It Doesn't Matter What Exactly Drinkability Is; It Just Works

Bud Light Plays Up a Uniquely Vague Brand Attribute

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McCain v. Obama. Rescue v. bailout. Jimmie Johnson v. Carl Edwards. Roe v. Wade. As polarized as our society is, surely we can agree on one thing:

Light beer isn't really beer.

Oh, it's beer-ish. It's carbonated and alcoholic. It's golden and damp. But it doesn't taste like much, no matter which domestic brand you choose. Light beer is to beer more or less what smooth jazz is to jazz.

Nonetheless, because it's lower in calories than regular beer, it's wildly popular. Never mind that people are swigging it to wash down cheeseburgers and Doritos. Over 40 years, somehow, the public has swallowed the "less-filling" message whole. The top-selling beer in the world is Bud Light.

Once again, this can't possibly have much to do with taste; the difference among the leaders is marginal. It does have a lot to do with distribution (Anheuser-Busch is a gorilla). But you surely can't discount the advertising, mainly from DDB, Chicago, which has made Bud Light the Everybeer for the Everyman -- every man, that is, who wants to ditch the ol' ball-and-chain and go drinking with his boys. For an extraordinarily successful, extremely entertaining decade, Bud Light has been about the beer-drinking experience and not the intrinsic qualities of the product itself.

Hey, why lead with your chin?

But suddenly the environment is changing. In a flat marketplace, Coors Light is beginning to chip away at Bud Light's market share, mainly by using the word "cold" 400 times per commercial and using thermochromatic ink on the label that turns blue when the bottle is properly chilled. (This transforming technology has saved millions of drinkers the trouble of feeling the bottle, and we suspect the Nobel committee has taken note.) Miller Lite, meanwhile, has a character named The Commish talking about calories and carb content nonstop.

So Anheuser-Busch, freshly in the arms of InBev, has decided it's time to talk about brand attributes.

We're assuming "watery" and "tasteless" were discarded immediately. "Higher in carbs than Lite" doesn't really do it. Nor does the ultimate truth: "Better than nothing." This left DDB and Euro RSCG to seize on a quality that is both arguably true and non-self-defeating. They chose: "drinkability."

Actually, that's a brewing term of art, ostensibly to describe the drinker's desire to have another, or several others, right now or someday. But for most of us it is so wildly subjective and unmeasurable that nobody could really take issue. That left the agencies to get the message across in ways no less amusing than those funny battle-of-the-sexes and extreme-beer-acquisition commercials we've enjoyed for years.

And damned if they didn't succeed. A half-dozen spots don't even bother trying to define "drinkability" in a serious way; these are all fanciful exegeses of the concept. In the best one, a guy on the sidelines of a softball game uses his finger to (magically) telestrate the notion of "a million tiny air conditioners refreshing your body."

His pal is skeptical. "Why not just one big one?" he asks, to which the irritated know-it-all replies: "Because it's a million."

That's a laugh line, and there's yet one more, because the skeptical friend still isn't satisfied. "I just thought it would be more energy-efficient," he says.

Sure, it's silly, a throwaway, an absurdity heaped upon an absurdity. But no less absurd than the category's founding claim of "Tastes great." And surely no less absurd than the competition's pre-emption of "cold." Really? Cold? Now that's hard to replicate.

But in politics and beer marketing, it's not what you say but how often you say it.

Drinkability, like "change," is here to stay.

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