Here’s the first of what I hope will be many posts that explore trademark issues related to my city, Pittsburgh. And no, this post actually has nothing to do with the Steelers (although, as is often the case in Pittsburgh, there’s an indirect connection).
This post deals with one of Pittsburgh’s favorite adult beverages: Iron City Beer. (The reader should note that the Pittsburghese translation of “Iron City” is simply “ahrn.”) Many readers outside greater Pittsburgh will not have heard of this beer, let alone the fact that its brewing operations are moving from Pittsburgh (in my neighborhood, actually) to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a city roughly an hour outside of Pittsburgh.
An article in this week’s Pittsburgh City Paper provides a detailed and fascinating account of the nearly 150-year old brand’s ups and downs. I won’t ruin the story for you, but, by way of preview, I can tell you it includes multiple bankruptcies, would-be saviors from out of town, check kiting, an innovative aluminum bottle, and (of course) a passing reference to a certain football team that happens to play in the same city. Businesses and marketing/advertising professionals should be able to take some lessons away from the “expansion versus tradition” narrative that is one of the article’s subtexts. Sam Adams drinkers will be interested to discover that the very first batches of that beer were brewed in Pittsburgh, not Boston.
“Iron City” is one of Pittsburgh’s nicknames, and there’s no question that as a mark, IRON CITY, refers to Pittsburgh. The company owns a variety of marks for different goods and services related to the beer and its marketing, and the move to Latrobe is likely a non-event in terms of the company’s trademark rights.
The more interesting question, however, is this: How much goodwill will be left when the beer makes its way back from Latrobe into bars throughout Pittsburgh? As the City Paper story highlights, there are Iron City drinkers who can trace their loyalty back a few generations. So after the move to Latrobe, who’s still on board?
On the one hand, there are reasons to believe the move could damage the brand. As the article notes, many are upset about the loss of a historical building, as the Pittsburgh Brewery location’s door are shuttered and talk of demolition looms. Others are upset by the prospect of so many jobs leaving the city. Overall, there is a sense among many that the brand may be losing its authenticity.
On the other hand, with the right management, Iron City could keep pace and perhaps even foster yet deeper loyalty among Iron City drinkers. There are a number of good reasons to think this. First, with the loss of Rolling Rock in 2006, there was a vacuum in Latrobe waiting to be filled. Western Pennsylvanians were sad to see Rolling Rock leave when it was acquired by Anheuser-Busch (and later InBev) with productions being shifted to New Jersey. The good news for Iron City is that a move to Latrobe is easier for Pittsburghers to stomach than a move to St. Louis or Belgium or (God forbid) New Jersey. It’s also worth noting that the company’s headquarters will remain in Pittsburgh.
Second, Iron City remains independent. In an era when larger firms seem to be constantly acquiring smaller brands, Iron City can stand tall as an independent brewer.
Finally, there’s the branding. Iron City sells beer in bottles made of aluminum. It emblazons its packaging with Steelers insignia virtually every time the team makes a first down. And, above all, it has an unpretentious attitude and taste that resonates with the people of Pittsburgh. Iron City may be produced outside of the city, but it has every opportunity to keep the spirit of city alive and well in its branding strategies.