Anheuser-Busch is orchestrating a marketing push that aims to boost not just its own suds but the image of the entire sagging beer category, which has suffered as more consumers pick up wine and spirits.
One possible, and potentially controversial, message: Beer is good for you.
The No. 1 brewer plans to work with third-party experts to push this line, A-B marketing vet Bob Lachky said at an industry trade group meeting last month.
"There is a prevailing fallacy that wine is somehow healthy and beer is not," said presentation materials for Mr. Lachky, who now is exec VP-global industry development for A-B. "This is wrong. ... We can't tell the story directly, but we will work hard to give the platform to independent third-party experts who confirm that moderate drinking of any alcohol can be better than abstinence for most adults."
Federal regulations limit health claims in alcoholic beverage marketing and labeling. In 2003, the alcohol regulation arm of the Treasury Department said labels and ads can't contain "any health claim that is untrue in any particular or tends to create a misleading perception." While some studies have shown benefits of moderate consumption, "it is also clear that alcohol can have devastating effects on some individuals and any individual who regularly consumes in large amounts."
A-B's effort to get the message out through other means is sure to draw close scrutiny.
"It's the new wonder drug," said Amon Rappaport, a spokesman for the Marin Institute, an alcohol-industry watchdog. "It's contradictory for a company like Anheuser-Busch, whose primary interest is to sell more beer, to say it's now interested in people drinking less."
A publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing previous remarks by Mr. Lachky, last month said: "We will continue to monitor [A-B] activity in this area and insist that [regulators] crack down on unsubstantiated and misleading claims suggesting that beer drinking is healthy."
A spokesman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the arm of Treasury that regulates the industry, said the agency doesn't have jurisdiction over what third parties say-so long as comments don't amount to an ad that violates regulations.
A-B didn't return calls. But Mr. Lachky's presentation materials specifically cited the work of Meir Stampfer, chairman of the epidemiology department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mr. Stampfer's research says that moderate consumption of wine, beer or spirits is associated with a variety of health benefits, including lowered risk for heart disease-and can be better for many people than total abstinence.
Dr. Stampfer said the brewer informed him of its plans. In August, he spoke at an A-B sponsored media luncheon in New York where he described his research.
He said he said he is not working as a consultant for A-B or receiving compensation (A-B did cover his travel costs to the luncheon). Nor is A-B trying to influence his message, he said.
"Anything in the alcohol field that promotes moderation is going to be beneficial," he said.
A-B's category sell will go beyond a health pitch. DDB Worldwide, Chicago, is working on advertising.
In communications, A-B plans to position beer as a social drink that doesn't have the "pretense" of wine or spirits, according to the presentation materials. It also plans to "romance" beer, playing up its natural ingredients and the art of brewing.
Building the beer category is crucial for A-B. With nearly 50% share, expansion is needed to raise sales. Miller Brewing Co. and Coors Brewing Co., both much smaller, can grow by trying to take sales away from A-B.
Beer needs a boost. It's lost share in recent years to wine and spirits. A recent Gallup poll found more consumers picked wine as their drink of choice over beer, 39% to 36% (within the margin of error).