Light Beer, Suffering From Watered-Down Sales, Tries to Regain the Spotlight

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Retail sales of craft beers grew 15% last year. Liquor also had a good 2011, with a 4% increase in sales, while wine has soared in popularity among Baby Boomers and women in general. Everywhere you look, there’s a hip new vodka here, a rich and hoppy craft beer there, and big, bold tastes on every shelf. The classic American pale light beer, however, is best known for being smooth, which is another way to say tasteless. So … who out there still drinks light beer?

For the most part, the answer is: guys, and fewer and fewer of them every year.

Sales volume of mass-produced beer has decreased for three straight years, while other parts of the alcohol industry are flourishing. Liquor sales now make up more than one-third of the U.S. alcohol market, up from 28% a decade ago, while craft beers have passed 5% of the beer market, up from a mere 3.8% in 2007. How bad are things for beer? Even supposedly beer-loving Canadians are increasingly choosing wine: In 2000, beer accounted for 52% of alcohol sales up north, but just 45% of the market according to more recent data.

It’s amid this ferment that Businessweek highlights the latest marketing efforts of Miller Lite to revitalize its brand. The new tagline is actually a simple and direct old tagline: “It’s Miller Time.” The campaign will drop discussion of carbs and calories and any hint of a metrosexual angle. Instead, ads will play up the idea of brotherhood, of buddies having fun:

“Miller Time is all about real friends getting together over a real beer,” MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England said in an interview. “We’re going to articulate that with a kind of Midwestern grit that can only come from Miller Lite.”

(VIDEO: Taste Test: Beer with Extra Buzz)

In addition to the shift in marketing, Miller Lite will soon come in new cans that are meant to have guy appeal. By Labor Day, the cans will feature “darker, more masculine blue graphics,” according to Businessweek. “Other cans will have a perforated second opening that will have to be punched out with a tool of the drinker’s choice, because millennial guys ‘like to tinker,’ England said.”

The campaign may not be as overt as Dr. Pepper’s “Not for Women” soda, but Miller Lite seems to be conceding that women are not really its market. Men—blue-collar guys in particularly—are the core group they’re going for.

This group makes up the bulk of the market for Coors Light and Bud Light as well, but Bud Light’s latest offshoot is making a push upscale. Bud Light Platinum debuted around Super Bowl week, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the new beverage as Anheuser-Busch InBev’s “latest bid to pump up flagging sales of its flagship brand, and to counter liquor sales that are taking a bite out of beer industry-wide.”

(MORE: Light Beer Is Becoming an Endangered Species)

Platinum is supposedly smoother, and most definitely stronger beer, with 6% alcohol compared to 4.2% in regular Bud Light. It also comes in a sleek, cobalt-blue bottle with a logo that’s somewhat reminiscent of a hip energy drink. Add all of these elements together and it’s clear the beer aspires for an audience that’s more sophisticated than those who are amused by silly commercials featuring dogs, or who are satisfied with a light beer’s mere “drinkability.”

Instead of trying to woo away fans of craft beer, Platinum aims to attract folks who usually drink liquor, according to the Post-Dispatch:

That could prove to be a good strategy, said David “Bump” Williams, a longtime industry analyst.

“If it’s their intention to try and get some spirit shoppers back into beer, I think this could be it,” he said. “Bud Light Platinum has a pretty good shot.”

(MORE: Why Wine and Liquor Sales Beat Beer in a Flat Economy)

The latest move from Coors Light, meanwhile, seems a little out of left field: It’s a combo beer-iced tea concoction. While a little strange, it’s not that different than infusing a beer with blueberry or raspberry flavor, which some craft brewers do all the time.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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