Just take one look at the can and you can see why Greg Koch is so pissed off. In MillerCoors’s newest marketing push to reposition their Keystone beer brand, they’ve decided to downplay the "Key" and really emphasize the "stone." This, as you may imagine, does not sit well with Stone Brewing cofounders Steve Wagner and Greg Koch, or the entire Stone team.
"Keystone’s rebranding is no accident," says Dominic Engels, Stone Brewing CEO. "MillerCoors tried to register our name years ago and was rejected. Now its marketing team is making 30-pack boxes stacked high with nothing but the word ‘stone’ visible. Same for Keystone’s social media, which almost uniformly has dropped the ‘Key.’ We will not stand for this kind of overtly and aggressively deceptive advertising. Frankly, MillerCoors should be ashamed."
"They are being surprisingly bold with this," Koch adds. He points out that, in addition to Keystone’s packaging design, its new marketing campaign features taglines that read "Grab Life by the ’Stones," "Hunt the Stone," and "Stone Sweet ’Stone."
"Sometimes they’ll put a little apostrophe in front of ‘stone,’" Koch says, "but the bottom line is, you can see very clearly that they are trying to […] push the word ‘stone.’ And, hey, in the world of beer, the word ‘stone’ is ours."
To add insult to injury, the Keystone cans prominently feature "stone" and "light" in big, bold type—Koch points out that you would never see these two words together on one of his beers.
To set about making things right, Stone Brewing filed suit on Monday to "defend the iconic STONE® brand" against one of the world’s largest and most powerful beer companies. The formal complaint alleges unfair competition and trademark infringement, which Stone says creates confusion in the marketplace and threatens to erode the trust consumers have for the Stone brand.
"Are we doing this for publicity?" Koch says. "No. This is a weird way to get publicity, because it really doesn’t talk about the attributes of our beer, which is what we like to do."
He thinks MillerCoors has made this move partly out of desperation. According to Nielsen, sales for the beer industry’s domestic premium category dipped by 4 percent in 2017, equivalent to a $12.5 billion loss. Meanwhile, Stone Brewing remains one of craft beer’s strongest and most-recognized brands. It’s the ninth largest craft brewer in the United States and has—among many other accomplishments and accolades—been twice voted "All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth" by BeerAdvocate magazine.
As a longtime San Diego craft beer fan, it’s hard for this writer not to take this move from MillerCoors just a little bit personally. Sure, it’s a legal fight between two large companies (one much larger than the other), but every beer-loving local knows that Stone is an iconic San Diego brand; it’s one that has played a pivotal role in the growth and evolution of our industry, and so it feels as if Big Beer is trying to use its muscle to steal a piece of our San Diego identity as well.
Stone is being represented in the lawsuit by Noah Hagey, Rebecca Horton, and Toby Rowe of San Francisco’s boutique firm BraunHagey & Borden, and it’s safe to say we’ll be rooting for them.