The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which represents the state's bars and restaurants, wants its members to have the same rights to use promotional products as pubs in other states. Scott Ellis, executive director of MBLA, said that the federal government's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau already has comprehensive laws regulating what promotional merchandise can be given to bars and restaurants, and his association is asking Michigan to replace the current flat ban with those policies.
In a conversation with Promo Marketing, Ellis said his association is taking baby steps. The state's laws prohibit manufacturers or wholesalers giving "aid and assistance," such as secondary use promotional products, to retailers. "We're not even asking for that," he said, referring to free items from manufacturers. "We're asking for the ability to purchase. We don't want it for free. We want to be able to use them, period."
It isn't just the bar industry that wants a more open policy. In a statewide poll conducted by the MLBA and the Michigan Restaurant Association, 75 percent of respondents said they would either strongly support or somewhat support a change in the law that would allow logoed barware at restaurants.
"These items are allowed under federal statute, but they are prohibited from use in an establishment under Michigan's archaic liquor code and rules," Ellis explained.
The retailers want to use the product and the wholesalers want to uphold the prohibition, but what about the last part of the three-tier system? Michigan has a strong brewer's culture: The state is home to more than 100 craft breweries, and in May 2013, Grand Rapids was named "Beer City USA" in a national poll. Shouldn't these proud companies want to, and be able to, promote their products in their home state?
The answer to that question, it turns out, is hard to find. When contacted for this story, no brewery would speak on the record about the MLCCA or the use of promotional products in the state's taverns. One source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some manufacturers are working with the state and the wholesalers to change separate MLCCA provisions that limit a brewery's ability to expand. The beer makers don't want to take on another battle, especially one that would put them at odds with their wholesaler partners.
Craft breweries and microbreweries also have another reason not to change the regulations regarding branded merchandise: they're exempt from the laws. Brewpubs owned and operated by a manufacturer are allowed to use promotions with beer-centric logos, meaning they are free to advertise product using pint glasses and napkins in ways other bars cannot.
Caught in the middle of this are Michigan's promotional products professionals, who are effectively cut out from one of the most popular markets for logoed merchandise. The state is home to hundreds of supplier and distributor companies who are contending with laws no one else in the country faces. As Kiewiet said, "If they were to try to limit advertising on other media, there would be outcries for violation of the First Amendment."
Kiewiet's not the only one who questions the MLCCA's rules. In 2012, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked local business owners to review the state's liquor laws and make recommendations for changes. One of those recommendations was to "remove all prohibitions on Secondary Use items that are provided by suppliers," and the state's Office of Regulator Reinvention voted 12-6 in favor of that recommendation. That vote was not binding, but it gave hope.
Change is on the horizon, but what form it will take is uncertain. In September, Michigan state Sen. Joe Hune submitted two bills that would prohibit any changes to the state's liquor regulations, effectively turning the Michigan Liquor Control Commission's rules into laws. "We're going to bring everyone to the table and try to get complete agreement on the issues," Hune told the Michigan Information & Research Service.
The MLBA doesn't buy it. Hune's bills strongly support the MBWWA's stance and ignore the issues Ellis and his team have raised. The MLBA has pledged to continue its campaign for change, but until then, the state's bars and restaurants have to wait for the tables to tip in their favor.