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clearly an enigma
by Robin D. Rusch
July 16, 2001

Zima means winter in Russian and like a Russian winter, it’s not fully appreciated by all. In fact it’s the butt of many jokes, but Coors continues to make it, and apparently, people continue to drink it.

What is Zima? A drink that seemed set to revolutionize the alcoholic beverage industry less than a decade ago. Here was a clear drink with a similar alcohol content to beer, yet lacking the taste and color of a hop brew. Zima was a white good without the high alcohol content, taste and association you might get with, say, sitting down to a vodka on the rocks. In short, it was in a class of its own.


Why was it clear? Zima’s birth came during the “clear” period of American products. Similar to the recent iMac-inspired transparency look to all objects office-like, commodities underwent a “clear” craze in the early nineties (this was following a “dry” trend in the brewing arena and the sudden fascination for all things “ice.”) As a result we had Amoco Crystal Clear motor oil, Ban Clear deodorant, Crystal Pepsi, and Zima – a new clear, not-exactly-a-beer beverage from Coors Brewing Company.

Coors first launched Zima in 1992 in a few choice markets. Following positive initial response, Zima rolled out nationally in 1994.

It seemed like a good idea. After all, in a category by itself, Zima could be marketed without competition. And the good news for Zima is that the challenger clear malts that sprang up (Stroh’s Clash and Miller’s Qube, for instance), have quietly discontinued production, leaving Zima as the leader in the small market.

Still despite early sales and initial interest, Zima hasn’t broken any records in the drinks industry overall. Coors says that it doesn’t compare individual product sales – a claim that seems a bit preposterous – so we looked at other sources for an understanding of Zima’s market.

According to Brandweek, “the brand peaked at 1.2 million barrels in 1994 and then fell to 415,000 barrels three years later” (February 2001).

Beer Marketers Insights, a newsletter that tracks shipments for US sales, says that Zima’s market has been steadily growing in the last few years. Shipment figures in 2000 were up 11% from the previous year at 610,000 barrels (550,000 in 1999 and 479,000 in 1998).

It’s hard to compare these figures with other alcoholic beverages since Zima is in its own category, but its closest competitor would probably be Smirnoff Ice, launched by Guinness this year. Guinness projects that Smirnoff Ice will exceed 800,000 barrels in the first half, but as this is a roll out (which typically results in strong figures) and as it’s based on the company’s own predictions, it’s probably not a fair comparison with the ten-year-old Zima.

So despite the slow growth in sales, it seems safe to say that Zima will never reach mainstream status. In fact, it has acquired a reputation for ridicule among members of the press and non-Zima drinkers. Still Coors is undaunted by this position. Seemingly resigned to the status of a niche beverage, they continue to promote the drink and optimistically state that they hope to continue to grow the market both in the US and overseas.

But who drinks the stuff? According to a spokesperson at Coors, the target market for Zima was and still is men between the ages of 21 and 29. Although women drank it when it launched and may continue to drink it, the brand is chiefly targeted to appeal to young men. Coors uses sports tie-ins and promotional sweepstakes to attract attention and generate interest in the product among young males. The packaging, sporting steel and bolt imagery, and the humorous advertising are consistently geared toward men in their twenties.

And although it’s hard to get people to change their drinking habits, the target market is young enough to capitalize on the developing tastes of men. Of course many people acquire their alcoholic tastes long before they turn 21 (the legal drinking age for residents of the US). And in fact, Zima is referred to as a bridge or gateway drink by its critics. That is, like hard lemonade and wine coolers, it serves to entice a younger audience who may not be ready for the more acquired tastes such as hard liquor or beer.

Whether that’s Coors' intent or not, the targeted group does seem to be unique. Earlier attempts to entice men with Zima Gold in 1995 resulted in discontinuation before the year was through. Promising a “taste of bourbon,” Zima Gold diverged from the clear theme and went amber (or put another way: looked more like a beer). The concept sounds convincing and yet, it didn’t take among Zima drinkers. On the other hand, Coors has now added a Zima Citrus drink to the line. Seemingly less masculine then the concept behind Zima Gold, the Citrus drink is, according to Coors, doing very well among the targeted group of men.

Still if you’ve never heard of Zima or never dreamed of tasting it, you’d not be in the minority. Despite Coors insistence, one still can’t help wonder if its sales justify production.

Perhaps one indication of the drink’s status is the recent demise of its website. An early pioneer of the web as a promotional vehicle, Zima was among the very first to take out a web banner in 1994, and its correspondingly innovative website was heralded within the online community. Interestingly, there is now no Zima site left at all (although Coors is still listed as the holder of the domain name). One wonders if this is the first sign of a product that will soon be discontinued itself.


Robin D. Rusch lives and works in New York City.

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