A ROYAL PAIN FOR THE KING OF BEERS

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Heavy rests the crown on the King of Beers.

Maybe it's premature to predict an overthrow of the monarchy; after all, Budweiser is still the nation's best-selling beer, with over 44% of the market. But last year sales were down 4.3%, after falling 5.7% the previous year.

Never has a major brand been so vulnerable. For some inexplicable reason, the management at Anheuser-Busch has abandoned any meaningful selling message in favor of cute little spots featuring frogs, ants and horses playing football.

Perhaps the good people at Budweiser and their new agency DDB Needham have been lulled into believing that the popularity of their ads will sooner or later translate into better sales. Video Storyboard Tests rates the Budweiser TV commercials No.*1 in eye measurement, likability and memorability through the first three quarters of 1995. Not since Coca-Cola's Mean Joe Greene spot in 1979 has a series of ads registered such popularity, Dave Vadehra, president of Video Storyboard, told me.

"It's the best thing that's happened to advertising in a long time," he said. "They've kept up momentum commercial after commercial after commercial. It's a remarkable campaign."

I say the Budweiser ads are the worst thing to happen to advertising in a long time. If the most popular ads in America result in a decline in sales, what message about the effectiveness of advertising does that send to corporate chieftains?

If they don't come away with the conviction that there are better ways to motivate consumers, at the very least top management may instead decide that only irritating, hard-sell ads can cut through the morass. Either way, bad for advertising.

Mr. Vadehra believes Budweiser's sales decline isn't the fault of the advertising but the fault of the beer category in general. "It's difficult to come up with a unique selling proposition in the category. Beer advertisers keep saying, `I'm the best, I'm the greatest."'

But Budweiser enjoyed its greatest success when its ads showed an almost autocratic self-confidence. Can you think of a more arrogant statement than "When you've said Budweiser, you've said it all"?

Budweiser's kinder and gentler side has not gone unnoticed over at Miller Brewing Co. Miller is gearing up to launch a $50 million assault directly at the heart and soul of Anheuser-Busch. The new Miller beer will take an ad approach vacated by Budweiser, a reward-for-a-job-well-done theme. "We are not going after Budweiser. We are going after the mainstream segment," said a Miller marketing executive. But Budweiser is-or was-the mainstream segment.

What it is now is hard to tell.

I think Budweiser of late appeals to the leaves and twigs segment of the market, and I'm not sure how much beer they actually consume. Maybe Anheuser-Busch should trade Busch Gardens for Starbucks.

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