As the great drinking holiday Cinco de Mayo approaches, my thoughts turn to Corona beer. Not because it’s good (it is not) or because it’s cheap (definitely not), but in amazement that Corona has turned into such an enormously successful brand in spite of itself.
Corona is the 5th best-selling beer in the U.S., edging out Natural Light for that honor even though it’s double the price of Natty. Corona is also the no. 1 U.S. import, ahead of Heineken. Yet few beers are held in more disdain by serious beer drinkers. RateBeer.com gives Corona an aggregate score of 1.69 out of 10. The Beer Advocate gives it an “awful” score of 56/100.
Corona was once the victim of a smear campaign that became an urban legend: a rival at Heineken spread the malicious rumor that Corona brewery workers urinated in the beer vats. The lie was eventually exposed, but the damage was done.
Twice in the past few years Corona has made international headlines, and not in a good way. In 2013, seven Corona employees died while cleaning the vats, apparently from inhaling toxic fumes. Last year, Corona had to recall certain lots of Corona Extra when glass particles were found in some bottles.
No matter. Despite deliberate sabotage and mortifying mishaps, despite peddling what is (at best) a mediocre and over-priced product, Corona marches on, and is now actually growing market share while Bud and Miller shrink.
Is it all about advertising? Corona ads are unusual in the beer world in that they never mention ingredients or process. In fact, the TV ads have no spoken words at all, just vignettes of tanned and relaxed people chilling on a beach to a soundtrack of seagulls and crashing waves. In a way, they’re selling not beer but a state of mind: cracking open a Corona, the ads imply, is like taking a vicarious beach vacation. The little lime wedges that are always shown in the mouth of the bottle make the whole thing seem even more exotic.
In what now looks like a stroke of genius, Constellation Brands acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Corona in 2013. Formerly known for buying out wineries, Constellation has made its move into the beer market. Expect to see lots more beach commercials upcoming.