The country's largest brewer spent an estimated $16 million on Michelob Light ads from January through June, according to Competitive Media Reporting. That's 12% more than last year's total $14.4 million and 27 times greater than the $600,400 spent during all of 1997, according to CMR. The payoff: The '98 volume rebounded to 2.6 million barrels, tying a record set two years earlier.
It's not simply advertising that's fueling the growth.
"Everything is falling into place for the brand to do well-demographics, profits, distributor interest, advertising support," said Frank Walters, Impact's director of research. "It's quite an accomplishment in a high-priced category."
It's also one that was built slowly. Michelob Light sales have been on the upswing since 1993-with the exception of 1997, which had minimal spending. After the ad outlay increased last year, sales again matched the 2.6 million barrel record, compared with the previous pinnacle of about 2.5 million in the 1980s, according to Impact. If the trend continues, the brew could break its record by yearend.
At the same time, its stature has risen within the entire category, with Michelob Light claiming 13th place in the overall beer market last year, up from No. 14, Impact reports.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Anheuser-Busch would not detail Michelob Light's marketing strategy, but suggested its direction is similar to past endeavors.
Indeed, consistency appears to be key. The brand's tagline "Beer or Michelob Light?" is now 2 years old. It was created by Leap Partnership, Chicago-where the brand team, mainly from former brand agency DDB Worldwide, Chicago-has had a proven track record.
And although the campaign has changed slightly over the years, the main element, humor, has remained consistent as a means to attract drinkers. The current effort runs on prime-time TV, primarily during sports programming, and in sports magazines.
Trends, moreover, are favorable for the brand. Light beer now represents 40% of total beer sales, with premium lights like Michelob's constituting more than two-thirds of that, said Benj Steinman, associate publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights. "Premium light-that's where it's at."
Another growth driver has been Michelob Light's attention to women. The brand will support the Women's Tennis Association for a second year as well as women's professional golf.
"I think [A-B has] reached a point where they can develop the effectiveness of how those brands are positioned against a female audience," a Midwestern distributor said. "Light beer skews toward women in general, and I think the opportunity is there. The market is undervalued."
Many women also are drawn to the brand.
"Michelob Light also appeals to women, who are status conscious. They think by paying more they get a better brand," Mr. Walters said.
Pricing, too, has played a role, said Mr. Steinman, noting that Michelob Light has benefited from price increases that brought Bud Light closer in price to Michelob Light.
Analysts and distributors, however, claim the ad emphasis on Michelob Light, A-B's most expensive non-specialty beer at about $4.60 a six-pack, makes sense because while the light beer sphere is surging, the popularity of super-pricey brews is faring pretty well, too.
LOST IN THE CLUTTER
"Beer can get lost in the clutter" of advertising, said the Midwestern distributor. "Dollars equal incremental sales, and A-B [executives] can see that."
He added that A-B has turned its attention to Michelob now that Bud Light is strong and Budweiser sales-although still slipping-are doing so at less drastic rates than in the mid-90s.
"They wanted to make sure that [sales] didn't continue to erode. A-B wanted to focus attention of the media, the public, and wholesalers on Big Red" or Budweiser, the wholesaler said.
That emphasis makes distributors happy, considering Michelob Light is one of A-B's most profitable beers-far in excess of its discounted Busch or Natural Light.
Busch and Natural Light are the company's third and fourth largest brands, respectively.