Back when Budweiser sold 50 million(!) barrels of beer per year, the idea that a pretend beer like Coors Light, a relative blip on the radar screen back then, would one day outsell it would have sounded even more outrageous than the idea that someday there'd be flavored beer. Or whiskey commercials on TV. But all of this came to pass, and more. In fact, the entire beer industry is turning upside down and inside out.
In the face of it, and to its credit, Anheuser-Busch is not sitting still. The past several months have seen the exit of Anheuser-Busch President David Peacock and the hiring of a new CMO who's determined to do the right thing. It's also changed ad agencies on its two primary brands, launched a new product to compete with spirits, announced plans to introduce several other flavored, cider- based and rum-based line-extensions, invested in exclusive sponsorships of the NFL and Major League Baseball telecasts, initiated some innovative social-media applications and spent more money on this year's Super Bowl than any other advertiser.
Better late than never. Much better.
Paul Chibe, the recently appointed CMO, has his hands full. He's inherited once great U.S. brands that are in severe erosion and he's determined to confront what he sees as the "dumbing down" of the entire category's advertising, as he told me last week. The kind of advertising (see also Miller Lite's "Man Up" campaign, et al) has contributed to the category's loss of volume to wine and spirits, hence Bud Light Platinum -- "a premium proposition" designed to "appeal to young-adult drinkers who've moved to hard liquor," as Chibe describes it.
Of the three A-B brands advertised on this year's Super Bowl, it's the Bud Light Platinum commercials that distinguish themselves from the others -- and not necessarily for all the right reasons. Both "Factory" and "Work," new 30-second spots from Translation, are decidedly un-beer like, by design. Chibe says they've "taken chances" with these Bud Light Platinum commercials. Indeed. "Factory" was an austere, industrial-looking, copy-driven intro spot, and lacked the kind of emotional engagement evident in what once passed for effective beer advertising.
"Unlike most other Super Bowl commercials, the quiet [of the piano] pulls you in," said Chibe. (Or it could also have signaled a good time to unload your Johnny Black with a splash.) The piano riff is sampled from Kanye West's "Runaway."
"Work" is set in an office (right?), and it's dark so I guess it's after work, populated with young . . . spirits drinkers ("who it's for") drinking BLP. Avicii -- the young Swede who hit the Top Ten in several international markets with "Levels," a popular dance track and the music bed in the spot -- is actually in the commercial, playing the DJ. If young drinkers recognize him, it could add buzz.
Bud Light Platinum presents the elusive liquor drinker with a riddle -- wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. More alcohol. But barely more than Budweiser, not nearly as much as craft beers and not even close to liquor. Will it compete with, say, scotch, for people who drink alcohol for the buzz (c'mon, admit it)? Duh. And fewer calories. But barely fewer than Budweiser (137 vs. 145) and more than any other light beer, including Bud Light's 110. Is it still a light beer? You make the call.
Will BLP energize the franchise? Yes, at least short term. Will it cannibalize Bud Light? You bet. Should it have been Budweiser Platinum? Perhaps. Is it an oxymoron? We'll see.
For brand Bud Light, the good news "there's no more morons" says Chibe. And he's right. "The beer drinker is not the butt of the joke." And he's right. There wasn't a single guy in his underwear, no over-played dipshits in McGarryBowen's "Weego," the agency's first for Bud Light since it won the business. Given the brand's recent advertising history this is indeed a significant accomplishment. And as Chibe described it, a "smarter application" of humor, a first step in the evolution of the brand's advertising. Same tag lines, so far. Same VO announcer. A new/old humorous situation, this one with cooler people and the cutest dog in the game (with an endearing tie-in to "Help Rescue Dogs"). All signs that the brand may be growing up. So we wait, in hopes that Bud Light's more- clever version of humor, as Chibe describes it, will continue to improve target engagements and differentiate it from every other beer's version of humor.
The second Bud Light spot, from Cannonball, enlists the pop/rap duo LMFAO (well known internet slang for "laughing my fucking ass off'), whose manager mistakenly books them at "Dale's Halftime Sports Lounge," not, you know, the real halftime. Joke! Well, not really. But they squeeze in "Here We Go" in a nod to the campaign, and use the spot to introduce the real halftime -- which LMFAO really appeared in.
And then there's Budweiser. Anomaly's work continues to reposition Budweiser as the brand leader it once was. The brand's Super Bowl spots ("Return of the King" and "Eternal Optimism," both sixty seconds) were the latest expressions of this once-great brand reconnecting with its heritage, acknowledging that there's more to the beer market than sophomoric frat boys under the age of 24. Embracing optimism in challenging times -- the core strategy of "Grab Some Buds" -- exemplifies a stance a brand leader takes. And to reinforce the position, the second spot ends with "Great Times Are Always Coming." These latest examples, along with a special commercial they created for Canada -- a spot that's gone viral and will generate millions of hits before it's done -- are wonderful storytelling and emotionally engaging. And they're working. Beyond "likebility" and "brand consideration" upswings, Budweiser sales have improved from 10% and 7% declines the past two years, to last year's 4.6% decline -- notable in an industry that's undergoing significant shifts in preferences.
In the break following Bud's "Return of the King," General Electric featured a Budweiser brewery in its "Power and Beer" commercial from BBDO -- perhaps another sign that the King of Beers is indeed returning.
Also from Anomaly, and sitting under the radar, is an innovative response to integrating "product quality" into the mix. An online program -- soon to be an app -- allows you to enter the born-on- date from the very can or bottle of Budweiser you're drinking and get a multimedia story of where it came from, when it was brewed, who brewed it and more. Cool.
Anheuser-Busch InBev has a clear and critical global priority: rejuvenate the Budweiser and Bud Light franchises in the U.S. The steps it's taken in the months leading up to the Super Bowl seem to fully embrace these goals. So does the work it's aired during the game -- the good, the not so bad and the . . . wait and see.
I'm, how do they say it? Cautiously optimistic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tim Arnold, a 35-year advertising-industry veteran who ran the Budweiser business for 10 years at D'Arcy, St. Louis, now runs his own consultancy, Possible20 (firstname.lastname@example.org).