Monday, November 7, 2011

Bud Light Needs to Grow Up

As published in AdAge Oct 24, 2011

It’s time for Bud Light to grow up.  Which must be painfully obvious to Anheuser-Busch InBev and their new CMO, Paul Chibe, because they’ve asked a half dozen agencies to tell them how to fix a brand that for years has prided itself on “sophomoric humor,” an approach that finally, predictably, led to Bud Light’s first sales decline in 27 years, in 2009, a decline that continues to this day.

What took ‘em so long? would be a fair question.  Alas, better late than never.  Maybe.

With parent brand Budweiser’s eroding market share – from 25% to less than 9% today – another marketing travesty marked by a series of line extension and advertising missteps – Bud Light’s 2.5% decline in ’09 sparked some clumsy attempts to reconnect with their LDA – 24 yr old user base.  Trouble was, both their “Drinkability” and “Here We Go” campaigns were not only strategically flawed, but still mired in “sophomoric humor,” a kind of humor that ultimately held their target beer drinkers up to ridicule – not a great idea.  It’s like “dumb ass” was actually part of the brand’s defined personality. 

Thing is, there are some fundamental truths about beer advertising that I always thought were obvious, but apparently not, because Bud Light has violated all of them in recent years.  And if they’re to have a chance of re-establishing any relevance to today’s beer drinkers they’d be well advised to consider the following “New (Old) Rules,” I’ll call them, with apologies to Bill Maher …

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

Until last year’s Super Bowl, Bud Light’s advertising had 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 “… just the right taste,” which is what every beer drinker in the entire world already thinks about his beer.


Once they figured out that “Drinkability” was at best a product “reason why,” and at worst irrelevant to the light beer category, Bud Light’s next and current campaign, “Here We Go,” was “intended to convey that Bud Light is a ‘catalyst for good times,’” according to Keith Levy, A-B’s then CMO (NY Times, Jan 26, 2010).  “When Bud Light shows up, the party is going to begin.”  Not exactly a strategic point of difference.  And somehow I don’t think partying carries the same gravitas as, say, hard work, or camaraderie, or even chilling on a beach – all of which represent relevant strategic territory beer brands have actually owned, successfully. 

They might as well have called that one “Here We Go, Again.”  Because first and foremost a beer strategy has to define a relevant, emotional connection to beer drinkers.  And it’s got to be more than … fun. Then something akin to a desired – and relevant - brand personality needs to describe the connective tissue.  And then justify it all with a viable product attribute or two. That’s the strategic equation.  In that order.  In other words …

New (Old) Rule:  Beer drinkers buy the image – not the ingredients.  Not even the taste. 

Mass market beer drinkers 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 some if they wanted to, and knowing they’re in good company.

The essence.  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 emotional 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. I mean, how many guys are actually going to admit they drink Budweiser because it reinforces their wannabe image of themselves, or their need for their friends to really really like them?

They must not care about taste, either.  A-B’s president, Dave Peacock, was quoted not too long ago saying, “(Budweiser) wins blind taste tests again and again.  It’s the perfect liquid.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug 20, 2010, “Can Budweiser, the King of Beers, reign again?”) Meanwhile the brand was tanking.  Which is exactly my point.  Taste is not the priority – as long as it tastes like beer and it has alcohol in it (“It’s all good beer,” A-B’s brew master used to say.  He knew).  If it was, Bud wouldn’t have dropped from a high of 26% market share in 1988 to 8.7% today (Beer Marketer’s Insights data).

New (Old) Rule:  Beer isn’t funny, or goofy.  Or sophomoric. 

Beer drinking ain’t funny, either.  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 tried to recover it with “Here We Go.”  And guess what?  They did.  

There’s a fine line between being almost funny, or worse – goofy – and irreverent; between humoring yourself and connecting with the target.  If I don’t like the guys in your commercials, I ain’t drinking your beer.  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. 

Yeah, grab-ass beer drinkers drink Bud Light, too, and Budweiser. 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.

