Coors Light has been gaining on the King of Beers for years, and analysts began predicting its rise to No. 2 last year. Indeed, MillerCoors was so confident that Chief Marketing Officer Andy England brashly told distributors early last year that "Budweiser is going down, baby."
Still, Bud has enjoyed improving trends lately, raising some speculation that it might be able to hold off Coors Light at least temporarily. But according to Beer Marketer's Insights, Bud still finished 2011 down 4.6% in shipments. And while that was the brand's slowest decline in years, it was still not enough to keep ahead of Coors Light, which gained 0.8%, the publication reported today.
In total, Coors Light shipped 18.2 million barrels, while Budweiser ended 2011 at 17.7 million, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, which is considered the most respected keeper of beer market-share data. (The figures include Puerto Rico and exports; although even if that data is factored out, Coors Light would be ahead of Bud in the U.S.) A-B's Bud Light remains the nation's top-selling beer by a wide margin.
"Anytime you can dethrone the king, it's special," said MillerCoors spokesman Pete Marino. "We will celebrate this great accomplishment appropriately with our entire system who has worked hard to deliver outstanding growth on Coors Light for the past seven years."
A-B has not yet released its own sales figures for the year. "We're committed to -- and on track with -- our strategy to stabilize Budweiser," a company spokesman said.MillerCoors' celebration might be short-lived. Coors Light growth has slowed lately, said Beer Marketer's Insights president Benj Steinman. The brand "lost some ground in the later part of 2011, and they do have some issues in the Northeast," he said. "But they did eke out a gain in a down industry, and it was enough to push them ahead of Bud."
As for A-B, Mr. Steinman said: "I don't think this really changes a helluva lot. They are still going to try to stabilize Bud and grow Bud Light. Those were the top two priorities and they still are."
Coors Light's growth, while not spectacular, has been steady, with the brand up 9% in the past five years, according to Beer Marketer's. The brew, whose ad agency is DraftFCB, has plugged a consistent message as the "world's most refreshing beer," backed by packaging gimmicks such as cold-activated cans and bottles on which the mountains turn blue when the beer is cold.
Budweiser, meanwhile, has dropped by more than 60% from its 50 million barrel peak in 1988, Beer Marketer's reported. The brand has tried a variety of messages to get out of the funk, including taglines such as "Great American Lager" and "It's What We Do" in recent years. In 2010, A-B brought on ad agency Anomaly in an effort to enliven the brand and reach out to younger audiences. (The brand's old agency, DDB, was officially removed from the brewer's roster late last year.)
Bud's latest campaign, in the market for a year or so, encourages drinkers to "Grab Some Buds" with music-filled ads that feature scenes of cookouts, rock concerts and people giving toasts. The effort appears to be gaining at least some traction. Bud fell 4.6% last year, but that was much better than the roughly 7% in 2010 and the nearly 10% decline in 2009, according to the trade publication.
Meanwhile, A-B global parent Anheuser-Busch InBev has made a concerted effort to grow Bud globally, launching it in markets such as Russia and Brazil.