November 19, 2012

The Curious Case of Budweiser's Project 12

This summer, Budweiser, the best-selling beer brand in the world, did something different. They called it Project 12.

"Project 12" started as an internal code name for the project, referring to the 12 US breweries operated by Budweiser (the flagship beer of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) and the brewmasters who operate them. Each brewmaster was encouraged to brew a beer that was not Budweiser or Bud Light or any of their other flagship beers. Instead, they were asked to create their own recipes. The only requirements were that brewers use the traditional Budweiser yeast and that the brews be equal in "quality and drinkability"to the flagship beers.

12 beers was a number that was "logistically difficult" to research for marketing, so the 12 beers were narrowed to six, and then sampled at events throughout the country over the summer in blind, unbranded tastings. The customers chose the three that ended up in six packs, which hit shelves this month. Each beer was identified by the zip code in which the brewery resides. The three beers that eventually won this crowdsourced contest were a golden pilsner from St. Louis (63118), a deep amber lager from Los Angeles (91406) and a Bourbon Cask Lager from Williamsburg, VA (23185).

A couple months ago, the folk at Budweiser were kind enough to speak with me about this project, which fascinated me for a number of reasons.

To begin with, one has to understand what a titanic brand Budweiser is. Whether or not one likes it or the product, it is one of the few brands that deserves the word iconic, and their beer empire has been built on a fanatical devotion to consistency and quality control.

As brewmaster Jane Killebrew said: "The hardest part of my job is to ensure that every Budweiser, quality wise, delivers consistency."

This is not a small thing when one produces about 100 million barrels of beer in different locations worldwide. And when one has a reputation for just that, I had to ask, why start trying to showcase differences in facilities?

"We wanted to celebrate both [the geographies and the brewmasters] within the context of the brand," said Killebrew, but she reinforced that was not the same as the breweries celebrating any type of individuality or difference. If that message sounds a bit vague and heady, you're starting to feel how I did.

"The differences are the personalities," Budweiser Vice President and Brand Manager Rob McCarthy explained. Those personalities don't showcase differences, though, when they produce Bud Light in different facilities.

So we have a product that is undetermined, and all that we know about it is that it will be under the same brand as the most consistent product in the world, and that product will really be a variety of three products, all of which are chosen not in focus groups behind closed doors, but by random people at blind tastings.

"We're kind of rolling with it," Killebrew said.
Budweiser Project 12 case design

If you were to talk to some people at big marketing firms and see how often they suggest "rolling with it" as an overall strategy for massive corporate clients, you would not find many instances. Which was why, at that moment, I had to stop and blurt out that none of this sounded like a big brewery at all.

To which McCarthy responded: "Exactly."

Lest you think Budweiser is being untrue to itself, I was told in no uncertain terms that the brand and company knows what they are.

"We're not trying to be craft. We're not trying to hide from Budweiser at all," Killebrew said. "Budweiser can never be a craft [beer]... We're a big brand and we're proud of that."

Fair enough. And I was also assured that this is in no way an attempt to convince a certain stripe of consumer that Budweiser is really a small brewery at heart.

"We know that there are a few that reject big brands. This is not for them."

Most product lines are launched from major companies after many months and millions of dollars in painstaking testing, focus groups, and strategic branding.

Project 12 is, of course, not doing any of those things. I asked if there were perhaps some higher ups in marketing or other departments that had voiced concerns about this. While no one on the call would go into much detail about it, it was clear that not everyone at Budweiser was in love with the less-controlled approach.

"This whole process started out as very collaborative from the very beginning, which was a bit of a departure for us," Killebrew said.
The team behind the Budweiser Williamsburg offering.

The use of a public crowdtesting process for product development seemed a big and uncertain effort more befitting BrewDog than Budweiser. But Killebrew did note that Budweiser's big seller Shock Top was developed through a "regional draft", a sort of limited pilot program to develop new beers. Those familiar with competitor MillerCoors might have visited the Sandlot brewery in Coors Field, where many beers are poured and tried by consumers. Some of those beers go on to nationwide launches under names like Blue Moon. So the departure may not have been as immense as one might think for Budweiser, and Killebrew placed it in a larger context of an increasingly bottom-up NPD (businesspeak for new product development)

"The company has really embraced, for new product development, that the consumer is really the boss," Killebrew said.

Of course, there's a difference between regional pilot testing and a nationwide bus tour with six unnamed beers for people to try, especially when navigating any corporate bureaucracy.

"Trying to get a group of people to agree on anything is a challenge," Killebrew acknowledged, but said the process has been helpful in many ways. "It's been a great way to get customer feedback,"

The rise of crowdsourcing (getting large numbers of individuals to aid in decision-making processes) has been accepted as a good way of building buzz and investment in the potential consumers, but it's usually for smaller startups and the tech world.

"The idea that Budweiser could do something like this.... consumers are open to it, and that really gave us creative [freedom]," McCarthy said.

There's also the element of competition, and encouraging debate between consumers as to which of the Project 12 beers they prefer. Not to mention, of course, the brewmasters who competed (and then collaborated) for spots in the final three.

"There is a lot of smack talk going on," Killebrew said.

