CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The July Fourth holiday is when the fireworks go off for beer marketers, but this year it proved a distinctly damp squib.
Despite a flurry of new and improved ad pushes for the country's leading brews, the days leading up to Independence Day, usually the biggest-selling period of the year for the category, led to gruesome sales declines vs. the same period last year. Sales for Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light and Budweiser plunged 7% and 14%, respectively, in grocery, convenience and drug stores during the two-week period ending July 5, according to scanner data from Information Resources Inc. Miller Lite suffered a 9% drop. The big importers were hurt badly too: Corona marketer Crown Imports watched sales decline 6% to 8%, while Heineken and Diageo each saw double-digit drops.
The trends appear to be driven by suds guzzlers trading down. Subpremium beers such as Busch, Natural Light and Keystone posted substantial gains, though not enough to offset the big-brand declines. "The subpremium segment was the clear winner," said Dan Wandel, senior VP-client services at IRI.
Another factor may have been cannibalization. Bud Light Lime posted a 9% increase, presumably fueled by at least some Bud Light drinkers, and Miller Genuine Draft 64, which makes the sort of low-carb and low-calorie claims Miller Lite once regularly flaunted, was also up.
Questioning current campaigns
But while the economy is clearly dragging on the biggest beer brands, the severity of the declines also raises questions about the effectiveness of some of the category's biggest ad budgets. The decline at Bud Light comes as the brand is nine months into its "Drinkability" effort, designed to give the beer a more product-attribute-fueled push than its former frat-humor efforts did.
A-B said before the summer started that Budweiser's platform needed a more emotional appeal, and even ask DDB to study vintage ads from now-defunct D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. But that effort has yet to bear any fruit.
"A number of economic and industry factors have impacted premium beer sales, but we remain committed to the strong plans currently in place for Budweiser and Bud Light mega brands and will continue to aggressively market both brand franchises," said A-B VP-Marketing Keith Levy, in a statement.
Miller Lite has tried to pound its "Great Taste" to sales gains in the same manner its new stable mate Coors Light succeeded with a single-minded focus on "Rocky Mountain cold refreshment." But that effort, too, has yet to gain traction.
Those declines, coming on the heels of sluggish May and June sales, may prompt some aggressive marketing aimed at salvaging the summer selling season. Several industry executives said they predict sharp discounting as the most likely immediate step, given the amount of time it takes to ready new marketing.