Mich Ultra Goes Organic to Stay on Top of Low-Cal Beer Boom

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Credit: Michelob ULTRA

The beer wars are about to get a lot lighter.

Corona and Amstel have introduced new low-cal beers as they chase Michelob Ultra, whose so-called superior light beer continues to surge. But Ultra is not sitting still. The Anheuser Busch InBev-owned brew is introducing an even lighter line extension this week called Ultra Pure Gold. It has 85 calories, 10 less than regular Ultra, and will be marketed as containing "organic grains."

With the low-cal beer trend booming, analysts have begun referring to the offerings as "fitness beers," which reflects the athletic-themed marketing approach that Ultra has successfully deployed for years. But while some of the surge is driven by health-conscious consumers, brand image is also playing a big role. After all, the growth for low-cal beers comes as traditional light beers like Bud Light and Coors Light, whose calorie counts are not much higher, continue to struggle.

"Ultra just has a better image than Bud, Miller and Coors, and so now there are brands coming on top of Ultra trying to have a better position than Ultra," says Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights. Even if they cannibalize regular light beers, brewers could still gain because the low-cal beers are typically priced at a premium.

Corona-owner Constellation Brands this week is beginning a national rollout of Corona Premier, which checks in at 90 calories, compared with 148 calories for Corona Extra and 99 calories for Corona Light. Premier was earlier sold in some regional markets with ads by WPP's Cavalry plugging "lower calories, lower carbs, higher expectations."

Heineken USA's Amstel brand last year launched 90-calorie Amstel Xlight in Arizona, Texas and Boston. A new campaign by GSD&M is called "Fit for Real Life" and shows people doing improvised at home workouts like lunging along the kitchen floor with a rolling pin.

The brands are chasing Ultra, which ended last year as the sixth-largest beer after posting 21.3 percent shipment growth, according to Beer Marketer's. By contrast the nation's largest beer, 110-calorie Bud Light, fell 5.7 percent. Ultra, which launched in 2002 during the Atkins diet craze, has successfully fended off challengers before. MillerCoors took a swing at Ultra a few years ago by pouring marketing dollars behind its 64-calorie Miller64 brand. But the ads failed to do much for the brand. It's around but barely supported. MillerCoors' newest approach is to plug Miller Lite as having "more taste and half the carbs" of Bud Light.

As it faces a new round of competitors, Ultra is trying to stay fresh with the Pure Gold line extension. While the lower calorie count will be plugged in marketing, the brand will also play up the fact that it is brewed with organic grains. While some craft beers are marketed as organic, this marks the first time a big brew has gone there, says Ultra VP Azania Andrews.

"Low carbs and cals remain a great story and are compelling to consumers, but we think that the benefit of organic ingredients and organic grains is going to help us appeal to an even broader group of consumers," she says. The brew sources organic rice grown in Texas and organic malt from Idaho, California and Oregon.

Pure Gold signed up pro surfer Kelly Slater as a spokesman. Marketing includes digital ads hitting this week, followed by TV later in the spring. The agency is FCB Chicago. Ads were not available by press time. But Andrews says they will play up outdoor drinking occasions and use the tagline "superior golden taste."

The low-cal onslaught runs counter to the craft beer craze, which is typified by fuller-bodied, heavier beers (despite the entry of more lighter craft beers recently). Of course, traditional light beers Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, while in decline, still dominate by market share, with shipments accounting for a nearly 30 percent chunk of the total beer category, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

"You are still going to have a lot of consumers who don't really like to sit around drinking heavy beers, like if they are sitting on a patio in the summer [or] they are cutting the grass," says Duane Stanford, executive editor of Beverage-Digest. "But instead of just sticking with the thing that everyone thinks is uncool [i.e. traditional light beers], they are going for what is the new thing … it's even lower calorie beer."

For the image-conscious drinker, there's another benefit, he says: "It's just not seen as much as your father's beer."

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