Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New (Old) Rules: How Budweiser and Bud Light can get back to selling beer.

Little more than a year ago somebody at Anheuser-Busch suggests Budweiser’s ad agency dig out D’Arcy’s “This Bud’s for You” campaign, immerse themselves in its strategy, its emotion, its ability to connect with beer drinkers.  See if it doesn’t inspire something beyond their product-driven “Great American Lager” advertising and even breathe some new life into one of the world’s once greatest brands - since Bud was in the process of trending a minus 9.5% in sales and dropping to an historic low 9.3 share for the year (Beer Marketer’s Insights data).

And Bud Light’s parallel woes (sales dropped 2.5% in 09 – their first lost in 27 years - a pace that continues YTD) shouldn’t surprise anybody, either.  Their “Drinkability” campaign was off the first day out, it’s failure predictable (which I did:  see January 2010 blog post).

The Budweiser mandate came on the heels of InBev’s takeover of Anheuser-Busch, which I wrote about at the time, for Advertising Age (“Hey Budweiser: The Only Way to Bring Back Bud is by Being Fearless,” AdAge CMO Strategy, Aug 11, 2008), which acknowledged the painful but inevitable take over with a plea to shake up A-B’s marketing – because it needed it – and for Christ’s sake, do not be penny wise nor pound foolish.  Unfortunately, it looks to me like they’ve made some major moves on their two flagship brands, Budweiser, and Bud Light, motivated by, well, fear itself.

They had reason to worry:  Budweiser sales in grocery stores, drugstores and supermarkets had declined 7.4% up to that point in the year, on the heels of total shipment declines of 6% and 4.7% the two previous years (Beer Marketer’s Insights).

The agency’s response, “It’s What We Do,” breaks less than six months later, added to their most recent tag line, “The Great American Lager.”

“It’s What We Do?”  Actually, I didn’t think their beer was the issue.  I thought it was Budweiser’s disconnect with beer drinkers that they were supposed to figure out how to fix.
Full disclosure: I have to admit, being an old D’Arcy guy instrumental in that campaign, I took some pleasure seeing the headline urging DDB to “study D’Arcy’s campaign” (AdAge, May 11, 2009), You know, imitation, or even inspiration, being some kind of flattery and all.

Bud Light left parent brand Budweiser in its wake in 2001 to become the world’s largest selling beer, to be drunk by nearly one in every five beer drinkers – a position Bud once held.  You could argue the Budweiser franchise no longer had a genuine parent brand at that point, and now Bud Light was losing business, too (3% first half of 09 according to Information Resources, Inc.).

Bud Light  finally dropped “Drinkability” for their current campaign:  “Here We Go,” from Cannonball, St. Louis, which debuted in this year’s Super Bowl.  They might as well tag it “Here We Go, Again,” because it, too, flies in the face of every New (Old) Rule described below.

If either brand is going to revitalize their relationship with beer drinkers – and that is their failure: they’ve ruptured any relationship they had – they might want to consider the following New (Old) Rules in beer advertising - with apologies to Bill Maher.

By the way: I can’t imagine anything worse – in advertising - than a client telling me to check out another agency’s advertising to see how its done, especially while I’m mired in InBev- imposed research and ivory-towered consultants.  Nevertheless  “… here we go:”

New (Old) Rule:  To co-opt a political rejoinder, “It’s the strategy, stupid.” 

The strategy behind “This Bud’s for You” was brilliant in it simplicity:  celebrate the working man like only the King of Beers could do, and reward his hard work with a Budweiser. This was a direct path to connection.   It was aimed at the heavy beer drinkers, the 20% of guys who drank 80% of the beer.

First of all, it’s hard to know who “It’s What We Do” is aimed at, except maybe guys who
watch television.  And the client.  And think about this:  instead of celebrating beer drinkers - one good way to connect with us - they’re actually kind of ridiculing us guys:  for all the stupid white man-ways we’ve been greeting each other over the years; or dissing each other (Hey asshole, you look like shit – but I’m only kidding. Let’s have a Bud.); or somebody’s delusion of how beer drinkers carry five, six beers in ballparks (Hell, you can’t even buy that many beers at once, even at Busch Stadium, can you?)

