Brett and Bill

Let’s talk about Corona from the time you were there. What can you tell us about the brand values?

Bill: I remember when I first started with the company back in 1984, I quickly found that there was an unusual awareness and affinity for the Corona Extra brand in select markets like SoCal and South Texas.  But we really didn’t understand “why” because, in those days, the US beer “biz” was dominated by major domestic brands…imports were a very small segment, dominated by European brands and microbrew/crafts had not yet hit the market. The fact that this unusual brand from Mexico had generated a following in these select markets was intriguing. So we set out to find out why there was such an affinity for this little known Mexican beer by actually going out and talking to its consumers. This was a tremendous lesson that served me well throughout my career…imagine that…talk to the people that are buying the product. In the end, they did a far better job of identifying what it was that was so special about Corona and provided us far better insights on the brand and its positioning than we ever could have developed on our own.

Listening to our consumers about their experience with the brand – usually on vacation in Mexico, enjoying it in the sun and on the beach – was authentic, genuine and transparent. So it became our job and opportunity to re-engage consumers with their “1st experience” with the brand, help people reconnect with that experience through the brand. Additionally, Corona’s clear long neck bottle and painted label was a real differentiating point back in those days…and still is today. And the ritual of serving it with a lime? That was radically different from every other beer brand in the market. And it turned out that our consumers connected/identified with these points of difference and became very loyal advocates.

We built Corona’s brand values around the learnings from our consumers. It’s not just that it’s a Mexican beer, but it’s thirst-quenching, can be enjoyed with an active lifestyle, is all about kicking back and enjoying life and pushing the pause button. It was a great platform to build a brand on; even before social media became “a thing”. People need a chance to disconnect and connect socially. They want to kick back and disconnect for a weekend vacation or two hours at a pub on a Thursday night. The platform is all about being relaxed, kicking back and enjoying friends/life. Corona became the icon representing this attitude and the “social lubricant” for connecting with a laid back attitude.

We use the tagline “find your beach,” because the beach is all about relaxation and laid back fun…but we expanded the definition of the “beach”. Essentially the beach can be anywhere a consumer wants it to be. It’s not only a “place,” it’s an attitude, a state of mind. And because of Corona’s positioning, it’s the one brand that can take you there…no matter where you are. Further, Corona has been consistent in it’s messaging over many years, it’s stood the test of time. It appeals to consumers of all ages, demographics and lifestyles. After all who doesn’t want to kick back once in a while…check out for a bit and have a cold one. Staying true to this messaging has worked very well for us. We’ve been consistent in our messaging and consumers can depend on that. It’s how we approached the business, and how we approached partnerships. That’s how we walked into our partnership with Jimmy Buffet!

It was early in our history and the first time Corona did anything like that. It was driven, interestingly enough, because music is such a great platform to connect consumers and brands. Before connecting with Jimmy in 1984, we sponsored a portion of the band, Chicago, tour. It turned out that Chicago’s manager was also the manager for Jimmy Buffett. When Jimmy heard that Corona was involved in a tour sponsorship, he told his agent, “Corona is MY beer! And it’s all about the same things that I am about – fun, sun and beach. Get with them and let’s work something out!”

And he was right. After all, both Jimmy and Corona represented all that is fun: kicking back while enjoying the beach and sun. It turned out to be a great partnership that lasted some 20 years. We played off of each other and, together, built unique and successful brands. The partnership was natural, authentic and reinforced the image of both brands. 

As he got bigger and became this huge presence, he saw the opportunity to build his own brand across and range of categories. However, when it came to our partnership, we expressed that the beer business is different than other categories that he was developing with his brand. Corona and Jimmy worked so well because it’s real, and we didn’t need to sell either one. We basically said that if you decide to do your own beer, you’re on your own. He then signed an agreement with Budweiser to develop a brand called Landshark, and we went our separate ways.

Going forward, our hair wasn’t “on fire” on finding another partnership. We realized why the partnership with Jimmy worked so well for so many years for all the right reasons and we weren’t interested in throwing our name on just any entertainer. When we parted ways with Jimmy, we thought, “We don’t have to do anything…it’s about finding the right partner.”

And then we met Kenny Chesney. He reached out to our team, saying, “This is my brand; I gotta talk to you guys.”

