COFFEE? SOFT DRINK? NON-ALCOHOL BREW? O'DOUL'S NEW PITCH $10 MIL EFFORT TOUTS BRAND AS MORE THAN JUST A BEER SUBSTITUTE

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Anheuser-Busch is launching an estimated $10 million-plus ad campaign for O'Doul's non-alcoholic beer, positioning the brand as an alternative to soft drinks and teas.

The strategy is unusual in the segment, which generally pitches itself as a beer substitute.

"The distinction is on occasional use," said Gary Grote, VP-tactical brands, who oversees O'Doul's as well as Busch and Natural Light. "This is something you can have at lunch or water skiing."

`TASTE' THEME

The theme for the outdoor, print, radio, network TV and cable campaign is "When all you want is taste."

The effort includes recently introduced O'Doul's Amber.

The radio effort in 26 markets from agency Fusion Idea Lab, Chicago, is breaking now. National TV commercials for Amber from Schupp Co., St. Louis, broke earlier.

The radio ads use humor to demonstrate how O'Doul's can be thrown back any time: One of the four spots features a doctor preparing to operate and another revolves around a belching boss interviewing a job applicant.

TV spots built on this theme may be forthcoming from Fusion.

Trying to build O'Doul's as a New Age beverage, A-B also is experimenting with other line extensions. It's testing a caffeinated O'Doul's and has investigated citrus and low-calorie extensions as well.

A-B sees an opportunity to build low-power brands among aging baby boomers. Half of O'Doul's drinkers are 45 or older, a niche the brewer also is targeting with reduced-calorie, low-alcohol Catalina Blond (AA, April 6).

BIGGEST NON-ALCOHOL BEER

O'Doul's is the biggest non-alcoholic brew, with 700,000 barrels sold in 1997, a 10% drop, according to industry newsletter Impact. The category fell 10%, to 1.8 million barrels.

Mr. Grote said O'Doul's sales trends have been improving.

Brewers devote few marketing resources to the category. In measured media, A-B spent $9,000 in 1997-after spending $9 million in 1996-and Coors Brewing Co. spent $394,000 on Coors non-alcoholic, formerly Cutter, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, handles that brand.

The non-alcohol beers are profitable because they sell at beer prices while being cheaper to make and exempt from excise tax.

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