How Bud Light Lost Its Sense of Humor -- and, Subsequently, Sales

Wary of 3% Drop for Its Biggest Brand, A-B Dials Down 'Drinkability'

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CHICAGO ( -- Facing the prospect of the first negative sales year in the 27-year history of Bud Light, Anheuser-Busch is going for a little less "Drinkability" and a lot more laughs to reverse a 3% sales slide for the brand in the first half of the year.

Bud Light

HARD TO SWALLOW: Iconic campaigns drove Bud Light, but sales of Anheuser-Busch's most important brew are turning down.
The brewer's largest and most important brand was marketed for decades under the premise that people drink light beer to have fun, so light-beer ads should be funny -- and the execution was often brilliant. Riding one pop-culture smash after another, from "Spuds MacKenzie" and "Yes, I Am" to "I Love You, Man" and "Real Men of Genius," Bud Light grew into the world's best-selling beer, a brand so big that today it accounts for nearly one in five brews poured in America.

But as the Bud Light fan base grew older and their more-fickle offspring came of drinking age, the marketer looked to adopt a not-your-dad's-beer message. And as rival light brews gained share with consistent, attribute-driven marketing, Bud Light searched for something to hang its brand hat on. Last October, it landed on the concept of "Drinkability," a confusing calling card it has harped on relentlessly since.

Drinkability is a code for not too heavy (a veiled reference to the slightly-more-bitter Miller Lite) and not too light (a veiled reference to the slightly-more-watery Coors Light). In an interview, CEO Dave Peacock said consumer research showed that was the brand's "sweet spot" for consumers, though the term itself, often derided as resembling M.B.A.-speak, has been on the Budweiser bottle for decades and often was raised during focus groups.

The push was a marked departure from the focus on sophomoric humor that drove Bud Light's sales since its 1982 launch, and it also marked a departure from decades of positive sales trends. According to Information Resources Inc., retail sales of Bud Light declined 3% in the first half, and the trend seems to be accelerating, as sales dropped 7% during the crucial July 4 holiday period.

Bad buzz
"The execution just hasn't been great," said veteran beer-industry consultant Mike Mazzoni, a former A-B executive. "It's not impacting their target market."

And, in fact, a study by online research firm Zeta Interactive found it might be hurting it. Zeta's research indicates that since launching the campaign, Bud Light's total online chatter had both decreased and grown more negative. "It's starting to become detrimental to them," said Zeta CEO Al DiGuido.

A-B executives counter by saying their own research shows Bud Light dominates the total share of online chatter about light beers, and they say surveys of social media show drinkability seeping into conversations about beer.

Now, A-B is dialing down drinkability in coming spots and returning to its roots. "We're going back to that familiar Bud Light voice," said Mr. Peacock. "The work will reference drinkability, but it won't be as drinkability heavy."

Asked if, given the sales declines, he had any regrets about the campaign, Mr. Peacock said he did not, because now that the heavy-handed explaining of drinkability is out of the way, the brand can get back to being funny again in the spots launching later this month.

Trading down
To be sure, more than marketing is to blame for the iconic brand's predicament. The weak economy has caused many drinkers of so-called premium beers such as Bud Light to trade down to cheaper brews. Among its peer light beers, Bud Light's longtime archrival Miller Lite has seen even steeper volume declines while the best performing big brand of late, Coors Light, is still growing, but at a markedly slower rate. What's more, the impact of the economy has been particularly felt in convenience stores, which rely on lower-income drinkers than other channels and have traditionally been Bud Light's stronghold.

But most wholesalers and analysts say there's more than just the economy at work here. Bud Light, more than any other beer brand, was built by image advertising from agency of record DDB, Chicago, that kept the brand in step with pop culture. Now, like the Gap or any other mainstream brand sold on image, it is stumbling a bit as it pitches to the children of its original loyalists.

The brand's total shipments last year were flat for the second time in four years, a trend that prompted A-B to get a bit more serious with its drinkability approach. The other reason a new platform was essential, Mr. Peacock said, was that many of the brand's 21- to 27-year-old target drinkers grew up watching their parents drink Bud Light, and generation gaps have historically posed a problem for big brands. Schlitz, Pabst, Miller High Life and Budweiser are all examples of huge brands that never recovered from spirals resulting, in part, from being rejected by younger drinkers. And none of those brands leaned on image advertising to the same extent of Bud Light.

"We've seen that in this industry again and again," said Mr. Peacock. "We felt like we had to capture [younger drinkers] with that product attribute."

Early returns, however, haven't been good. Sales are down, and the brand has gone about four months without fresh creative, one of the longest stretches in its history, in part because DDB has had a difficult time getting work through the exhaustive, metric-heavy pre testing demanded by A-B's new cost-conscious parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. The process, derided by two executives familiar with it as a restrictive, "color-by-numbers" approach to creative, has been one factor in the new-work drought, Mr. Peacock acknowledged. But he also said the marketer wanted to "give a little room" to a summer promotion involving a branded party-cruise sweepstakes, and also to offshoot Bud Light Lime, which has had summer ads in heavy rotation.

The ads will also be aired in slightly different venues, with more investment in prime-time, cable and late-night programming, partially at the expense of the sports programming that dominates A-B's media budget. A-B spent $234 million in measured media for Bud Light last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Despite the TV-heavy buy, however, Mr. Peacock acknowledged that, ultimately, the way to break through with a new generation of Bud Light drinkers in the way that "Wassup?" once did probably doesn't involve a TV.

"What drives pop culture doesn't necessarily emanate from television anymore, it comes from digital," he said, raising the case of "Britain's Got Talent" star Susan Boyle, who rode online viral videos to international stardom this year, and also "Swear Jar" and "Dude," two cases where A-B got traction online with repurposed television content. "That's something we're trying to leverage and trying to understand more."

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