Such a performance would be unwelcome at most marketers. But for A-B, which has seen shipments of its flagship beer brand slide every year since 1988, a leveling would be cause for celebration.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed," said Bob Lachky, VP-brand management. "Bud has the best trends right now that it's had for years."
CREDIT TO AGENCY SETUP
The A-B executive said at least part of the credit must go to the 3-year-old marketing strategy-unique among the big brewers-of having several agencies create ads for the brand.
While a multishop arrangement can stir resentment and insecurity among roster agencies, A-B and its wholesalers believe the result has been fresher-and more effective-ad support.
Despite attrition, Bud still reigns as the King of Beers in a flat market. Its 1996 shipments of 36.5 million barrels put it 16.3 million barrels ahead of No. 2 Bud Light, according to Impact. Miller Brewing Co.'s Lite brand comes in third with shipments of 15.9 million barrels.
CATEGORY UP 3.3%
For the 52 weeks ended Aug. 10, U.S. supermarket sales of beer were up 3.3% from the year-earlier period, to $5.5 billion, according to Information Resources Inc. Supermarket sales represent less than a fifth of total beer unit volume.
Bud sales in the same period were essentially flat. But Bud has been showing signs of improvement. For the 12 weeks ended Aug. 10, Bud sales were up 3.9% from the year-earlier period, to $210 million.
When A-B in 1994 dropped D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis, as the brand's agency after 79 years, Bud shipments stood at 39.2 million barrels, down 20% from Bud's 1988 peak of 49 million, according to Impact.
At that time, A-B moved the core brand to DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, which had been successfully handling Bud Light. But the brewer, dissatisfied with some DMB&B work, made plain it wanted a backup agency in case DDB Needham's ideas were lackluster.
BRAND 'NEEDED IDEAS'
"It was a brand that needed ideas, that needed to be redefined," Mr. Lachky said. DMB&B "had everything on Bud and we never had another point of view."
DDB Needham executives recommended that A-B tap Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, to handle Bud Ice and back up the flagship in 1995. Both are Omnicom Group agencies.
The agency stable got more crowded last year when Open Minds, Laguna Beach, Calif., an agency formed by former DMB&B staffers who had worked on Bud, was hired to do Budweiser spots.
Under the arrangement, the three agencies pitch ideas for the brand and A-B goes with those it believes are best. The resulting campaigns often have been a hodgepodge of different agencies' ideas.
DDB Needham picked up the Bud frogs created by DMB&B. Open Minds then created a spot in which one of the frogs rides a hydroplane. Goodby joined the act earlier this year with an ad starring Louie, a lizard green with envy over the frogs' success.
In another example, DDB Needham followed Goodby's ads featuring Gus, the delivery man obsessed with beer freshness, with ads focused on Bud's "Born on" date.
As lead agency, DDB Needham does the majority of the work on Bud's $131.9 million account. David Merhar, group creative director, said the multiagency arrangement makes explicit one advertising fact of life: Someone else always is going for the business.
"It's challenging and it is competitive," Mr. Merhar said.
Added Harold Sogard, partner and account management director at Goodby, "It's going fine." He nonetheless added, "Would I rather be No. 1? Of course."
RIVALRY PAYS OFF
Mr. Lachky said the rivalry pays off in good work: "A little competition is good for everyone; it keeps everyone on their toes."
The brewer has without a doubt performed better since it went to the multiple agency arrangement. Although shipments slid 5.1% in 1995, they fell a mere 1.9% in 1996.
Although A-B has been supporting the brand with promotions, aggressive selling to retailers and discounting, the ads have had a positive effect as well, wholesalers said.
Bruce W. Foster, general manager of Pearlstine Distributors in Charleston, S.C., thinks the brewer recently has done a better job of mixing spots that entertain 21-to-28 year-olds with ones that drive home the brand's quality and heritage.
"They really got their act together and got together a plan on how they are going to attack different segments," he said.