February 2, 2015

Why the Super Bowl Ad was Budweiser Waving the White Flag

So there was a football game in between some ads last night, and one of them is getting a lot of attention in our circles.

A beer company called Budweiser, famous for clever ad campaigns involving horses and, lately, puppies, ran an ad that, in a pretty serious departure, was all about beer:

Specifically, the ad was about craft beer, and why Budweiser is not craft beer, and why that's good, or harder or bigger, or something but definitely something good.

There have been a barrage of unsurprising takedowns from our world, ranging from the amusing to the incredibly thorough and thoughtful (seriously, if you're an ad geek, read that one by Lauter).

Let's dispense with a couple things first:

  • This publicity is good for Bud, meaning the ad is at least sort of successful. People are talking about it and resharing it, so that's all free views for them. It's not been viewed anywhere near the number of times as the lost dog or the other funny anti-craft commercial, but it's gotten exposure and buzz.
  • This has nothing to do with the recent purchase of Elysian by Bud's parent company, ABI. Some are making that connection, and yes there's a little humor in the fact that they mock the idea of a "pumpkin peach beer" and now are cousins with a company that makes one, but these are separate divisions and the people making this ad and in charge of selling Bud have nothing to do with Shock Top, let alone Elysian. So let's consider Bud it's own brand. 
  • Bud's thought process here is both clear and understandable. It's a well-produced ad, technically. Again, go read that Lauter breakdown, because it's great. Bud uses strong images and embossed-glass wording effectively. One gets the ad as a statement of strength and quality while also a belittling of competition. 
To understand this, we need to understand where Bud is right now. As Business Insider says:
A recent company study found that 44% of drinkers aged 21 to 27 have never tried the brand, reports Tripp Mickle at The Wall Street Journal.
Budweiser is the third-most-popular beer brand in America, behind Bud Light and Coors Light. It has recently also been challenged by craft beer, which is hugely popular with the millennial set.
At the brand's peak in 1988, it was selling 50 million barrels of beer a year. That number has declined to 16 million barrels. 

So this is a brand in trouble. Again, don't confuse this with Anheuser-Busch-InBev. This is Bud, and they're hurting. In this case, all of those moves by the parent company puts more pressure on the marketing team, because no one wants to be in the business unit that's losing steam.

Let's also remember that Budweiser did try to go more craft. They did that whole Project 12 thing, about which I wrote a great deal for a while. Every Bud brewmaster made a variant, and they pushed them all as evidence of their ability. But in the end, there was no way to reconcile that with the fact that Budweiser is a macro, quality-consistent product, and it resulted in Black Crown, which was both macro and lacked the iconic value of Budweiser. So for those of you screaming for them to be more craft-y... they gave it a shot.

So you've got a brand in decline in a market exploding with new options and a generation coming up that hasn't even tried what you make. You can't beat the fastest-growing segment (craft beer) at what they do, because that's not your thing. You apparently can't market your way into getting them to try it, because they don't trust you and you don't even make the thing they're looking for. You do a big thing really well but that thing is not the future and may not even be the present. Your parent company keeps buying divisions that do do that future thing well while your numbers stay red. This is basically where Hewlett-Packard found itself in the 1990s, and where the USPS finds itself now.

So what the hell do you do?

The only answer left is to double down on your base, who watches the Super Bowl.

As Bud VP of Marketing Brian Perkins says:
In carrying out research for this new campaign, Perkins says, the ad men at Budweiser found that there's some degree of frustration among drinkers about preposterous flavor combinations and the people who obsess over them.
"There's a small corner of the beer landscape that looks down on overwrought, pretentious beer snobbery," he says. "That's a side of beer no one likes, and that's the antithesis of what Budweiser's all about." 
"C'mon," he added. "U mad bro?"
I added that last part.

So, yes, it's doing all sorts of obnoxious things. It's self-righteous while belittling others for caring. It's contradictory and hypocritical (Don't dissect, but ours is the only Beechwood-aged beer since 18dickety7!). And it's blaming the consumer for not liking your product (a business practice I hate more than any other, and one that presages failure). But they didn't have much of a choice.

I think what Bud's ad men really found is that there was no way they were going to get craft drinkers. Look at those numbers again... 44% haven't even tried it. They hate it as an article of faith, and you can't get them. So the only hope is to try to get back a few you might have lost to, say, Sam Adams (by playing on the fact that plenty of obnoxious beer people belittle your Sam Adams for not being interesting enough), and to fight hard for the Miller and Coors folks.

It's a tough place, and I honestly feel for the Bud marketing team. But for all the talk about Goose Island or Elysian being a "watershed moment" for craft beer, I actually think we can look back on this ad as the moment when even Budweiser acknowledged their era of dominance is coming to an end. It will take some time, and they're going to fight like hell for every dollar on the way down (as well they should), but take it from someone who's worked in politics: When you retrench and decide to try and get more from the people who already are voting for you, it's because you don't have a better answer.

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