With “Grab Some Buds,” from Anomaly, NY, Budweiser has climbed out of that same rut with relevant, engaging advertising that re-assumes the position of a one-time brand leader, driven by a strategy that says that “we’re all in this together, good times are coming, so grab some Bud’s, and some buddies, and let’s go for it!”  It’s giving beer drinkers credit for, you know, having their acts together, or something.   All of it reflected in the kinds of genuine beer-drinking occasions and beer drinkers we’d all like to be part of.  Reports are that it’s working. It’s gaining (re)consideration and likeability in several major markets, and if they stick with it they stand a damned good chance of regaining some lost ground.  At least they’ve re-assumed the position of a genuine brand leader.

And it took some growing up of their own.  Budweiser’s previous campaign, “It’s What We Do,” was both strategically and executionally flawed.  Bud’s problem wasn’t what they did; they’ve been brewing great beer since 1876 (and continuing to “win blind taste tests again and again,” according to Peacock). Nope - it was the brand’s disconnect with beer drinkers that was the problem.  Only some kind of dipshit would take the kind of “kidding” in dumb silence that you see in one of the “It’s What We Do” spots.   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.”

And what’s with the dorks in Bud Light’s “Clothing Drive?”  Is that supposed to be us beer guys up there on the screen, wandering around the office in our underwear with our flabby pink guts out in front of us?  If it is me, I’m not admitting it.  But it must reflect the essence of how Bud Light has seen their franchise, because they were running an extra-long version of it on their website.  

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, give him something to identify with.  To aspire to, even. The badge to wear.  Something … meaningful.  Something positive.

Beer drinkers aren’t morons.  Or dipshits.  They can spot bullshit a mile away.  You wouldn’t know that from Bud Light’s “sophomoric humor,” or even Budweiser’s “It’s What We Do” campaign.

Actually, in some kind of perverse way, Budweiser’s earlier advertising got the equation right:  they did 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.

New (Old) Rule:  All beer drinkers are not alike. 

Budweiser discovered this way back with the launch of “This Bud’s For You” (full disclosure:  I was instrumental in that campaign with D’Arcy, St. Louis, as a young account guy who ended up running that business for nearly ten years).  As successful as that campaign was, it was even more successful with its ground-breaking market segmentation: special, reinforcing marketing and advertising specifically targeted to young adults (as we called them back then), Blacks, Hispanics and even women.  Efforts that regained #1 shares in each of these segments with provocative, relevant messaging.

We went radical with young adults, creating special, targeted commercials for Saturday Night Live.  What we did not do was try to be young and cool and stupid to everybody.  We isolated that stuff for that segment.  But we defined it as “irreverent,” not “sophomoric.”  Big difference.

If Bud Light has become “my father’s beer” – the kiss of death in beer – then you’ve got to speak to their offspring, in their language.  In their environment.  To them.  But 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.  It may take something more radical to reach the LDA – 24 yr old beer drinkers, to shed the old guy image.  But don’t compromise it by trying to be that way with everybody.

What is the over-arching Bud Light platform that speaks to their heaviest beer drinkers?  And how can it be reinforced with segments critical to their success: LDA-24 yr olds, Hispanics and Blacks?

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.  And they certainly don’t stoop to their level.  Leaders are proactive, not reactive.  Leaders innovate – not imitate.

Bud Light endures as the world’s largest selling beer – leaving parent brand Budweiser in its wake in 2001 - but Coors Light continues to gain on them and may even pass Bud sometime soon to become the world’s second largest selling beer.  Bud Light (like Budweiser) has tried to staunch the bleeding with me too line extensions (Bud Light Lime came on the heels of Miller’s earlier lime-flavored entry, Miller Chill; Bud Light Golden Wheat followed Miller’s test of and subsequent decision not to introduce a Miller Lite-branded wheat beer under its Brewer’s Collection.  And now there’s talk of a new Bud Light Platinum, with a higher alcohol content.

Thing is, it’s the primary Bud Light brand that’s the problem, and line extensions are only going to make it worse. It’s time they acted like the dominant light beer category leader.  Like the world’s largest selling beer.  It’s time for Bud Light to assume the position and reinvigorate a franchise that continues to erode at the edges.  It’s time for the brand to grow up.

Tim Arnold
Advertising Age
Oct 24, 2011

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