The Motives of Upscale Rolling Rock Drinkers

I have been disoriented seeing affluent San Francisco hipsters who could afford much better brew nonetheless drinking Rolling Rock (a so-so working class beer produced about 70 miles from my hometown). I speculated that such consumption was a form of signalling, as if such an “authentic” Western Pennsylvania beverage could give upscale consumers some working class cred.

Not so, says Jay Livingston, who went to the source and learned about the marketing of the beer. Here’s the view of his industry expert:

far from expressing solidarity with the working class, urban drinkers far afield regarded [Rolling Rock] as an upscale icon in much the way that Stella Artois has claimed today – a triumph of pure marketing.

Jay’s post also features some arresting visuals in addition to his argumentation and research. Read it here.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “The Motives of Upscale Rolling Rock Drinkers”

  1. I don’t know how it’s seen in other countries, but Belgium, Stella Artois is just a non-descript brand of ordinary beer you’d find in the supermarket or canteen, and in the UK its nickname is ‘wife beater’. It seems bizarre to me that anyone would consider it an upscale brand.

  2. Have you considered the possibility that people drink it for the same reason they drink Corona, Stella Artois and Heineken: They just don’t like the taste of beer?

    1. I disagree. Some people, at least, drink Rolling Rock because they do like the taste of beer but can’t reliably get beer they like. Rolling Rock is like Holiday Inn: mediocre, but consistently so. If I can’t get the stuff I like (fairly difficult out of state) Rolling Rock is inoffensive, and I’m unlikely to drink enough of it to become impaired.

  3. I’m a fan of IPA’s and Belgian style ales, but have a fixed income and stay on the lookout for the cheapest, drinkable beers. I buy Rolling Rock when I can’t find Strohs. A 30 pack of cans is @$15. It’s a fairly dry, crisp brew, and a good chaser when sipping bourbon. I have never seen an ad for the beer. I do enjoy the Stella ads, and while that beer is a step up from American lagers, it’s the Miller High Life of Belgian beers and over priced. There was a very interesting article in the Washington Monthly recently on the consolidation of the world beer market. I think it was 80% of the beer sold in the world is sold by only two companies. Thank heavens for the craft brewery.

  4. I think Rolling Rock was the first beer I drank with any regularity – since it tastes like mildly alcoholic Sprite, it’s a sensible transition from soda pop. The idea that I might still be drinking it a decade or two later, and by choice, is just weird to me.

  5. When I was in grad school in D.C. many years ago the cheapest (and very down market) tavern near the school featured Rolling Rock at 15 cents a glass (and it was a real glass, not a stein) or a pitcher for 75 cents.

    The beer was not memorable but the conversation was.

    As to Stella Artois, its claim to fame in the US, if it has any, is apparently a halo effect from French marketing. When I lived in Paris, SA was very heavily promoted as both being really, really French, having the real French taste and as being from the real beer country of Belgium and as offering real luxury. Don’t ask how these things were reconciled. After all, this was adverting. And, keep in mind, that in France Belgium is about the same as Long Island or New Jersey is to Manhattan–an object of ridicule.

    Guess both RR and SA show what advertising can do.

    1. SA’s marketing in the UK also emphasises its supposed Francophone origins, even though the company is based in the Dutch-speaking city of Leuven.

      I don’t think it’s just Stella though: it seems that as a legacy of the superior social status enjoyed by Francophones in the early days of the kingdom, Belgium is generally perceived in the UK and France as a French-speaking country. Some people might know about the language dispute, but the fact that the Flemings actually constitute a majority is probably not widely known. Similarly, I think most French stereotypes about Belgians are based specifically on Walloons.

  6. A bottle of Rolling Rock is what Bunny is holding when he’s pushed into the ravine in “The Secret History.” I’m pretty sure that was deliberate characterization.

  7. A lot of people equate “foreign” or “non-local” with upscale. It seems not to have occurred to them that in the product’s country or region of origin, there are a wide variety of consumers with a wide variety of budgets and tastes, so there’s a non-zero chance that the imported (perhaps from Pennsylvania) beer you’re drinking may be the low-end brand in its place of origin and simply marketed as upscale to those who don’t know better. Corona, a truly terrible beer, is the Mexican example. Apparently Rolling Rock is the Pennsylvania example. I’ll gladly take a Budweiser over either of those simply because it’s cheaper and no worse, though I prefer craft beers.

  8. I’m pretty sure most people outside of the Greater Latrobe Metro Area drink Rolling Rock as an expression of irony.

  9. Jesus, Keith! You could have asked those of us who are old enough to remember. Perhaps you’re too old and missed the fun. When I was in college, we considered RR to be utter swill. That’s why we laughed our heads off when RR chose for their campaign slogan “Same as it ever was” when they decided to go upscale very late in the 1980s. Truer words have never been spoken in marketing circles. What happened was that Latrobe people saw the instant success of Boston Beer Company that formed shortly before that and correctly predicted that there was future in microbrewery business. Of course, RR was no microbrew–it was the same swill it ever was. So how to you sell Pittsburgh runoff to the yuppies? Easy, as it turns out–you double the price! RR used to be in the same pricing category as Carling Black Label–those tall Canadian bottles that came in a hard-waxed cardboard case that you now have to pay deposit on (if you can find one). CBL was much better beer, but still no craft microbrew, and even that pricepoint was only marginally above the true swill–Strohs, Milwaukee’s Best, PBR, Schaefer, Schlitz, Busch, Old Milwaukee and the rest of the skank that Midwestern frats drink by the trough. But it was a “speak truth to power” alternative to Bud, Miller and Coors (which barely got national distribution at about the same time and had just successfully ended the NAACP-led boycott).

    My comparison for this price-point marketing is college tuition rates. What do colleges do when they don’t appeal successfully to prospective students? Logic suggests that lowering tuition would be a good strategy–you offer your wares at a lower price, someone is more likely to buy it. But marketing suggests a completely opposite alternative–double the tuition. Instead of selling affordability, you sell exclusivity–who wants to be shown a fool for paying more for something that they could have had for less? The secret is safe with the graduates and they help to sell the mystique of the higher cost. One advocate of this strategy was the late John Silber, who managed to perform this miracle successfully at Boston University. And, yes, I just called BU the Rolling Rock of the academic world.

    Then, there are worse things than Rolling Rock (or SA, for that matter)–there’s always Killian Red, Bud Lite, Natural Light, all brands and flavors of Miller, Old Style (outside of Chicago, that is, where OS is inexplicably held in high esteem). Anyone seen the old “upscale” crap–Lowenbrau and Augsburger–lately? They are prime examples of failed marketing. They started out as mid-price alternatives to their mass-production counterparts, but they failed to catch the craft-brew trend on the upswing. In case you’re wondering, Lowenbrau was the expensive version of Miller (they must have justified the price differential by putting extra piss in the bottle) and Augsburger was the “craft beer” (even marketed as such) of Heileman (Old Style parent company, sold to Stroh lock, stock and barrel, with most of its brands now residing with Pabst, the King of Swill). Augsburger later ended up with Stroh (when it bought Heileman) and now resides with Stevens Point Brewing Company, so it still survives as a brand but has virtually no base (and, I believe, is no longer produced). The genius of Rolling Rock is that they started below these two and managed to outpace them.

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