Bottle Rocket

Lonestar-Beer_OilRigPoster_680

It was one of the finest marketing slogans ever hatched from the mind of man, a simple, unmistakable declaration of pride and resolve: “Long live long necks.” Fittingly, it seemed to just float into view, conceived over cold Lone Stars in the parking lot of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters sometime in early 1974. 

Jim Franklin, the concert hall’s wild-eyed resident artist and occasional master of ceremonies, was unwinding not far from the backstage apartment he shared with a boa constrictor and a chicken. His conferee was Jerry Retzloff, Lone Star’s local district manager, and talk had turned to the beer business. Retzloff was a reluctant newcomer to Austin, having been abruptly transferred from the brewery’s San Antonio headquarters the previous summer. Budweiser had started taking huge bites out of Lone Star’s Austin sales, in large part by targeting college kids. Retzloff knew that Lone Star president Harry Jersig, a first-generation German Texan and beer man of the old school, was unwilling to court the youth market. Their long hair sat ill with Jersig’s buttoned-up sensibility, and he didn’t want to appear to encourage underage drinking. And even if Jersig eased up, Retzloff would still have Lone Star’s long-standing image to contend with. Its slogan at the time, as voiced in commercials by Ricardo Montalbán, was “The Beer From the Big Country.” It was a rural, outdoorsman’s beverage, a beer for cattle pens, deer blinds, and bass boats. 

But when Retzloff arrived in Austin, he saw a surefire new angle emerging. He spent his days cultivating relationships with the distributors who brought Lone Star to town and the bartenders who sold it. His nights, however, were spent listening to music in the city’s budding progressive country scene, and he noticed an ungodly amount of Lone Star being drunk at its epicenter, the Armadillo. A check of the books at the brewery confirmed his impression: more Lone Star draft beer was sold at the ’Dillo, capacity 1,500, than any venue in the state except the 44,500-seat Astrodome. Whether it was a Texas nativism that even a hippie couldn’t shake or some precursor to modern-day hipster irony, the longhairs were threatening to make the cowboy beer their own.

Retzloff persuaded his superiors to let him pursue them. He brought the vice president of marketing, a thick-necked Canadian named Barry Sullivan, to the ’Dillo to hear the scene’s golden boy, Michael Murphey. When Murphey opened the second verse of his anthem, “Cosmic Cowboy, Pt. 1,” by singing, “Lone Star sipping and skinny-dipping,” every hippie in the room raised a Lone Star toward the rafters and screamed. Sullivan was sold. 

Retzloff’s briefcase.

Retzloff’s briefcase.

 

A drinking glove that Retzloff sold at the brewery’s gift shop and museum.

A drinking glove that Retzloff sold at the brewery’s gift shop and museum. 

A Jim Franklin poster.

A Jim Franklin poster.

Then Retzloff went to work on Jersig, who’d instructed him to grow Austin sales by 15 percent in the coming year. “I went back to Mr. Jersig and said, ‘How about I give you thirty percent?’ ” recalls Retzloff, now 74. “ ‘But you’ve got to let me do it my way. I’ve got to get rid of this coat and tie and get me some cutoff shorts and grow a beard’ ”—all of which were forbidden by strict Jersig policy—“ ‘because I can’t sell beer to these kids that way. I’m in there moving kegs around in a tie? They think I’m a narc! I’ve got to become part of the in-crowd.’ ” Jersig acquiesced—and let Retzloff know his job was on the line.

So Retzloff started thinking about a strategy, and that’s what he was doing, out loud, with Franklin in the ’Dillo parking lot. In his ten years with Lone Star, he’d worked in the plant, the front office, and the field, and he knew that to prod a meaningful uptick in sales, he’d need something to promote other than the beer itself, something that made it seem new. He remembered the Handy Keg, a twelve-ounce can painted to look like a keg that had helped Lone Star to its first year of more than a million barrels sold, in 1965. He looked at the bottle in his hand. It was skinny, with an extended neck, which in the industry was known as a returnable, as opposed to the stubbier bottles that drinkers could throw away. Budweiser didn’t push those longer bottles in Austin because it was too costly to ship them back and forth for refilling. 

Studying the bottle, Retzloff recalled a recent sales visit to a bar in Dallas, where he’d bought returnables for some SMU sorority girls. “Oh, look,” one had gushed. “Longnecks! Just like we get when we go down to Luckenbach.” Her excitement surprised him, and so did her description. “Longneck” was a term he’d heard only in a few small South Texas towns. He kept thinking. “Something about those returnables had always stuck in my head,” he says. “When I worked in the plant, our first beer break was usually at nine a.m., and we had about five places around the brewery where we could drink free beer. It’d be either in cans, returnables, or snub-nosed disposables. For some reason, the employees would always call around and see which spot had returnables, then go take their break there. I also knew, from my time in the accounting office, that eighty percent of the beer that employees took home was returnables.

“So I told all this to Franklin. I said, ‘These are beer people. They don’t give a darn if you come out with cans that fit in your back pocket, socks, purse, or whatever. They will forever be drinking returnables.’ ” That was all Franklin needed. His wonderfully warped mind had already made the lowly armadillo the mascot of the Austin counterculture, and he went to work on a poster design that would similarly elevate Lone Star. “Do you remember that first poster?” says Retzloff. “The atom bomb had just hit and blown everything off the landscape. The only two things still standing, the things that were absolutely invincible, were the armadillo and the Lone Star. And then he came up with that slogan: ‘Long live long necks.’ ”

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