And then they make it worse by painting some kind of contrast that says, “But not us, not Budweiser, we’re not that, like, shallow, or faddish, or goofy, or cynical.  We’re still cranking out our beer the same way we have for more than 100 years.  So what’s up with you, beer drinker?”

Besides, what is the new, ground breaking strategy anyway?  We still brew Budweiser the same way it’s been brewed since 1876, despite all the quirky fads and social change swirling around us?  This has been a brand asset in Budweiser’s advertising for about a century and a half, through every conceivable kind of change and fad from flapper skirts to leisure suits and Ninja Turtles. And anyway, is this the core issue for anybody, besides the client?  Or the brewmasters?

Bud Light’s new campaign strategy is “intended to convey that Bud Light is a ‘catalyst for good times’,” according to Keith Levy, A-B’s CMO (NY Times, Jan 26, 2010).  “When Bud Light shows up, the party is going to begin.”  Somehow I don’t think partying carries the same gravitas as, say, hard work, or camaraderie, or even chilling on a beach – the last three representing relevant territory beer brands have actually owned, successfully.  Besides, these days, if I’m looking to alcohol to fuel a good time, a) I’ve probably got a problem, and b) whether or not, I’m solving it with vodka or something.

New (Old) Rule:  Beer drinkers buy the image, not the ingredients – not even the taste.  They rationalize their choices - in focus groups - based on the ingredients, and its “quality,” or its brewing process, which they’ll even interpret as “taste,” but nobody makes real beer choices based on rational reasons. Maybe the craft beer drinkers do (nah, maybe not), but not real, regular human beer drinkers. 

So, above all, you have to connect with them emotionally.  Make a relevant, emotional connection, in the context of beer drinking.  The essence of beer drinking is guys hanging out in a bar, sucking down suds, thinking they’ve still got it, and can still get it, knowing they’re in good company.  And some gorgeous, statuesque young woman walks in, all smart and confident, and walks straight up to you, the beer drinker, sticks out her hand and says, “Hi, I’d really like to meet you.”  Her eyes are dark as the night you want to spend with her and she’s got a 1000-watt smile and she’s got you at “hi” because she already thinks you’re cool.

The essence - but I digress.  The reality is most beer is consumed away from bars, a lot of it at home, with wives.  But home is boring in beer advertising.  So you try to capture some kind of essence.

Everybody knows you can justify anything through focus groups.  You hear what you want to hear – especially if you’re looking for respondents to feed back an ingredients message.  Sure, they’ll tell you, they heard it, and yeah, it’s meaningful.  But they’re lying. They don’t care about product attributes; they’re only using them to rationalize an emotional decision.

They must not care about taste, either.  A-B’s president, Dave Peacock, was quoted recently (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug 20, 2010, “Can Budweiser, the King of Beers, reign again?”) saying, “(Budweiser) wins blind taste tests again and again.  It’s the perfect liquid.” Exactly my point.  Taste doesn’t matter – as long as it tastes like beer and it has alcohol in it (“It’s all good beer,” A-B’s brewmaster used to say.  He knew); if it did, Bud wouldn’t have dropped from a high of 26% market share in 1988 to less than 10% today.  Over and out.

Until this year’s Super Bowl, Bud Light’s advertising has insisted that it represented “Drinkability” – a word lifted right off of Budweiser’s label, proudly proclaiming for decades that Bud has “… a taste, a smoothness and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.”  Thing is, it was believable; it made total sense for Budweiser.  It made no sense for Bud Light.

So they changed it to “… the just right taste” with “Here We Go (Again).”  Which is what every beer drinker in the entire world thinks about his beer.

New (Old) Rule:  Assume the position of a brand leader.  Leaders lead, they don’t follow. Leaders set the standard, they don’t respond to lesser brands.  Leaders are proactive, not reactive.

