For MillerCoors, the light beer wars are no longer a laughing matter.
The brewer on Thursday is launching a new campaign for Miller Lite that puts an emphasis on the brand's liquid and heritage. That approach is markedly different from that of Bud Light, which recently returned to a humorous approach with ads starring Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer.
The Lite campaign breaks during Thursday's NCAA basketball tournament games with three 15-second spots that end with the line "the original light beer: spelled different because it's brewed different." That is a reference to "Lite," which is the way the brand has been spelled since it launched in 1975 as the first mainstream light beer. One of the ads touts the brew's Milwaukee roots by saying when you are from "Beertown USA, these are your celebrities," as the scene portrays a beer salesman stacking Miller Lite cases. The agency for the new ads is TBWAChiat/Day.
"We are telling a very simple story about returning the respect back to Miller Lite," said MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer David Kroll. The new ads spell the end of the "bodega" campaign that featured a bilingual storekeeper named Fred and random customers who came into his shop.
Big beer brands have struggled to find the right marketing formulas to combat the rise of craft beers, which have lured drinkers with their varied styles and grassroots, local advertising. The nation's top four brands -- Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser and Miller Lite -- all lost shipment volume last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.
Mr. Kroll said some of the blame lies with MillerCoors. "In some respects, we did it to ourselves because we deviated years ago from actually talking about the beer in some respects," he said. The brewer "started chasing the competition in trying to out-funny the competition."
In the last couple years, Lite has run some more product-focused spots, but the brewer did not consistently stick with the approach.
The new campaign is "very much separating us from the direction our competitor is going down," Mr. Kroll said, referring to Bud Light. "We have a leader in our segment that is actually sticking with the model from the past that very much centers around more sophomoric humor and hedonistic fantasy."
He continued: "They have orbited their brand around humor rather than humor being in service to the brand. We are not opposed to being funny. But when you are funny, clever or witty, it needs to be in service of what the brand is trying to say and what our point of view is and not the other way around."
Anheuser-Busch InBev U.S. Marketing VP Jorn Socquet was not immediately available for comment because he was traveling internationally, according to a spokeswoman.
Bud Light's newest campaign -- which broke during the Super Bowl -- seeks to inject more fun and comedy into its marketing by giving a light-hearted take on cultural moments. The previous campaign, "Up For Whatever," moved away from the brand's historical reliance on comedy and focused on larger-than-life experiences.
"We are going back to where we used to be the best: Humor is a big statement for the brand again," Mr. Socquet said in January.
Still, Bud Light is not solely focused on laughs. A new package design hitting stores in April makes a concerted effort to dial up references to its brewing credentials. It includes so-called "romance language" that declares the beer to be "always brewed using the choicest hops, best barley malt, and rice." Out-of-home advertising will promote the new look.
Bud Light and Miller Lite are both broadening their marketing target beyond twentysomethings. That marks a departure from recent years in which the brands were fixated on millennials.
"Bud Light as a brand appeals to everybody. And everybody who is young at heart should be attracted to Bud Light, not just [young adults]," Mr. Socquet said in an interview late last year.
Said Mr. Kroll: "You had an entire category speaking generally to one drinker: that male drinker 21-to-27 year-old that drinks six-plus beers a week."
"Everybody was orbiting all of their advertising and messaging to that one guy," he added. "That guy is still important, but it is a shrinking set of drinkers. So we have a very clear philosophy behind all of our brands that we need to broaden and expand who we are speaking to and making sure we are doing that in a respectful and inclusive way."
For instance, a recently launched campaign for Coors Light called "Climb On" sharpens the brand's pitch to female drinkers. One spot includes a scene showing a woman running in an outdoor obstacle course, while another scene shows a female in a yoga pose. Males appear in plenty of scenes in the ad, too, including a boxing match and rodeo.
As the brewers adopt the new tactics, there are some signs that their big brands could finally emerge from their slumps. Coors Light and Miller Lite grew 5.7% and 5.2% respectively in the four weeks ending March 5, according to Nielsen data cited this week by Beer Business Daily. Bud Light is up 2.6%, while Budweiser grew 0.9%.