Personally, I had heard of him but didn’t know his music. However, our team said he shared many of Corona’s attributes…fun, beach, kicked back attitude…and could fill a gap in our support and marketing plan. We connected and set up a date to meet him at a Las Vegas concert. Straightforwardly, I was concerned because the country genre wasn’t our sweet spot. Country music was a definitive category with a very specific consumer profile which I wasn’t sure lined up with Corona’s profile. We had the chance to meet Kenny and his team before the concert and I found him to be a straight-up, engaging personality, but still wasn’t sure. Following our meeting, his team took me to the front of the stage to see the show and get a feel for what Kenny is all about. Prior to the show starting,  I surveyed the audience and was shocked – it was a packed auditorium, 60% female, everyone was drinking beer and AC/DC was playing! This was NOT my view of “country” and its fans. My guys said, “just wait, you’ll get it.”

The screen drops, the music started, and I laughed. THIS ISN’T MY PERSPECTIVE OF COUNTRY, THIS IS A PARTY!

BILL HACKETT, FORMER CHAIRMAN

What really intrigued me was that the audience skewed female, which is crazy, because so does Corona’s consumer base. While Corona appeals to a wide range of consumers, females find it easy to drink and it aligns with many of their social occasions. Simply stated, I was “in”. Following the concert, I sat down with Kenny’s manager, we talked, split a six-pack of Coronas and shook hands on the deal. In short, we were thrilled to find a partner that so closely aligned with our brands and positioning. As mentioned, we were committed to partnerships that aligned with our values, were authentic and connected. To that end, we would never do a Rolling Stones or other major tour sponsorship to just tag a brand on a tour.  It has to be true…it has to be authentic…it has to be connected. As Kenny said, “THIS IS MY BEER!”

We don’t expect our partners to sell our brand for us. We don’t put them in commercials or ask them to shill our brand. If it’s natural, it’ll work, and it’ll help us expand our base and reinforce what our message…what our brand is all about.

You can position anything any way you want, but it’s the consumer’s takeaway that matters. 

At the time, you had the capability to promote at concerts, social media, hashtags, etc, but what did that look like in the mid-80s with Jimmy?

Bill: It was a natural association. Jimmy was about the beach, fun, sun, Key West, kicking back and our fans…and his fans… just GOT IT.  The way we elevated this was by promoting the partnership in the market via displays and features in both bars and stores. When the tour came through the local markets, we worked to help people understand our partnership. We’d give away tickets to our consumers, host customers at the concerts, confirm the correct positioning of signage at the venue and, very importantly, make sure the product was available at the concert. And this last point was always a challenge as we typically weren’t regularly sold at the venues. We’d also walk the parking lots where the fans were pre-gaming, and we’d see what they were drinking and ask ourselves – “Was the alignment working through the purchase habits?”

It was a granular way to monitor our effort. After all, this was a marketing investment. It’s tough to define if you’re spending the right amount on the right things. But, back to an early lesson, you can always talk to the consumers and they will let you know. We immediately got that it was NOT a misalignment. Most everyone understood the partnership and said, “well yeah, that makes sense.”

We’d also enhance the partnerships with additional promotional opportunities. Aside from the annual tour shows in standard venues, Kenny actually did a few concerts on his own that we helped fund/sponsor. For example, we were heavily involved in Kenny’s Flora-Bama concert, and in the days of Jimmy Buffett, we sponsored Jimmy’s annual golf tournament.

You talked about knowing the granular approach and going through parking lots. Tell us, did you research the distribution and noticed a difference?

Bill: Absolutely. We do business with over 500 distributors. We made sure they were always geared up with promo materials and actively involved with sponsoring parties when our partners came to town. They’d get tickets to entertain their customers and connect the brand with our partner. In fact, Brett Palmer (of AbiJack Management) helped us for years with that effort in conjunction with Kenny’s tour and our wholesalers appreciated/loved it.

Brett: Similar to Cruzan Rum, when corona came on, you guys were still considered a premium suite beverage, not poured on the main concourse. It helped Corona to get to a level, inside venues, where general consumers can consume a beer to relax with. We got them to become a beer you could get anywhere in the venue. “The Sandbar” at Kenny’s concerts became “The Corona Sandbar”. We might have sold 60 cases at a concert originally; then you’re selling 600 to 700 cases at a concert.

Even in the later dates, we were selling thousands of cases at concerts. We had 15-18 bars with with with a semi-trailer FILLED with beer. We’d put the bars strategically around the stadium so the concerts were fueled by Corona.

Kenny’s message at every show is “this is our beach.” Every venue is the beach for Kenny and the fans. It was natural that the crowd was focused on “find your beach” so that’s how we connected their marketing with Kenny’s tour marketing.

Bill: As a marketer,  the optimal end game is when consumers see it as seamless and not forced. While many times the world is dictated to them, beer and music are decided by consumers and they don’t want to be sold. You don’t want them to walk up to a bar and say “that’s weird..why them?”