Budweiser used to be The King of Beers.  We resisted the nagging efforts of Meister Brau when they protested that it “tasted just as good as Budweiser, only costs less.” The King does not acknowledge pretenders.

A-B held steadfast as Miller and others came out with the new, low-calorie L-I-T-E beer from Miller (as August III loved to call it) for two years, and then trumped the entire market with Bud Light (it was launched as Budweiser Light, by the way).

We were the leader, we assumed the position, and we acted like it.

No more.

“This Bud’s for You” ran for what, 15, 20 years?

How many campaigns has Bud been through since then? 

Worse, A-B has become totally reliant on increasingly thin line extensions and international expansion markets (Great Britain, China) to prop up their sales.  Meanwhile they’re losing their ass where it matters most, the US of A. To wit:

Bud Light Lime came on the heels of Miller’s earlier lime-flavored entry, Miller Chill.

Bud Light Golden Wheat followed Miller’s test and subsequent decision not to introduce a Miller Lite-branded wheat beer under its Brewer’s Collection.

MGD 64 boosted Miller Genuine Draft’s franchise long before A-B introduced Bud Select 55.

Even Bud Light’s “Drinkability” platform looked like a response to Coors Light’s “cold refreshment” positioning.

Meanwhile their home market, the very essence of their American roots, their DNA, continues to erode.

All of this “follow the leader” marketing is tantamount to admitting defeat.  No wonder.

New (Old) Rule:  Beer isn’t funny, or goofy.  Or sophomoric.  Beer drinking isn’t funny.  It’s … reparative, irreverent, satisfying, thirst quenching, rewarding, all about bonding and camaraderie.  And hooking up.  It’s … cool.  A good time, too, for sure; fun, but … not funny, unless maybe you’re drunk. This was another major flaw in Bud Light’s “Drinkability” campaign and continues to be with “Here We Go:” they seemed to assume it was Bud Light’s “sophomoric humor” that had been lost, so they’re trying to recover it. Actually, they have. Sophomoric, indeed.  Yes, grab-ass beer drinkers drink Budweiser, too, and Bud Light. But only because they aspire to be something else, like genuine Bud drinkers.  Market to the real Bud/Bud Light drinkers - the mopes will come along, too.

“Here We Go (Again)” continues to embrace Bud Light’s brand personality:  sophomoric.  It may be even worse.  Have you seen “Clothing Drive?”  It must reflect the essence of what Bud Light is after, because they’ve been running an extra-long version of it on their website. 

Scene from Bud Light “Clothing Drive:”

“The Great American Lager?”  Without some kind of emotional context, who cares?  Guys buy the beer whose label they want to sit behind at a bar.  Because it stands for the kinds of things they do.  Or wish they did.  So you give them a “reason why” so they can justify their choices in focus groups and when they belly up to the bar with their buds, and their Buds.  I mean, nobody’s going to actually admit they drink Budweiser because it reinforces their wannabe image of themselves, or their need for their friends to really really like them.
“This Bud’s for You” was an outright paean to the world’s heaviest beer drinkers. This was good business.  It was only in the middle of the commercials that we suggested it was the “exclusive Beechwood Ageing process that produces a taste, a smoothness and a drinkability (there’s that word again!) you will find in no other beer at any price.”  The reason why.  But the most of it embraced the beer drinkers we were after, celebrated them and their hard work, in stories and music-driven montages - and the “This Bud’s for You’ music was uplifting, emotional(!), recognizable; it always played a dramatic role in Budweiser’s advertising, unlike the wallpaper stuff we’re seeing now.

New (Old) Rule:  All beer drinkers are not alike.  Even heavy beer drinkers.  First of all, plenty of heavy beer drinkers are white-collar guys, always have been, but we knew they all wanted to believe – if they really had to – that they could work as hard as the blue-collar beer drinkers.  So they, too, were attracted to “This Bud’s for You’s” celebration of the working man.  Same effect the Marlboro Cowboy had.

