A former Anheuser-Busch marketer who was behind some of the beer industry's most memorable campaigns says the brewer has missed the mark with its ads attacking Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup.
"It's a commodity industry and the last thing you need to be doing is further commoditizing it with discussions about ingredients that nobody cares about," says Bob Lachky, who spent 20 years at A-B, including serving as chief creative officer, before departing in 2009. "It's just real disappointing. It's a total miss."
On the latest edition of Ad Age's Marketer's Brief podcast, Lachky opens up about why he thinks the brewer made the wrong call. The Bud Light ads, which debuted during the Super Bowl, have sparked the biggest beer battle in more than a decade between the nation's two largest brewers.
MillerCoors—which has fought back by rallying support from the corn industry—is citing newly released sales results that it says show it's winning the war. Bud Light sales fell nearly 9 percent in the four-week period since the Super Bowl, MillerCoors boasted in a corporate blog post on Monday, which cites Nielsen data. "It's clear that Bud Light's desperate attempt to mislead consumers is not helping them," Anup Shah, VP of the Miller Family of brands, says in the blog.
In a statement to Ad Age, an Anheuser-Busch InBev spokesman states: "Our goal with the Bud Light campaign was to start a conversation around ingredients and transparency. We believe our current campaign has done just that—more people are searching for beer ingredients than ever before since running our ad."
He adds that "this is not just a Bud Light brand play, but rather a portfolio play. Each brand plays its part to contribute to overall company growth, and our strategy is working, as evidenced by our company's consistent improvement of total share of the beer category since Q1 2018."
In its recently released fourth-quarter earnings report, AB InBev stated that sales-to-retailers in the U.S. fell 2.7 percent last year but that it had its "best annual [market] share trend performance since 2012."
In the podcast, Lachky—who was behind classic campaigns such as "Whassup," "Budweiser Frogs" and "I Love You Man"—says both brewers have lost their way.
"The Coors Light, Miller Lite, Bud Light advertising is talking to each other and not talking to the consumer. They don't really care about this dialogue" he says. "Both sides are spitting at each other, and patting themselves on the back." But "every precious moment and piece of energy and dollar you spend on this effort is money that could have been spent building brands."
Lachky advocates for humorous ads, without any attacks, pointing to the car insurance business as one category that's getting it right: "They really aren't sniping at each other. They're pretty much going with their own characters and developing their own icons in their own very unique voice. And that is what Bud Light needs desperately."
Lachky also touches on the last big beer war that occured in the early 2000s, which involved then-American-owned Anheuser Busch attacking Miller Brewing for its foreign ownership after it was acquired by South Africa-based SABMiller. Lachky, who was involved in the A-B effort, admits it was a bad move.
"It was the worst mistake we could have made," Lachky says on the podcast. "It got us off track of what we were really good at, which was having an unbelievable distinctive positioning for Bud Light and Bud at the time, too, because Bud was doing a lot of the great stuff like 'Wassup' and Louie the Lizard.'" (A-B InBev, which was formed in 2008 by Belgium-based InBev's acquisition of U.S.-based Anheuser Busch, went on to acquire SABMiller in 2016; MillerCoors is now owned by Molson Coors.)
This year's battle has gotten particularly ugly. Citing Bud Light's corn syrup attack, MillerCoors last month pulled out of an industry wide effort aimed at improving beer's image that could potentially include a brand-agnostic campaign.
While at A-B, Lachy was involved in one of the last major industry-wide campaigns. The 2006 effort, called "Here's to Beer," included broadcast TV and online ads and was intended to bring together multiple beer companies. But it later crumbled because A-B was not able to lure competitors aboard.
Miller "always felt we were only doing it for ourselves," Lachy says on the podcast. But "our point was we've got to start talking about beer and its appropriateness in society."