Kenny and his team helped make it seamless and that is why he was such a great guy to work with.

It’s just obvious Corona will be served there (at his concerts). 

Bill: Exactly. Today, in many cases, the customer is already a Corona drinker. But that wasn’t the case with Kenny at first. He actually helped us expand our consumer base to fans who may not have thought of Corona as an option. Now it’s their choice when tailgating and partying. 

Is there anything you tried to do with Corona that bit you back?

Bill: We’ve been very careful. We really worked hard to ensure that whatever we did was truly connected with the brand and our consumers. Early on, we couldn’t afford to screw up. We deferred to not doing things rather than doing the wrong things. Our team worked hard to make sure that whatever we did was well vetted and read true to our consumers. We didn’t want to have a disconnect. We were overly cautious and maybe missed some opportunities, but we wanted to make sure we were connected.

For example, Modelo (another Constellation brand) is a UFC sponsor. Given Corona’s positioning, this would not be a good fit for Corona. However, it works for Modelo because this brand is positioned differently with an attitude that fits this partnership. It’s brewed with a fighting spirit. Modelo has worked for over 30 years to enjoy the success that it is experiencing today…It isn’t a natural winner and has had to work harder to be successful, and that’s the consumer who has identified with it. With that “fighting spirit,” Modelo has become the #1 beer in dollar sales in 5 major US cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Chicago.

In fact, one of Modelo’s current ads features a UFC fighter who was initially fighting on the street. For him, he could either go to jail or find a career in fighting so he joined the UFC. He’s a real success story that connects with the brand positioning. It is a great fit for Modelo.

We care about what we do, how we do it and who we do it with.

When you said in the beginning that your consumer “told you what you were,” you already knew some of that information. But when you refer to asking the consumer, what’s the method? Were you doing that for true data through focus groups or just anecdotally or on the streets to confirm that you’re on the right track?

Bill: Great question!

When we first started, I was the second man in this business. I wanted to make sure I knew what this brand was all about. So I went to Austin, Houston, California. I talked to bar owners, liquor store owners, people buying it in the grocery store. I’d ask, “Why are you buying this? What does it mean to you? Why not Budweiser or Heineken?” When we started putting the info together, the lights went on. Holy (expletive), we have something here! 

Brands fight their whole lives to be meaningfully differentiated and achieve their ownable, aspirational positioning. We learned from the insights gleaned from our consumers early on and built a strategy that has served us well over the years. And we have executed that strategy with a consistency that has absolutely contributed to our long term success…consumers know what the brand is and what it represents. Further, this early work provided us the guard rails to ensure that we kept the brand true to the consumer and has helped us verbalize what the brand is about.

Relative to execution, we were well into the 2000s before we showed consumers’ faces in our ads. Up until then, we focused the commercials on presenting the brand values…fun, sun, beautiful beach scenes … and we chose to not show the actors’ faces We did this specifically because we wanted our consumers to picture themselves in the ad…to imagine themselves in the environment of the ad. We connected the consumer with Corona and the environment in the ad that they were watching. 

We have received a lot of praise for this strategy, but it really just started with a strategy of always listening to consumers VERY carefully, reading back to them what they told us and maintaining our position of being where we belong … on the beach. The message evolved, but the positioning stayed the same, from taking them to the beach to evolving “the beach” to a place that some consumers define as their beach…whether it is skiing in the Rockies, hiking along the sea or a bar with old friends on a Thursday night. That’s how the branding developed into what it is today.

Brett: Corona kept that branding and image for so long, the brand to this day has never shown a face. There’s an entire demo of Americans that were just waiting for Corona to come to the U.S. that were shoving them in suitcases on vacation. 

The real demographic for Corona has always been the traveler looking to relax. That’s why covering the upper class and blue-collar demographic was huge. You felt like you’re the coolest person because you’re drinking this vacation beer at a bar with their buddies. 

Bill: Corona’s success over the years can be attributed to the diligence and effort we exerted early on to make sure the marketing was right and resonated with our consumers coupled with consistency in messaging for decades. The marketing teams are dedicated to ensuring Corona’s campaigns and line extensions continue to cement and promote its authenticity to the brand’s overarching identity built over the years. We look forward to seeing what Corona continues to achieve as one of the United State’s most-loved beers.

Corona … It’s a state of mind. It’s an attitude. Brands spend their entire lives fighting to find that kind of messaging. It’s our consumers that directed us down that path. I’d like to say we we’re really smart, but knock on wood, we were the smartest about letting our consumers lead us down that road. 

BILL HACKETT, FORMER CHAIRMAN

To find your beach, visit Corona’s website and dig into the extensive line of imports.