The Long, Slow, Torturous Death of Zima
The infamous "malternative" debuted during the clear beverage craze of the early 1990s and lasted over a decade as the butt of many jokes.
There are a million ways to slight a rival’s manhood, but to suggest that he enjoys Zima is one of the worst. Zima was the original “malternative”—a family of alcoholic beverages that eventually came to include such abominations as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver—and it has long been considered the very opposite of macho: a drink that fragile coeds swill while giving each other pedicures.
That stereotype has persisted despite the fact that Zima’s brief heyday came nearly 15 years ago. The brand was then hailed as a marketing coup, an ingenious way to sell beer—or rather, a clear, beerlike solution—to consumers who eschewed traditional suds. But virtually overnight, Zima was done in by its medicinal taste and girly-man rep: After selling an astounding 1.3 million barrels in 1994, the year it went national, Zima’s sales fell to just 403,000 barrels in 1996.
Many drinkers assume that Zima vanished shortly thereafter and has since existed solely as a punch line. But Zima actually survived for more than another decade, until MillerCoors pulled the plug on October 10, 2008. Rarely has such a famously maligned product enjoyed such a lengthy run—a testament to its brewers’ Madonna-like knack for reinvention. The Zima that died a quiet death last month bore little resemblance to the malternative that swept the nation during President Clinton’s first term.
Zima debuted in the midst of the “clear craze” of the early 1990s, when products ranging from Crystal Pepsi to Mennen Crystal Clean deodorant sought to take advantage of a vogue for (literal) transparency. Coors, then the nation’s No. 3 beer-maker, hopped on the bandwagon by devising a simple process for making a clear brew—just filter your lowest-grade lager through charcoal (a process that strips away both color and taste), then make the liquid palatable by adding citrusy flavorings.
Miller, then one of Coors’ chief rivals, mastered this technique, too, creating Clear Beer, which failed miserably. Coors thought it knew why: the presence of the word beer on the label. Clear brews may have been beer-based, but they were bound to disappoint true hops aficionados—there was no foamy head, and the taste was sodalike rather than malty. So Coors decided to pitch its see-through drink at male consumers who didn’t love beer but fancied themselves too macho for Boone’s Farm. (Coors pointedly instructed stores to never place Zima alongside wine coolers, which male drinkers regard as effete.)
Coors threw $38 million into promoting Zima’s nationwide rollout in 1994, more than it spent hawking Coors Light that year. The campaign’s centerpiece was a series of TV commercials starring a black-hatted pitchman who replaced his S’s with Z’s and touted Zima as “zomething different.” The ads offered no inkling of what Zima was supposed to be, exactly, but the mystery obviously intrigued the masses: In 1994, Coors estimated that 70 percent of America’s regular drinkers gave Zima a try.
Unfortunately for Coors, most of those drinkers tried it only once, since straight Zima tasted like tinfoil soaked in Fresca. Some college kids mixed the drink with schnapps, creating a head-splitting cocktail dubbed Nox-Zima, but few other drinkers were so enterprising. To Coors’ horror, Zima proved most popular among young women—a demographic that, while generally fond of getting tanked, just doesn’t have the same thirst for hooch as its male counterpart. And once the ladies took a shine to the stuff, the guys avoided Zima as if it were laced with estrogen. (Coors was also widely accused of marketing Zima directly to high school students, many of whom were convinced that Zima couldn’t be detected by Breathalyzers.)
By the end of 1994, Zima had become a favorite whipping boy of David Letterman, who regularly featured it on his nightly Top Ten lists. (The No. 9 sign that your senator may be nuts? “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner—Zima!”) Coors tried to lasso male consumers with new ads featuring pickup football, to no avail. Then in 1995 it launched Zima Gold, a caramel-colored version of the malternative that boasted high alcohol content (5.4 percent) and a bourbon-and-Coke tang. It barely lasted three months on the market before it was pulled for lack of sales. It was simply too late to salvage Zima’s rep among men.
Coors was widely expected to kill the brand, as Miller had done with Clear Beer. (Several me-too malternatives, such as Pabst’s Izen Klar and Stroh’s Clash, had suffered similar fates.) But the company instead chose to reinvent its once-proud brew. It altered Zima’s formula to make it taste even more like Sprite and launched a new ad campaign touting Zima as the ideal thirst quencher for oppressively hot days. Sales never came close to reaching their 1994 levels, but they did rebound to a respectable 610,000 barrels by 2000. That’s peanuts compared with a flagship beer brand like Coors Light, which sold 16.6 million barrels that year. But Zima was a high-margin product—charcoal-filtered dreck that sold for superpremium prices. It could still earn its keep on low-volume sales, most of which took place in warm-weather states during summer.
Zima went through two more complete retoolings, the first in 2004 when it was transformed into Zima XXX. Coors pumped up the alcohol content to 5.9 percent and introduced flavors such as Hard Punch and Hard Orange. The move was made after Zima had lost significant market share to Smirnoff Ice, which benefits from confusion over whether it contains vodka. (It doesn’t, at least in this country.) Coors sensed that the only way to compete was by hyping Zima as a drink worthy of daredevils.
The gambit failed. Three years later, Coors (on the verge of its merger with Miller) reversed course and decided to embrace a group of consumers it had once reviled—women in their 20s. Zima was relaunched with less alcohol, fewer calories, and an array of fruity flavors such as pineapple citrus. Going after women wasn’t a great way to grow the product’s market, but Coors believed that today’s young females could sustain Zima as a niche product.
This last, dainty incarnation of Zima might still be with us were it not for killjoy lawmakers in Utah and California. In the former state, notorious for its tough liquor laws, Zima was one of the few potent tipples available in grocery stores. (Most alcoholic beverages are available only in state-controlled shops.) But MillerCoors withdrew the brand from Utah in September, after the state’s legislature passed an onerous law requiring new labels that indicate a malternative’s alcohol content in bold, all-caps letters. It didn’t make economic sense for the brewer to print Utah-only labels.
In California, meanwhile, the state’s Board of Equalization decided to tax malternatives as distilled spirits rather than beer (the dubious rationale being that such an increase would discourage alcohol abuse among cash-strapped minors). MillerCoors could have challenged the $3.10-per-gallon tax hike by submitting scientific evidence attesting to Zima’s lack of liquor. But for a brand that already had one foot in the grave, that apparently seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Shortly after the regulation kicked in on Oct. 1, MillerCoors finally threw in the towel on Zima. California had been one of its largest markets.
For a brand that was selling tens of thousands of barrels per year up to the bitter end, Zima’s demise has inspired surprisingly little anguish among its fans.
This online petition aims to send 1 million signatures to MillerCoors headquarters; as of this writing [in 2008], it’s just 999,947 names short of that ambitious goal.
There are surely more than 53 Zima lovers in America, and many of them are doubtless male. But that’s a love that dare not speak its name.