December 16/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin) -- Air guitar champ William Ocean will never be mistaken for Bob Uecker. But the relationship both men have with Miller Brewing Co. shows how the nation's No. 2 brewer is taking a radically different approach to reach a new generation of consumers.

Uecker, the legendary Milwaukee Brewers radio announcer, was among the former athletes and other celebrities who starred in a long-running TV advertising campaign for Miller Lite. The so-called "Uecker seats" at Miller Park are cheap tickets, with the name a reference to a TV spot that had Uecker ousted from a ballpark box seat and exiled to the nosebleed section.

Lite reigns as Miller Brewing's number-one brand and carries the biggest ad budget among the company's brews. But Miller's fortunes are increasingly tied to guys such as Ocean: young hipsters who are drinking less beer than their baby boomer parents and are more likely to tune out mainstream ad campaigns.

Ocean is a big fan of Sparks, Miller's citrus-flavored malt drink laced with caffeine. He began drinking it soon after it was launched in 2002, and he later incorporated Sparks into his air guitar stage act. That led to a new promotional partnership between Ocean and Sparks, part of Miller's offbeat marketing campaign for the drink.

There are no TV spots or radio jingles for Sparks. You won't see the stuff promoted at Packers games or other sporting events where beer is a staple.

Instead, Miller is using a chaotically designed Web site (www.sparks.com), giveaways of Sparks at house parties and other gatherings, and the sponsorship of events such as art shows where beer is usually not part of the scene.

It's unlike anything Miller has done, and the Miller name is generally not connected with those efforts. The Sparks Web site refers to Steel Brewing Co., a Miller subsidiary with an official location of Irwindale, Calif., where Miller operates a brewery.

Miller executives declined to discuss with the Journal Sentinel their marketing strategy for Sparks. Randy Ransom, Miller's chief marketing officer, recently told trade publication Advertising Age that the company was trying not to "Millerize" the Sparks brand.

"We've been doing mass marketing a long time, and this taught us a different way," Ransom was quoted as saying.

Compete with Red Bull
Sparks was created by McKenzie River Corp., San Francisco-based beverage marketing firm, to compete with Red Bull, a caffeinated, citrus-flavored drink that is mixed by club-goers with vodka, giving them a supposed energy kick with their cocktail.

Miller last year bought Sparks; its companion brands, Sparks Plus and Sparks Light; and Steel Reserve malt liquor from McKenzie River for $215 million.

Sparks and other caffeinated alcohol drinks caught some criticism in August. A letter signed by attorneys general from 28 states said the drinks were sold with misleading claims that they will help drinkers stay up late and party all night. The state officials asked the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to expand its efforts to prevent misleading statements from being used to sell the drinks.

Miller and other drink makers said they work closely with the bureau to ensure that their products meet federal regulatory requirements. McKenzie River earlier agreed to pay a $200,000 fine after the bureau found that the firm published magazine ads that implied Sparks has a stimulating or energizing effect.

Sales increasing rapidly
The Sparks brands make up just a tiny share of Miller's sales volume of 38 million barrels, with annual sales of probably around 350,000 barrels, according to Eric Shepherd, editor of trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights. But those sales are increasing rapidly, he said.

Miller's sales tactics for Sparks are similar to those used by other companies that hope to get young people talking about their products without the use of traditional mass media advertising.

The idea is that people will talk up the drink to their friends, said Anastasia Goodstein, editor of ypulse .com. That website focuses on marketing to Generation Y, a group defined by some as being born from the early 1980s through the mid-90s.

"The person-to-person approach is especially effective with younger people," Goodstein said. "That's sort of who they trust the most."

It's also common for companies marketing to Generation Y to sponsor stunts, Goodstein said.

A notorious example surfaced in February, when electronic light boards depicting a cartoon character were placed on expressways in the Boston area, leading authorities to close bridges because they thought the devices could be bombs. The light boards were promoting a late-night adult cartoon, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." They were created by a guerrilla marketing firm hired by Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which airs the show.

Alternative agencies
Miller has hired a similar firm, Boston-based Street Attack, to promote Sparks. Street Attacks calls itself "an alternative marketing agency tapped into the pulse of the modern voice and the new social landscape."

The firm's website says its challenge for Sparks was to "authentically increase awareness" for the brand among "key influential social scenes and subcultures," to increase its perceived "cool factor," and to "create a pull from consumers in core markets."

Street Attack's strategy was to create a "nationwide cultural curator program, empowering key tastemakers to seek out and activate on authentic under-the-radar sampling opportunities, events, and sponsorships," the website says.

In plain English, that includes giving away cases of Sparks at house parties, concert backstage scenes, recording studios and art events.

"If you have a party on the horizon, please drop me a line and I can get you some complimentary cases of Sparks," one Street Attack sales rep wrote in an online forum aimed at Phoenix-area club denizens. "The only thing I need in return is photos of people drinking the product, and I can always drop by and take those. And I need to be able to show that at least 20 people were at the party."

Another example is Sparks' sponsorship of the "Ignite What's Next" art tour. The tour showcased the works of several contemporary artists at cities on the coasts in September and October. It also was sponsored by urban clothing designer Upper Playground and Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine.

Teamed with guitar mime
At Sparks.com, fans can view hand-drawn animation, through a link to YouTube, and other offbeat material. The website also includes suggestions for mixing Sparks with various drinks, nearly all of them Miller products, including Mickey's Malt Liquor (which, mixed with Sparks, is called the "Rowdy Irishman") and Miller High Life ("The Lunchbox").

Finally, there's the Sparks partnership with William Ocean, air guitar artist. In August, he won the U.S. Air Guitar Championship in New York with performances that include his crowd-pleasing move: a flip through the air that ends with Ocean landing flat on his back and crushing a partially consumed can of Sparks.

Ocean, whose real name is Andrew Litz, has been competing in air guitar contests for about three years. He's also a longtime Sparks drinker.

"Maybe it's psychological, but I feel it gives me an extra boost," Litz said.

About six months ago, Litz contacted Sparks about creating a partnership. That led to a sponsorship agreement by Sparks for an air band tour and competition that Litz will host, starting in February.

It will take place in bars in New York and possibly other East Coast cities, where Miller is increasing its distribution of Sparks. The plan is for contestants to "play" air guitar, air keyboard, air bass, and air drums, with another competition for lip synching. Litz eventually will choose the best in each category to create "a complete air band," which will play a 20-minute show.

"It's a spectacle," Litz said.

It's also a long, long way from Miller Lite's "tastes great" vs. "less filling" debate.

From the December 17, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash