CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The Budweiser team at DDB, Chicago, is studying 30-year-old commercials from an agency that no longer exists as it tries to stem a sales decline in Anheuser-Busch's flagship Bud brand, and return to the emotional approach to selling that served it so well for so long.
GOLDEN OLDIE: A-B wants marketing to reflect 'American spirit in a bottle.'
Bud sees this as an "evolution," in the words of Keith Levy, A-B's VP-marketing. "We've established the attributes side, and now we need to get back to making that emotional connection."
To achieve that, A-B has had DDB studying Budweiser ads such as the 1980s spot from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in which a rookie baseball umpire gets called up to the big leagues and argues with a pro manager during his first game, only to have the manager buy him a Budweiser after.
That portrayal of a Budweiser as a reward for a hard day's work was the core of the iconic "For all you do, this Bud's for you" campaign. The brewer won't be going back to that tagline, however. It is sticking with the current "The Great American Lager," which it launched in 2007 for a series of ads looking at Bud's brewing process and quality controls, but Mr. Levy said A-B wants future marketing to reflect "the American spirit in a bottle" that those classic ads did.
Mr. Levy said that there are indications that the "Great American Lager" positioning is resonating with consumers. But recent sales figures suggest otherwise. According to Information Resources Inc., Bud sales in grocery stores, drugstores and supermarkets declined 7.4% this year. According to Beer Marketer's Insights, the brand's total shipments fell 6% in 2008, steeper than the 4.7% decline it recorded the year before.
Bud is hardly alone among major full-calorie premium beer brands to post big sales declines. And indeed, the brand still posts incredible numbers: If you combine sales of Coors, Miller Genuine Draft and Pabst, they still account for less than a quarter of Bud's volume. But A-B needs to stanch Bud's bleeding if it intends to make gains during what could be a difficult summer selling season.
Additional pressure to fix Budweiser comes from its now-larger sibling, Bud Light, which has slowed significantly. The brand grew volume last year but actually lost market share, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Any weakness in the two brands is important for A-B to fix fast, considering that together they account for 60% of its sales and $300 million of its total measured-media spending.
The slowing came under another attribute-focused campaign -- if you can call "drinkability" an attribute. Most beverage experts would say that it is, and that it's M.B.A.-speak for Bud Light's taste profile being less bold and bitter than Miller Lite but not so light as Coors Light.
So Bud Light's advertising, too, is headed back to the future: in its case, to the frat house.
Learning to laugh again
The focus on the beer itself was a departure from Bud Light's relentless and two-decades-old fixation on sophomoric humor, which it will now return to. But Mr. Levy said that, as with Budweiser, the brand can now get back to joking around now that it's reminded consumers about the product. "We're going to maintain that product attribute part, but we can do it with more humor and more engagement," he said.
Of the two brand strategies, veteran beverage-marketing consultant Brian Sudano said Budweiser is strongest. The brand has always used emotional messages well, and the recent attribute focus -- paired with the launch of craft-styled Budweiser American Ale -- has shored up perceptions of the brand's quality. But Bud Light's "Drinkability" positioning is not as strong, he said. "They're trying to get at the 'cold-refreshment' positioning that Coors [Light] has," he said. "But it's tough to follow because you're inherently admitting your competitor is on to something."
One key challenge for A-B will be sustaining the growth of Bud Light Lime, which had a wildly successful launch year, gaining a 0.7 point market share -- the exact margin Budweiser declined. But it's not uncommon for successful beer launches to struggle in their second year. A-B's last successful launch, 2004's Michelob Ultra, declined 25% in 2005 and didn't return to growth until 2007.
"It's just very hard to repeat the big push that accompanies a launch," said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights. "A lot of successful brands take a step back the second year."