Indeed, I had a few knowledgeable friends taste the initial six with me, and there was divergent opinions on most of the brews. One could consider that a negative, but a group of craft beer geeks disagreeing on products by Budweiser is in itself a sort of triumph.

The one thing I feel compelled to add is that everyone I spoke with about the project had a sort of disbelieving excitement about it, as if they themselves were not exactly sure how this had happened. Now, all the usual caveats apply: I'm just one guy, everyone was on the phone, people can fake things, I may be misreading, etc. But the sense of sincerely delighted surprise was very real, and they were aware of it. As McCarthy said:

"We're really having a good time with it."
Budweiser Project marketing piece


Okay, so I feel like there are two parts to this story. One is what I tried to do above, which is convey what Budweiser is doing, and how different it is. One could argue that even something like this is decidedly corporate, but I don't see how anyone could say it's not a gamble/experiment/departure.

The second part is analysis: Is it a good thing that Budweiser has encouraged - under the flagship brand - its brewmasters to express individuality, tie that to the physical plant where they work, and then release a mixed six pack of three beers that are at the very least quite distinct from Budweiser.

Before we get to that, some notes:

  • Original packaging concept work was done by New York firm JKR, and then finished in-house. For what it's worth, I think it's solid if not great. It definitely makes it appear as a limited-release, small-batch item.
  • If you're interested in seeing my opinions on the beers, you can see them at Men's Health here (spoiler: I liked the two darker ones, did not like the pilsner).
  • Here's how two of the beers poured in non-publicity stills. I have to say, the images Bud released are fairly accurate visually.

Budweiser Project Pilsner (St Louis)Budweiser Project Amber Lager (LA)

Okay, so is this a good idea?

First, this comes in the greater context of all the macrobrews getting more "craft" in their product mix, or at least trying to tap into the success of the movement. Fortune did a nice piece recently which had many craft brewers complaining that launching a product line and concealing its parentage (say, Shock Top, which does not mention its parent company of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) is deceitful. Obviously, this isn't that, but it goes to a deeper question in craft beer, which is if and why a craft beer lover must hate beer made by big breweries.

For a while, the party line was that big breweries make bad beer. This was why they were bad, because they deprived us of flavor and took up tap space with their big marketing dollars that sold an inferior product. I never bought this argument; of course macrobrews lack flavor, but many people don't want flavorful beer, and it's hard to call a business bad for meeting demand. Regardless, if they start making better beer and listening to consumers, then everyone who said this should start liking ABI, right? I won't hold my breath.

Some say that the big breweries are bad because they are big. This size leads them to consider capital above quality and costs about integrity. There has been plenty of arguing about what constitutes "big," but Sam Adams, the largest craft brewer, made a bit over 2 million barrels last year at plants throughout the United States. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are expanding to a massive new facilities in Asheville, NC. That's a bit of a hike from their homes in Chico, CA and Fort Collins, CO, respectively. Once a business has multiple facilities in different locales, quality control becomes the number one job of brewery employees, and arguably it does so well before that. Until we can agree on what "big" is, I'm not prepared to accept that a beer must be bad because the brewery that made it is so successful it needs lots of capacity. Also, that's just a really stupid argument.

These beers will not be ones I set out to find at bars, but I'm not really the target market. Arguably, these are aimed at Bud drinkers, trying to get them to branch out a bit. If that's the intent, or even the unintended effect, that's great for craft beer, not an assault on it. Just look at the quotes in the interview above; this isn't Bud pretending to be Redhook; this is Bud going a bit off the reservation.

Which is part of the reason why, though I kind of love the absurdity of this project, I think it's a pretty terrible idea for Budweiser.

The whole brand is built on a wonder of the modern world that is Bud's consistency. The brand stands for that one thing. The bowtie and script do not instantly mean quality of ingredients or flavor or even the fact that the beer will be "cold" (to which Coors has latched its train); they mean familiarity and reliability. A bottle of Budweiser in India tastes the same as it does in St. Louis. That's incredible, and they are right to be proud of that. But to do this rather strange messing with variance under the Bud brand seems like risky business to me. Why not do it under a different ABI brand? Go back and read the the very delicate tiptoeing that Bud  underwent with this project distinguishing between celebrating the brewmasters' differences and making it clear there's no differences between breweries. At the end of the day, it is really difficult to celebrate diversity and creativity while not sending the message that there might also be variation. That's a small risk for, say, Sierra Nevada, which still basically caters to an artisanal market, but it's a pretty frikkin' enormous risk for Bud.

So I'd be one of those muckety-mucks looking at McCarthy and Killebrew and going "I've got a bad feeling about this." But, since it's not my money and I don't own stock in ABI, I'm glad they did it. It could easily help grow awareness of different beer flavors, and I think it's a great sign that ABI is starting to become more responsive. Craft beer drinkers always asked for a more fragmented beer market; it would be a wonderful irony if it was Budweiser that helped bring it about.


  1. Ed. note: I originally had some of the quotes herein attributed inaccurately to my contact at the ABI PR firm. Correction made 11-19-12 at 5:30ish pm.

  2. Interesting. I just saw these for the first time at my local supermarket this weekend. It did catch my eye, but only briefly (I'm one of those people who pretty much ignore Budweiser). The bourbon-lager was the only one I was interested in, so I'm not buying six beers for two.