Budweiser fights 'brutal' slump with lame excuses and 1950s ad message


A “brutal” April was the cruelest month for the beer industry, Advertising Age reported April 30, and that’s coming off an almost as bad first quarter.

The biggest loser

“It’s brutal out there for everyone,” Beer Business Daily told subscribers April 30. But for some brands – Budweiser, to be specific – it’s more brutal than for others.

January through March saw MillerCoors brands down 3.3 percent, Heineken USA sales “down by low-single digits” and Budweiser off 4.1 percent, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.

For the four weeks through April 13, according to Nielsen numbers, Coors Light sales declined 1.8 percent, Miller Lite 8.8 percent, Bud Light 6 percent and Budweiser 7.7 percent.

Highly advertised, higher-alcohol, pseudo-craft line extension Budweiser Platinum’s sales fell by 36 percent (no, a decimal point isn’t missing) during the same four-week period.

Down so long it looks like up to me

Of course, losing sales and market share isn’t exactly new to Budweiser.

Their 2013 losses are fully consistent with their 2012 sales performance – down 6 percent for the first three quarters of the year, down 7 percent the third quarter alone. In 2011, Budweiser celebrated one of their best years in a quarter-century, with sales down only 4.4 percent. And as Budweiser’s home-town paper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, noted a little over a year ago

Sales have been slumping for 25 years straight. At the peak of its popularity, in 1988, more than one in every four beers sold in this country bore the iconic red-and-white label. Last year, it was one in 12. For the first time ever, it’s being outsold by Coors Light.

Now, Budweiser is confronting the problem head-on.

With excuses.

And with an advertising strategy that would feel right at home on your grandfather’s small-screen, black-and-white television set.

Excuses, excuses

In an April 30 earnings call, parent company A-B InBev’s CEO Carlos Brito came up with a raft of excuses to explain away his flagship brands’ continuing decline. Notably, target audience Millennial males’ perception of Budweiser and Bud Light as watered-down, mass-produced, old man’s swill wasn’t one of them.

Instead, the culprits were 20-degree-below-normal temperatures across the nation (a result of global warming, no doubt). And higher payroll taxes, which took effect in January (but not the year before). And delayed tax refunds. And higher gasoline prices (which have actually been dropping since a late February peak, according to the AAA). And…well, you get the picture.

2013 technology, 1953 message

While not acknowledging its target audience’s perception of its product, Budweiser is rolling out a new television campaign to combat it – by using the latest 2013 technology to push a 60-year-old advertising strategy and message.

Throughout the 1950s (and ’60s and most of the ’70s), beer advertising either made sweeping, unsubstantiated claims of perfection or talked at length about the quality of their ingredients – malt, barley, water, and hops (which most people thought was how a kangaroo got from place to place).

The campaign lines reflected it.

Schlitz was “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Miller was “The Champagne of Bottled Beers.” Rheingold was “The Dry Beer,” Bud “The King of Bottled Beers.” And a beer called Hamm’s advertised itself as coming “From the Land of Sky Blue Water.”

Probably the only brand that got beyond the feature-and-process stage was Schaefer, which sold itself to heavy users as “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.”

It was only in the late 1970s that beer advertising graduated to attributes and benefits – most notably with the Miller Time campaign that positioned the beer as a reward for a hard day’s blue-collar work, by Budweiser’s counter to it – “For all you do, this Bud’s for you.” – and Miller Lite’s category-creating “Tastes great, less filling. All you ever wanted in a beer…and less” that made lower-alcohol beer respectable.

The new commercials are an extension of last year’s Track Your Bud campaign, which, Ad Age writes, “gives drinkers more information on how their individual beer was made” by “link[ing] each beer to its origins, including ingredients, by using the ‘born on date’ on the bottle or can.” The new commercials convey this six-decade-old message with plenty of ingredient closeups throughout.

Using 2013 technology – smartphone apps – Bud buyers can scan the date on the can and get the 1953 message. Or the ingredients half of it.

The other half of the sixty-year-old strategy was claims of perfection. This time around, instead of just making the claim, the Budweiser spots offer backup – from those exemplars of disinterested objectivity, the A-B InBev employees who oversee the brewing of Budweiser themselves.

In one commercial, Pete Kraemer, A-B InBev’s head brewmaster says on camera, “I have dedicated my life to making sure that beer will be perfect.” In the other, Newark, NJ,  brewmaster David Taylor says, “We work hard every day to make your Budweiser the perfect Budweiser.” Case closed; that settles that.

So let’s recap.

Budweiser’s introduced higher-alcohol beers like Platinum and tried to pass them off as craft beers, and that’s not working.

They’ve tried the borrowed interest of celebrities and music events to recapture the 20something male audience, and that’s not working.

And now they’re trying to bring back the good times of the 1950s with a message straight out of that decade.

They certainly seem to be on a roll here.

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