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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.
Colorado-based 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 toll-free hotline calls, Coors said it had discovered that 59 percent of the adult drinking population was dissatisfied with current alcoholic beverage choices, including the twenty Coors products (not including seasonal beers) distributed in the U.S. "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 to 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 perky 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 and then put through a special filtration process to remove any similarities to beer -- except, of course, for the alcohol content. Finally, natural flavors are added to provide a mild citrus taste.
A twelve-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 the 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, 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.
After almost two years locked inside the lab, the ribbed clear glass 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-size cities with a high population of young professionals between the ages of 21 and 34 -- including 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. The group also couldn't balk at paying premium prices; Zima's suggested retail tag is $4.99 per 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 for this story), the company spent $38.3 million -- nearly one-third of its entire advertising budget -- on the roll-out campaign for 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 consumers 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.
Staffers at many local bars -- including Bennigan's, Friday's, and Penrod's -- say they carried Zima when it first came out but dropped the product owing to slow sales. "I drink wine spritzers and I thought Zima was okay, but I don't like the taste of beer and it had a little taste of beer to it -- it really wasn't for me," says Karen, who tends bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive. "We did a promotion here, but it wasn't all that popular. We don't carry it any more."
Ernesto Torres, a store manager for the Crown Liquors chain, says he has the product on the shelf -- and it stays there. "We don't really sell it much -- we have hardly anybody asking for it," Torres reports. "If anybody, it's young people. But I haven't seen any of our stores do well with it. It's a hard item to move." Some Crown outlets don't even carry the beverage, and to Torres that's not hard to understand. "I've tried it, and it doesn't do anything for me," he says. "It's like 7-Up with a licorice taste. It's all a matter of taste, I guess."