Michelob Joins Keg Party at Twitter, but Will Its Tweets Draw Heat?

Trouble May Follow A-B, Given Age-Verification Flap That Felled Bud.TV

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Twitter users who opt to follow the online musings of Anheuser-Busch's Michelob may be surprised to receive a quick direct-message inquiry from the beer brand asking if they're of legal drinking age.

Being asked how old they are isn't likely to deter underage drinkers desperate to read Michelob's tweets, which focus on beer styles and food pairings and the like. But it does underscore how carefully alcohol marketers -- required by industry guidelines to limit ad messages to venues where at least 70% of the audience is of legal drinking age -- are treading into Twitter.

Alcohol Twitter
Michelob is A-B's only tweeting brand, while its chief rival, MillerCoors, has yet to use Twitter at all for marketing purposes. "It's appealing to us, but we're looking at how we'd wash it against the marketing code," said a MillerCoors spokesman.

Tom Shipley, senior director-digital marketing at A-B, said the brewer is using Twitter "because our adult consumers increasingly want to have a conversation with us." He said asking would-be followers how old they are is consistent with the age checks the brewer uses on its branded websites.

Age-verification concerns with online media have flummoxed A-B before. Its much-touted Bud.tv site, on which it spent millions creating its own content, was ultimately undermined by a vigorous firewall that checked viewers' age claims against databases of state IDs, in some cases keeping out of-age consumers. Yet activists and state attorneys general said A-B wasn't doing enough to keep underage users off the site, leaving the No. 1 brewer in a lose-lose situation.

'Lack of dignity'
It wouldn't be hard for brewers and distillers to provoke a similar backlash regarding social networks. "Twitter is for kids, and this is a way to put these brand names in their faces," said George Hacker, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which lobbies for more restrictions on alcohol marketing. "This is just the latest example of a lack of real dignity in the industry."

And that's in response to relatively few efforts from older-skewing brands such as Michelob and Beam Global's upscale Tres Generaciones line extension of its Sauza tequila brand, which retails for upward of $40 a bottle.

Beam, which adopted more-stringent codes for its marketing in 2007, has created a Twitter persona for deceased tequila patriarch Don Cenobio Sauza.

Peter Wijk, senior director-global tequilas at Beam, said Twitter is a perfect fit with Beam's word-of-mouth-driven approach to brand marketing, which puts the company's entire marketing budget in the service of creating chatter about its brands. "We want to have brands people want to talk about, and social media is an excellent way to start a dialogue," he said.

But can Beam, which earned plaudits in 2007 by adopting tougher marketing standards than the spirits industry requires, do that without skirting its own guidelines? Mr. Wijk said it can, noting that Twitter provides the company with demographics information that shows that more than 75% of the people reading its communications are of legal drinking age.

Still, he said, social media is not a risk-free proposition for brewers and distillers. Sauza, he said, has spawned a series of fan pages on Facebook and other corners of the internet, and there's no guarantee those sites will show the brand in a good light, or to the right audience. "You do let go of some control in social media," he said. "In our industry, that can be somewhat worrying."

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