And if Bud Light, and Budweiser, have become “my father’s beer(s)” – the kiss of death in beer – then you’ve got to speak to their offspring, in their language.  In their environment.  To them.  First of all, there’s no damned reason to walk away from us fathers.  We drink a lot of beer, too, plus we’ve got more money.  And it may take something radical to reach the young – ok, minimum age – heavy beer drinkers, to shed the old-guy image.  But don’t compromise it all by trying to be that way with everybody.  Being way edgy or totally hip might work for “minimum  age” beer drinkers, but not necessarily for everybody else.

We had the same problem then that they do now with younger beer drinkers.  What did we do?  We segmented the market (probably the first time a major brand ever did so, at least to the breadth and scale we did).  “This Bud’s for You” for the mainstream.  Special commercials that ran only on Saturday Night Live, for “young adults.”  Broad-based integration of Blacks and Hispanics in national commercials, which convinced them that they, too, were an important part of Budweiser’s brand world.  Hell, we made Lou Rawls our national spokesguy for a few years (all of which built on important community-based programs for further credibility); plus targeted media buys for both segments (with special Hispanic creative en Espanol, customized for Cubanos in Florida, Puerto Ricans in NY  and Mexican Americans in Texas, California and NY). 

What we did not do was try to be young and cool and stupid to everybody.  We isolated that stuff for the “young adult” market, and when August wanted us to run our first music-video spot for SNL (the first one ever, featuring Leon Redbone, a frequent music guest on SNL) on national football games, we talked him out of it.  We grabbed ourselves by the cojones, raised an objection, articulated why, and carried the day.  It was the right thing to (not) do then and it’s a strategy that holds today. 

We earned #1 positions in every segment after being the largest seller because we were never worse than everybody’s second choice.  And we generated double-digit growth for something like 36 consecutive months in an industry that was only growing at 1 or 2%.  In fact Budweiser was the only flagship brand showing growth: Miller High Life and Coors were dropping like streamlined bowling balls.

New (Old) Rule:  It’s about the beer drinker first.  Then the beer.  Connect with the beer drinker on an emotional level – his, not yours; get that right, then offer him your beer.  Relate to him, reach him, humor him even; give him something to identify with.  To aspire to, even. The badge to wear.  Something … meaningful.  Something positive.

An admission (or an obvious disclosure of truth):  “This Bud’s for You” took a cue from Miller.  They were first to recognize those 20% of the beer drinkers who drank most of the beer.  At the time Budweiser was seen as something of a white-collar beer, believe it or not. So we went after these blue-collar guys, too.  Genius!  But there was a major strategic difference between “This Bud’s for You” and “Miller Time.”  We were about the beer drinker (see above).  This Bud’s for You. They were about the beer.  It’s Miller time. We won.

“It’s What We Do?”  Same problem.

Actually, in some kind of perverse way, Budweiser’s current advertising gets the equation right:  they do put the beer drinker first.  Trouble is, they put him down.  Maybe I’m too sensitive, or too bald, but being reminded that we white boy bro’d our way thru some goofy man-greetings over the years just ain’t gonna win me over.  In life we should be able to laugh at ourselves.  It’s trickier in advertising.

And if I’m getting naked – I sure as hell have no interest doing it in an office with a bunch of other guys, do you?

In other words …

New (Old) Rule:  Beer is not for morons.  Or dipshits.  Despite the fact that we elected a president two terms in a row because he was “somebody you could have a beer with,” the good beers, the brand leaders, shouldn’t be marketed to morons.  So what was with the “sophomoric humor” in “Drinkability?”  And now “Here We Go (Again)??”

“This Bud’s for You” gave the beer drinker the benefit of the doubt, that he had sufficient wit to spot bullshit a mile away.  Well, they still can, as evidenced by the failure of Bud Light’s “Drinkability” campaign.  And now, “Here We Go.”  Actually, that’s good news for the rest of us.

