SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40

Steve Lauletta

In the year since Steve Lauletta won his first Forty Under 40 award, his job has gotten harder.

"The real change for me," he said, "is trying to differentiate what we do vs. what everyone else does. Sports and event marketing is becoming a very cluttered environment, and a lot of thinking is, you do something once and then move on to the next thing. Very rarely do you take something and develop it over time and have the discipline to stay with it and refine it and really learn. You really have to be disciplined to make that happen."

Lauletta is in charge of Miller Brewing's sports and event marketing, and in the past year he added oversight of the company's on-premise program, which means managing the people who conduct branded promotions in targeted accounts in key markets.

A group dedicated to grassroots marketing is a concept more common in 2003 than it was in 1993. Lauletta's been at Miller for 10 years in all, and he's seen the sports marketing landscape change radically, while the vexing task of proving return on investment remains. It explains the urge toward short-term thinking, Lauletta said, and why he strives for the discipline to stick with a program.

"It's hard to prove that every aspect of a sponsorship is delivering results as opposed to everything else that's going to market, so there's always the easier route of trying to invent a new idea rather than refine what you have," he said.

Lauletta said that's why his group developed the Miller Lite End Zone in Lambeau Field, "which we can make whatever we want, but it all comes back to knowing it'll still be there next year for us to make more interesting and fun."

That's not to say Lauletta's folks haven't come up with some clever one-offs. They've had a pretty good year at the ambush game, for one thing. Rusty Wallace has never won a Daytona 500, so Miller offered to give fans at the Daytona International Speedway free six-packs if Wallace won last February.

The speedway countered by refusing to allow it, then by keeping Miller off the speedway grounds. Finally Daytona Beach authorities warned Miller against impeding traffic. But the press coverage was heavy — and free — and Lauletta said the message got sent: "We're a beer company, and if Rusty won, we'd celebrate with a beer, so we wanted the whole crowd to celebrate with us."

And farther north, in Chicago, Wrigley Field fans arrived this year to see the venerable Torco car dealership sign on a building beyond the right-field fence replaced by a Miller Lite sign that competed with the traditional, "official" Budweiser rooftop sign in left field. A Cubs marketer would only say, "No comment; it's a sticky situation" — but what good ambush isn't?

Scott Brubaker, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the Arizona Diamondbacks, tells a slightly different story about Lauletta. Two years ago, barely a third of the way through a 15-year deal with Miller, the franchise went to the company asking it to share the beer category with interloper Budweiser in exchange for a significant cut in Miller's cost. Lauletta took the deal.

"The market could potentially have viewed it as a sign of weakness, but [Steve] took it as a way to get a little more efficient financially and showed a great deal of confidence in not only his marketing abilities but his regional marketer's abilities — 'I'll gladly go head to head with any competition.' That's just smart, and the one word I'd use to describe him is smart," Brubaker said.

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