Good Beer Hunting

For Almost 30 Years, the Same Corona Ad has Kept the Holidays Lit

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If you watch television, chances are you’ve witnessed this scene.

A single cabana sits alongside the ocean at night, appearing from the outside to be just the right size for a vacationing couple. Ten seconds of silence are broken by a whistling rendition of “O Tannenbaum,” otherwise known as the music to “O Christmas Tree.” Suddenly, one palm tree shrouded in darkness illuminates, covered in colorful lights.

“What you don't see in the commercial, though, is that the area that we were working in was really marshy and, as a result, there were alligators swimming right where we wanted to put the camera,” Mike Rogers, a retired advertising executive with Campbell Mithun Esty and creator of the longest-running beer commercial explains in a 2015 anniversary video. “So we had to have alligator wranglers scoop the alligators and keep them out of the way. The cameraman was petrified, so we promised him he could go out there and set up the shot, and then escape.”

Despite nature’s threat of a potentially violent end from the scaled habitants of Mexico’s Yucatan region, Corona Extra’s ”O Tannenpalm” commercial didn’t just get completed—it became an iconic staple of holiday TV programming. The ad, made for an estimated $50,000 almost 30 years ago, has been running untouched since 1990.

In an environment where Bud Light’s ”Dilly Dilly” tries to catch lightning in a bottle or Coors Light revamps itself to capitalize on its cold credentials, the three-decade run of this singular Corona ad is an outlier. Appearing every year from Nov. 1 through December, some “O Tannenpalm” viewers have literally grown up watching the commercial—and now buy the beer to go with it.

John Alvarado, senior vice president for brand marketing with importer’s Constellation Brands Beer Division, chalks it up to an ad that “transcends time and occasions,” which sounds like fairly bland marketing speak until he backs it up with a somewhat stunning anecdote.

During annual focus group sessions with consumers, each discussion typically starts with a question asking a room full of people what they know about Corona or its advertisements.

“The spot is named first or second,” Alvarado says, going even further to highlight the fact these sessions take place in the summer. “It’s not like the context is such that it feeds into responses. It’s just that it resonates with people.”

Other likely responses include the beer’s slogan of “find your beach,” or the placement of a sliced lime at the top of a bottle’s neck, but even recent advertisements starring NFL head coach Jon Gruden or former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo don’t light up minds like the holiday commercial. The timelessness of “O Tannenpalm” as a piece of marketing is impressive on its own when it’s more memorable than what people are seeing on TV today, but consider that this 1990 commercial ranks just as high—if not higher—in the minds of consumers than the ubiquitous placement of a lime with a bottle of Corona.

This is why, when Alvarado and his colleagues sit down to plan holiday marketing every year, they have a conversation in which they at least consider doing something new, but end up at the same place every time. He says his team might spend 30 minutes brainstorming other ways to approach a new ad, but it just never seems worth it.

But while the spot may resonate with focus groups, turning that resonance into sales is another thing altogether. And even though there’s no way to solidly prove correlation and causation, the time of year “O Tannenpalm” runs does show strong marks for Corona, especially compared to other import brands.

From 2015 to 2017, despite outselling most of its competitors multiple times over in volume in IRI-tracked grocery, convenience, and other stores, Corona Extra shows some of the strongest week-to-week growth while the “O Tannenpalm” ad is running on TV. The amount of case equivalents Corona Extra sells over others (not counting another big seller in Corona Light) should make it more difficult for the brand to achieve higher percentage growth. But in the week leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas (the fifth and fourth highest-selling holidays, respectively, for off-premise beer sales according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association), Corona Extra shows some of the strongest growth against the top-five imports in the country.

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As with many holidays, from St. Patrick's Day (the 9th biggest off-premise holiday for beer sales) to Labor Day (3rd), Memorial Day (2nd), or the Fourth of July (1st), sales of beer across the board generally see an uptick. But it’s Corona Extra’s success against its direct competitors that at least presents an opportunity to stop and pause how a particular ad could give a boost to sales. It’s not out of the ordinary, either—Morgan Stanley credited the pop culture success of Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” campaign for a slight uptick earlier this year.

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But when looking at Christmas-specific sales, there’s another interesting wrinkle. Stella Artois is essentially the only other top-five import that’s giving Corona Extra a run for that holiday money. It also shows increased effort around Christmas ramping up marketing from customized social media content to TV ads and limited edition Stella gift packs. In 2016, when Stella saw a significant week-to-week boost for Christmas comparable with Corona Extra, it had debuted a new holiday door display for off-premise retailers, placing six- and 12-packs of beer on the stoop of a life-sized cardboard front door space. The move went on to win a "Best of the Times" award in 2018 from Path to Purchase Institute's annual Design of the Times competition.

Michael Rudolph, senior brand manager for Stella, told Shopper Marketing Magazine that partly because of the display, “sales and share were up, and we reached an all-time high in share for the brand in the final weeks of December” in 2017.

Alvarado and his colleague Ann Legan, vice president of brand marketing for Constellation's Beer Division, say the “O Tannenpalm” ad is key in keeping Corona “number one in the hearts and minds” of consumers. More marketing speak? Yes, but it’s also not necessarily wrong.

Mike Kallenberger, founder of Tropos Brand Consulting and a former Miller Brewing marketer who spent three decades with the company, says that when most major companies and advertisers feel compelled to do some kind of holiday ad every year, there can be a difference between seeing it as an obligation and embracing the opportunity to connect with consumers.

“Unlike some others who do a nice, warm, fuzzy-feeling ad and slap their name on it, [“O Tannenpalm”] speaks from the same voice and fits within everything else Corona is doing,” he says. “We used to say this a lot at Miller, that we’d get tired of our own ads long before beer drinkers did. We would change stuff just because we were exposed to it on a daily basis, but drinkers aren’t paying that much attention.”

“This stuff doesn’t wear out that easily,” he adds.

Perhaps most telling, during phone interviews with shoppers during his time at Miller, Kallenberger says when people were asked to describe the last beer ad they saw, most of the time commercials would be described “very literally,” noting sets, characters, objects. But when it came to “O Tannenpalm” or other Corona ads, “people went right into how it made them feel.”

In a 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mike Rogers, the former advertising executive, said that it was the simplicity of the commercial—a single cabana and lit palm tree—that led him to believe “it’s one of the very few times” he wouldn’t change anything about an ad.

“It’s a thrill when my grandkids ask me about it,” he told the outlet. “They can’t believe a commercial has been on the air so long.”

—Bryan Roth

Words by Bryan Roth