New (Old) Rule:  Sometimes you just have to grab yourself by the cojones and say no. Apparently EuroRSCG started the “Drinkability” campaign.  Not sure where they get their beer credentials, but DDB certainly has them.  Somebody there must have had the kind of groaner reaction to this idea then that the rest of America soon had.  Dude?  You know damned well there’s just something creepy about it.  It ain’t working.  Just say no!  Avoid the inevitable.  And yet, here you go again with “Here We Go (Again).”  Do your agency and your client a favor.  Go for it.  Lot’s of times it will actually work.  Besides, if you don’t, you’re probably going to read about it later in some trade magazine.

New (Old) Rule:  There’s no substitute for gut.  Research is supposed to be an aid to judgment.  But it’s no substitute for it.  Which means you’ve got to have some judgment of your own, some instincts.  And the cojones to stand up for both.  If you’re relying on research to totally define your brand strategy, or your advertising, you shouldn’t be in the beer business.  In fact, you shouldn’t be in the advertising business either – you should probably be a researcher.

Bud Light discovered this the hard way with their “Drinkability” campaign, a strategy apparently derived from The Cambridge Group, a consultancy firm hired by August A. Busch IV a couple of years earlier (they must be pina colada drinkers).  He was following in his father’s footsteps: “the 3rd,” who retained a studied professor from Wharton - who actually came up with a definition for a “reparative” beer drinker - a guy who had a cold one to reward himself after a hard day’s work.  Thank you very much.  And in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs they were big time “Belongers.”   Once we got the prof out of the way, the result was “This Bud’s for You.”

The great DDB campaigns for Bud Light – Spuds McKenzie; “Yes, I am;” “I Love You, Man,” were not sophomoric and they were beyond funny:  they were irreverent, unexpected, wise guy attitudes that defied all sense of the expected.  They invited you to laugh with them, not at them, or at each other.  All of them expressing emotions and attitudes that beer drinkers could relate to, and did.  They became part of the vernacular.

Ain’t gonna happen with “Here We Go (Again).”

There’s a fine line, and a big difference, between being almost funny or worse, goofy - and irreverent; between humoring yourself and connecting with your target.  If I don’t like the guys in your commercials, I ain’t drinking your beer. In fact, no real beer drinker would take the kind of “kidding” in dumb silence that you see in “It’s What We Do.”   If some guy says to me, “Hey, I like your ‘stash, but where’d you dock your steamboat,” my answer is, “Yeah, and your girlfriend likes it, too.  In fact she’s outside in my steamboat, waiting for me to give her a ride.”

Truth is, these New (Old) Rules are both.  And they’ll still sell beer - if you’re willing to follow the rules.

© Tim Arnold
September 2010
A postscript:

Since I posted this piece, Anheuser-Busch announced the hiring of Anomaly, A NY/London independent advertising agency, and they’ve debuted their new work, “Great Times Are Waiting, Grab Some Buds.” 

Unfortunately it was launched in conjunction with an announced “National Happy Hour,” when A-B gave away a half-million Budweisers, presumably to generate trial among younger beer drinkers.  Their logic?  According to their own research, 4 out of 10 beer drinkers under the age of 30 had never tried a Bud, despite the fact that, according to A-B’s President, Dave Peacock, Budweiser wins all the taste tests.  Exactly, and the joke is on them.  Beer drinkers aren’t rejecting Budweiser’s taste; they’re rejecting the image, which A-B has rendered utterly irrelevant or worse, stupid.  So, thanks for the free beer and, until next time, I’m back to my regular brew.

Having said that, I like the look and feel of the “Grab Some Buds” advertising.  It may or may not be too late, but this advertising (re)assumes the position of a leader.  It reflects a contemporized version of the King of Beers. Simply eliminating the dipshits from their advertising sets them apart from, and above, most other beer advertising.  And with a half turn strategically, and given the time and budget support to work, I think this advertising stands a chance of making a difference.  We’ll see.

©Tim Arnold
October 2010


1 comment:

  1. Excellent pieces. Keep posting such kind of information on your blog. I really impressed by your blog.
    Super Bowl Commercials 2012