Welcome to First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification.
This two-part excerpt concerns the use of music to market beer in the early 1970s, looking specifically at the use of music by Narragansett Brewing in Rhode Island and Lone Star Brewing in Texas.
Barry Sullivan understood the potential for “small” beers; understood that the new generation of beer drinkers had marched down a new road, lured by the beat of some far-off and different drum. More important, however, he understood how to play that drum.
Sullivan was a Canadian-born, major-league hockey player. When he left the ice in 1953, he emigrated to St. Louis to work in sales at Falstaff. He spent time in Missouri and also in Texas, which was one of the brewery’s biggest markets. In 1968, the company sent him to Rhode Island to oversee Narragansett, which had not performed well since Falstaff’s 1965 acquisition.
Sullivan was busy familiarizing himself with the beer and region when Woodstock fell upon the land. Sullivan’s sons, “long-haired” teenagers, insisted that their father take notice of what their generation was capable of doing. (*1)
Sullivan watched the live news coverage of the traffic jam, the rain, the mud—and realized two things. First, long hair and drugs be damned; these were good kids, a medium-sized city’s worth and no trouble. Second, this rock-and-roll stuff was the key to their hearts and minds.
He organized a series of “mini-Woodstocks” throughout the Narragansett territory. (*2) No fool, he emphasized the music, not the beer, downplaying the Narraganset name to the extent that no beer was even sold at the venues. The focus was the names and their music: Janis Joplin. Santana. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Led Zepplin.
Sales soared. Three years later, Sullivan was back in St. Louis, this time as Falstaff’s national marketing coordinator. But Falstaff’s management, he soon realized, ignored the youth market and the need to rethink marketing strategies.
*1: Michael Ennis, “The Beer That Made Armadillos Famous,” Texas Monthly 10 (February 1982): 119. *2: Ibid., 119.