Bud goes old-school on the too-cool crowd

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Seeking to capture the retro-brew cachet enjoyed by brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rheingold, Anheuser-Busch is resurrecting the design of decades-old Budweiser cans and a Depression-era tuxedoed spokesman called "Smiling Charlie."

Slated to kick off in February, the promotion is part of a broader effort by A-B to boost sales in bars and clubs, places where brewers have been losing young adults to spirits and wine.

The goal of the "retro program" is to "be fun, memorable and elevate Budweiser's contemporary image with entry-level drinkers while exciting our core consumer," according to an internal A-B memo about the promotion. The brewer had no comment.

It remains to be seen if A-B can steal some of the limelight from S&P Co.'s Pabst and Rheingold Brewing Co.'s Rheingold, which have been successful with 20-something hipsters because of their defiantly out-of-the-mainstream status. Bud, by contrast, is the No. 2 beer in the country behind Bud Light, and the industry standard.

Darrell Jursa, managing director of consultant Liquid Intelligence, which works with Pabst, questioned whether the retro promo would resonate. "It's tough to do something like that when you go out there with a brand that has a lot of marketing baggage," he said. "It'll get people interested, but it's not going to affect people the way a Pabst" or other nostalgia beers have.

Still, nostalgia has been an effective marketing tool for years and one that works particularly with Generation X- and Y-ers. Think Viacom's VH1 "I love" series about past decades, Strawberry Shortcake or Original Penguin from Munsingwear-though few marketers dig all the way back to the 1930s.

"People are desperately overwhelmed by what's going on in the world and are trying to ... look to the past when things were more simple," said Catherine Stellin, a VP at Intelligence Group, part of CAA.

Bud needs to find something to spark sales, as it has been declining for more than a decade. Shipments dropped by 4.5% to 31.1 million barrels in 2003, according to figures from industry newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights. In looking for growth, A-B is targeting men and women aged 21 to 27 in the on-premise channel and hoping to attract core drinkers aged 27 or older at retail.

A-B plans to support the promotion with point-of-sale, radio, weekly print, transit, wild postings and Internet ads, according to the memo. JibJab's name appears in the document, suggesting that A-B might work with the creators of the "This Land is Our Land" Kerry/Bush parody that became an e-mail pass-along phenomenon.

The grinning, tuxedo-wearing cartoon-like gent named "Smiling Charlie" will appear in advertising. He first appeared circa 1933, and is being brought back as an "ambassador of good times," according to the memo. As part of the effort, A-B will also roll out retro-styled cans. These include designs used from 1936 to 1959, one from 1950 to 1955, and a 1956 style. Another design choice is still pending.

The agencies involved in the promotion could not be determined at press time. Shops that work on the Bud brand include Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, Chicago and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, as well as Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday Cosmopulos Connors, Boston.

Earlier this year, A-B announced it was going to step up promotions, a move sparked by growing competition from spirits marketers in the on-premise (AA, Sept. 20). Spirits' volume there grew by 7% in 2003 versus a nearly 1% decline for beer, according to Beverage Marketing.

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