InBev, the Only Way to Bring Back Bud Is By Being Fearless

Budweiser Soared When Its Owners and Agency Took Chances. It Can Happen Again

By Published on .

Tim Arnold
Tim Arnold
As un-American as this is going to sound, maybe the best thing that could have happened to the would-be King of Beers' parent company is to be acquired by a Belgian-Brazilian multi-/mega-brewer that, despite honeymoon promises to the contrary, should indeed turn its marketing upside down.

The truth is Anheuser-Busch has not demonstrated much semi-brilliant brand marketing in years. Sure, it's done some clever commercials. But what it has become is a big spender and prolific line extender. And what it needs is somebody -- InBev? -- to get it back to the kind of innovative, groundbreaking marketing roots that produced swagger, confidence, irreverence, a keen sense of humor, genuine pride and an edge that emboldened beer drinkers to not just drink the stuff but identify with it. Celebrate it. Wear the badge.

Budweiser has not been the King of Beers since sibling brand Bud Light passed it by in 2001. Besides, the King's crown was tarnishing long before that. And now I'm afraid Budweiser has one Clydesdale hoof on the slippery slope toward becoming another Miller High Life to its Lite Beer From Miller -- which is what August III always insisted we call it.

Neck-deep in suds
Yeah, I'm a longtime -- OK, old -- adman. Starting in 1974 I was responsible for the Budweiser account (and eventually the rest of our Anheuser-Busch business) for some 10 years at D'Arcy, St. Louis. Then I ran the Miller business in the late 1980s at JWT, after I moved to New York. Hell, I grew up in St. Louis. I went to the University of Missouri and stood up and cheered as a beer-drinking frat boy at football games when Marching Mizzou played "When You Say Budweiser, You've Said It All" at half damn time. Then I got to go to heaven without having to die first: I landed in the beer business.
Starting over in St. Louis: InBev must get in there and remind residual marketers what made Anheuser-Busch's brands so great.
Starting over in St. Louis: InBev must get in there and remind residual marketers what made Anheuser-Busch's brands so great.

But don't lump me in with those sentimental old farts who long for the good old days. Instead, know this: We and Anheuser-Busch broke rules back then -- just like InBev should now. In a single stroke of marketing audacity, we took a brilliantly simplistic Miller strategy aimed at blue-collar workers and one-upped it: We celebrated the working man, repositioning Budweiser as a reward for a hard day's work -- "For all you do, this Bud's for you" -- and left the comforts of our white-collar advertising (and Miller) behind.

And then we lit it up with a number of marketing firsts, including the first major brand advertising aimed at blacks on network TV, underscored by deep-reaching community programs and the sold-out Superfest concerts, a series of live shows featuring major artists created by A-B, with agency support, and staged in major stadium venues around the country in the late 1980s. We'd already hired the first black spokesman for a national beer brand, Lou Rawls. We created the first music-video advertising (with Leon Redbone) and then the first beer advertising aimed at the young-adult market, with outrageous commercials produced exclusively for "Saturday Night Live." We put Budweiser into Rolling Stone for the first time. We created Spanish-language versions of "This Bud's for You" and the first live, 60-second music commercial on "The Tonight Show," featuring a Doc Severinsen arrangement of our jingle, played by the orchestra.

Tim Arnold has spent more than 30 years helping build and lead agencies including DMB&B, McCann Amster Yard and J. Walter Thompson. His consulting company is the Arnold Group.
Before all that, Budweiser was the biggest-selling brand because it was no worse than everybody's second choice. Within three years A-B's bold, aggressive marketing, its commitment to brave ideas and the money it put behind Bud elevated this American brand to No. 1 share positions in every segment: general market, young adult, black, Hispanic -- and women. In another first, we did two "This Bud's for You" commercials with all women.

In 1979 we spent a weekend down at the brewery with August III and our marketing partners and committed to buy some 300 local and professional sports sponsorships, launching Budweiser into a world of sports it continues to dominate and creating A-B's BudSports division in the process. Our early investment in a new cable TV franchise virtually created the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, ESPN.

We decided contemporary young-adult, black and country radio could be huge; bought tons of it; and then went out and hired Journey, B.B. King, George Thorogood, Rick James, the Temptations, Jefferson Starship, Jennifer Warnes, and a bunch of other artists to record their own nonidentified, unendorsed, kick-ass arrangements of the infamous Budweiser jingle, with zero product copy. Advertising!

Maybe a lot of this stuff sounds routine now. But nobody was doing any of it until we did.

Marketing firsts
We were out there scaring people, including the client, who, fortunately for us, embraced our bravado and approved our ideas. But this is not about us; it's about them, the courageous marketers and brand guys at A-B who bought the work and then put serious money behind it. A year into "This Bud's for You," in 1980, we came up with this crazy idea for the Taste Buds, an irreverent pitch to the young-adult (21- to 25-year-old) beer drinker who figured Bud was his old man's beer. The strategy, and there was one, was centered on irreverence: Get out there, get funny and get their attention. It was so audacious that Budweiser Brand Manager Jack MacDonough (who went on to become Miller Brewing's CEO) approved the campaign for production without telling his boss, A-B's chief marketing officer. We shot six commercials, and he got them approved because we promised they would run only on "SNL." It all helped catapult Budweiser past Schlitz and Miller.

You don't see this kind of calculated risk taking these days, with perhaps the occasional exception of Bud Light, the reigning King of Almost Beers.

So, InBev -- with acknowledgement of your gracious takeover gestures to call your new company Anheuser-Busch/InBev and maintain your North America headquarters in St. Louis -- get in there and remind the residual marketers what made this company's brands so great in the first place. Or hire new ones. Inspire something. Get strategically scary and then get creative. Get the hell out of the boardroom and corporate headquarters and back into the hearts and cojones of real beer drinkers. At least some of your agencies are absolutely ready to rock like this. And hey: Big brands and big ideas deserve big bucks behind them. But it ain't just about the media properties; it's about the ideas that get aired and posted and forwarded on these properties. Take back the throne.

In response to something else I'm reading in Ad Age -- a comment by InBev CMO Chris Burggraeve: "You do not change a number of things that have worked for generations. Bud will always be Bud" -- what I'm saying is Bud won't always be Bud, because it already isn't. It's Budweiser. And it's going to take some real corporate chutzpah for this once-great brand to regain the special relationship it had with American beer drinkers.
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