Rewind: When Miller Genuine Draft, Not Bud, Was 'Macro'

During the 1990s Craft Boom, Miller Tried to Make Big Cool

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Budweiser provoked an internal beer industry battle with its "macro" beer Super Bowl ad that took some not-so-subtle shots at fruity micro beers. The latest uproar is coming from Congress, of all places, where some representatives with craft breweries in their districts have taken some shots at Bud's commercial, even comparing it to a political attack ad.

But the King of Beers is not the first large brew to speak proudly of its bigness. In the late 1990s, during another period of craft beer growth, Miller Genuine Draft ran a short-lived campaign by Wieden & Kennedy that included ads telling consumers, "It's time for a good-old Macro-Brew." Ads included lines like, "It's time for beer to quit acting like wine" and "It's time to drink beer imported all the way from Milwaukee." (Does that ring a bell, Chrysler?)

Big brewers are facing even stiffer competition from craft beers today, with the segment growing much faster than big brands. Crafts accounted for $14.3 billion of the $100 billion total beer market as of 2013, according to the latest full-year statistics reported by the Brewers Association. (The association, which represents craft brewers, does not include craft-styled beers, such as Blue Moon by MillerCoors, that are controlled by big brewers.)

Craft is "a much broader, more powerful phenomenon that's really reaching into … different corners of the American consciousness," said Benj Steinman, president of beer trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights. "Craft is now something that is large. It really wasn't large [in the late 1990s]. It was hot, but it was pretty small."

Still, big beer brands seemed pretty nervous back in the 1990s. In 1997, Ad Age ran a story headlined, "With beer giants steaming, Miller ads attack microbrews." The article stated that "the marked growth of specialty beers increasingly has been a thorn in the side of major breweries, which see their flagship products degraded by the 'gourmet' positioning of craft products." One ad executive even noted that then-Anheuser-Busch VP-Marketing August Busch IV was infuriated that "these upstart companies are coming in and implying that his family's product is [lousy]."

Miller Genuine Draft, then owned by Miller Brewing Co., was "losing sales quickly, very quickly because MGD, which had been a 'cool' brand, had almost overnight become out of touch," recalled a former Miller executive in a recent email interview, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. The brew had been built off of "almost magical imagery" and "hard rock music associations," he recalled. But "then Gen X came of age, and overnight, the grunge movement was here and we were still stuck in the late 80's."

To recapture the "hip Gen-Xer," the brew brought in Wieden & Kennedy, which launched the "macro-brew" campaign (above), using grainy black-and-white footage and a grungy, artsy style that was highly unusual for the beer category at the time. The campaign "celebrated reality -- warts and all -- so we didn't feature models. We featured real gritty, young adults," recalled the former Miller exec. "We were embracing the real new America." And "we boldly declared that we were a Macro brew -- genuine, unpretentious and big."

Bud's ad is full of swagger, using colorful imagery and ingredient close-ups. It takes a shot at fruity micro brews, while declaring that Bud is brewed for "drinking not dissecting."

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Budweiser VP Brian Perkins told Ad Age in a recent interview that the ad was not meant to criticize craft beer. But that is how the ad has been received in the boisterous craft brewing community. Meanwhile, MillerCoors -- the present-day owner of MGD -- piled on in a tweet that sought to position the brewer as craft-friendly.

Just like MGD, Bud's goal is to make big cool again. The "macro beer" phrase is an attempt to reframe the "prevailing discourse in a lot of industries, and certainly in beer, that small must be good and big must be bad," Mr. Perkins said.

Despite the uproar, early signs show that Bud's ad might actually be working. The campaign has "performed well with all types of beer drinkers," said a spokeswoman for ad-scoring service Ace Metrix. She noted that the 60-second and 30-second version of the spot have "earned strong emotional sentiment scores, which is particularly unique for beer ads."

So how did MGD's campaign turn out? Not so good. By 1998, the brand shifted away from "grungy hipsters to more mainstream characters," Ad Age noted at the time.

The former Miller exec suggested the campaign was ahead of its time. Distributors "didn't get it," the exec recalled. They "were still stuck in the old days. They wanted highly polished film in full color featuring jocks/race cars and bikini babes in bars."

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