Can BBDO Make Bud Light Advertising Awesome Again?

In Search of More 'Horsepower,' A-B InBev Makes Omnicom Shop Lead on Largest U.S. Brand

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Anheuser-Busch InBev is getting back together with Omnicom Group in the U.S.

Bud Light
Bud Light

The world's largest brewer is hiring BBDO as lead agency for Bud Light domestically, while keeping line extensions such as Bud Light Platinum at Translation, which had been handling the entire account since last August. The two shops will "work together on Bud Light," said Paul Chibe, VP-marketing for A-B InBev's U.S. division. "Translation will focus on the extensions, where they have done extremely well, and BBDO will focus on the base business."

BBDO will handle the account from its Chicago outpost, known as Energy BBDO. By moving it there, Mr. Chibe reunites with an agency he's worked with in the past, while BBDO keeps the account in a separate office from competing beer brand Guinness, which BBDO runs from New York. For A-B InBev, the change represents a global consolidation of sorts because the brewer works with the BBDO network overseas.

The move marks the third agency change in less than two years for Bud Light. The beer brand went from DDB to McGarryBowen to Translation before landing now BBDO.

Super Bowl ads

The return to an Omnicom-owned agency is noteworthy as Bud Light severed ties with one of its longest standing agencies in history, DDB, in October of 2011. That ended a three-decade-long partnership highlighted by Bud Light's launch in 1981 and plenty of memorable Super Bowl ads.

Bud Light is the nation's top beer brand by market share, and the largest advertiser in the category, spending $349.9 million on measured media in 2012, according to Kantar Media. But revenue to agencies on the account has been trimmed over the past several years, and it is estimated by various industry observers to be around about $5 million now. (The brewer does not make agency terms public.)

Like other big beer brands, Bud Light has struggled in the face of competition from craft beers and spirits. In an attempt to break out from the pack and gain consumers' attention, Bud Light has been cycling through different ad agencies. McGarryBowen won the account in December of 2011, only to lose it eight months later to Translation, which had been working on line extensions since late 2011.

The string of moves have solidified AB-InBev's reputation among ad shops as a fickle marketer. Plus the pace of work is relentless and the brewer has a reputation for stringent testing standards, meaning some creative ideas don't make it through, according to current and former agency staffers.

More 'horsepower'

Asked about the pace of agency changes, Mr. Chibe pointed out that he has partnered with Translation almost from the beginning of his tenure. "We had given the [core Bud Light] work to McGarryBowen and it didn't work out. And then we gave it to Translation. And in discussions with Translation we both felt it would be best to bring BBDO on board," he said. "We both recognized that the additional horsepower would help our business." He added: "Bud Light is an enormous business that has a lot of demands," noting that Translation's original assignment was as a supporting agency to McGarryBowen.

Translation's workload remains significant. In addition to line extensions, the shop will also keep the NFL advertising assignments for core Bud Light that the agency is already working on for this fall. Super Bowl advertising will be worked on by BBDO and Translation, he said. "Steve has plenty to do, I can assure you," Mr. Chibe said, referring to Translation founder Steve Stoute.

"I'm excited to be working with a friend of mine for 15 years who watched me grow up in the business," Mr. Stoute said, referring to BBDO's global CEO Andrew Robertson. He added that he's one of BBDO Chief Creative David Lubars' biggest fans. "As an independent agency I'm used to partnering with other agencies. We aren't worried about P&Ls and making that more important than the brand itself."

The brewer's other agencies include Anomaly, which is the lead shop for Budweiser globally and handles Bud Light in Canada, and Mother, which has Stella Artois and Beck's.

Close relationship

By tapping BBDO as lead creative agency for Bud Light, Mr. Chibe is returning to the familiar. He joined the brewer in June of 2011 after an 11-year run at Wrigley. Energy BBDO is Wrigley's lead creative agency, so he knows it well. "I had always kept a close relationship with BBDO on a personal level," he said. He also noted that A-B InBev on a global basis has relationships with the BBDO network. In Brazil, AlmapBBDO works on the Antarctica brand, while in Germany BBDO Proximity has Beck's. "There's been the connection there. Just in the past, the stars never aligned for them to work in the U.S.," Mr. Chibe said.

One complicating factor has been the fact that BBDO is the agency for Diageo-owned Guinness, which poses a potential conflict in the beer category. Mr. Chibe referred questions about the matter to BBDO, which declined to comment for this story. For his part, Mr. Chibe said that he would not have an issue with BBDO keeping Guinness, noting that "Guinness in the U.S. is pretty small and it's run out of New York," while Energy BBDO is in Chicago. Guinness could not immediately be reached for comment.

While Bud Light line extensions such as higher-alcohol Platinum, and fruity Bud Light Lime-A-Rita and Straw-Ber-Rita have had some success, core Bud Light has lagged. In 2012, Bud Light shipment volumes fell by 0.5% -- the fourth straight year of declines -- while the brand's market share has dropped from 19% in 2010 to 18.6% as of the end of last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. (The next closest brand, Coors Light, remains far behind at 8.7%, but it has gained share in each of the past three years.) For the 52 weeks ending May 19, Bud Light case volume sales were down by 0.56%, compared with category-wide growth of 0.64% according to IRI, whose figures to not include bar and restaurant sales.

Of course, other big beer brands have suffered as well, including Miller Lite, which was down 1.2% in the same period, while Budweiser fell by 5.7%, according to IRI. Meanwhile, craft beers have thrived, putting more pressure on big beer marketers to find new ways to stand out.

Translation was behind the Bud Light Platinum deal with Justin Timberlake
Translation was behind the Bud Light Platinum deal with Justin Timberlake

Increased competition

Mr. Chibe has sought to infuse more music-themed marketing into AB InBev's brands in an appeal to millennials. Translation, led by Mr. Stoute, has been a big part of the strategy, helping land deals linking Jay-Z to Budweiser and Justin Timberlake to Bud Light Platinum. Bud Light's summer push includes a program called "Bud Light Music First" that will culminate Aug. 1 with one concert in all 50 states. The campaign includes a TV ad.

For this year's Super Bowl, Translation created two 60-second ads starring Stevie Wonder as part of the NFL-themed "Superstitious" campaign. Yet, with so much competition from scrappy craft beers and newly aggressive spirits marketers, it is harder for Bud Light to break through, say some industry observers.

"There's so many beers on the marketplace and it's got to come out of somewhere," said one industry person familiar with the brand and the situation, referring to Bud Light's sales decline. Mr. Chibe countered that the Bud Light "mega-franchise" has excelled. "Our extensions continue to perform extremely well," he said. "There's some natural cannibalization from the base coming from these [line extensions]."

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