Two guys walk into a bar. They order beers. Bartender says they don’t have any beer. The men look confused. A stranger in a stylish hat suggests they try something different. They order a clear malt beverage. It’s on ice, clear, delicious. The men are happy.
The entire ad spot lasts 30 seconds, or roughly the same amount of time Zima could claim to be among the most popular adult beverages in the country.
In 1991, with beer sales on the decline across the industry, the Coors company of Golden, Colorado decided to blend two of the hottest trends in consumer marketing: “clear” products like Crystal Pepsi and the smooth, gently-intoxicating appeal of wine coolers. By using charcoal to filter the color and taste from their brews, they were able to deliver a vaguely citrus-tasting drink with 4.7 percent alcohol content. The company asked third-party marketing firm Lexicon Branding to give it a name; Jane Espenson, who would later become a staff writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Game of Thrones, dubbed it Zima, the Russian word for "winter."
Armed with a $180 million budget for the 1994 launch, Coors peppered television with commercials featuring a spokesman who exchanged his s's for z's. (“What’s your zign?”) They also pushed a slew of merchandising and even an early consumer-use product website.
The goal was to get Zima on the minds and into the hands of young males. Owing to the blanket advertising assault, that's exactly what they accomplished. Zima sold a staggering 1.3 million barrels’ worth of product in 1994, giving it a near-instant 1 percent market share in the booze industry. It was estimated that 70 percent of all drinkers tried the “malternative."
As Coors would soon learn, those numbers only work in your favor if people like the product. The company was disappointed to learn that many of them didn’t: Men found the taste off-putting. And those who enjoyed it were precisely the demographic they were looking to avoid.
Women who normally passed over beer embraced Zima, giving it an effete quality that marketing considered to be grim death for the valued male customer base. If a man couldn’t feel manly taking a pull of the clear stuff, he'd be likely to reach for something else.
On the public relations side, Coors was also having to defend itself against charges that teenagers were growing fond of Zima because its smell was harder to detect than regular beer (it had almost no odor) and was easier to consume out in the open. A rumor surfaced that Zima wouldn’t set off a breathalyzer, which Coors was forced to debunk in letters addressed to police chiefs and school officials.
Unfortunately, being in the beer business and having to write letters to superintendents means that something has already gone very wrong. By 1995, Zima's sales dropped by half; in 1996, they dropped nearly in half again. David Letterman began mocking it on his talk show. Coors tried to entice the hip crowd, launching Zima Gold, which had a more liquor-like taste, but they weren’t fooled. Zima XXX and its higher-volume alcohol content (5.9 percent) followed, all to diminishing returns.
Nothing could recapture that early intrigue: Citing poor sales, Coors, which eventually merged with Miller to become MillerCoors, discontinued Zima in 2008—but that wasn't quite the end.
In 2014, The Japan Times reported that Zima was a popular order in Tokyo bars. The drink’s advertising campaign was focused on appearing cool to young Japanese men, who apparently order it without fear of coming off like a party lightweight. And in summer 2017, MillerCoors banked on nostalgia to fuel a Zima comeback: The brewer has resurrected the suds-free beverage for a limited time through Labor Day.