Behind the beer industry’s new campaign to beat liquor
The beer industry is moving forward on a new campaign meant to combat rising competition from wine and spirits, despite ongoing hostility between the nation’s two largest brewers.
MillerCoors remains on the sidelines of the so-called “Beer Growth Initiative” as a way to protest what it says are unfair attack ads by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has called out MillerCoors for using corn syrup during its brewing process. In a new statement to Ad Age, MillerCoors said: “We were happy to have participated in the early stages of the category health initiative, because we believe deeply in its value. We look forward to re-engaging that work whenever the country’s largest brewer stops denigrating ingredients used by almost every brewer, including themselves.”
The initiative, which counts participation from three trade groups representing distributors, big brewers and craft brewers, last month began testing a new campaign called “Beers to That” by rolling it out in Austin, Texas. The 90-day Austin effort, handled by ad agency Motive, includes digital advertising, experiential events, point-of-sale materials and out-of-home ads. The goal is to push beer for multiple occasions, well beyond beer’s traditional sports-viewing stronghold.
Ads plug beer for celebrating everything from “lazy Sundays” to Mercury being “out of retrograde”—a reference only astrology geeks could love.
“Maybe 20 or 15 years ago we were content to own the pro sports and the Nascar” but “that is not where all the consumers are today,” Craig Purser, president and CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said in the latest edition of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast, where he shared details about the new campaign.
The NBWA, which represents about 3,000 beer distributors nationwide, is leading the campaign along with the Beer Institute, which represents big brewers—including MillerCoors and AB InBev—as well as the Brewers Association, a craft brewers trade group.
The effort comes as the liquor industry continues to make gains. According to a Gallup poll released in August, 29 percent of U.S. drinkers named liquor as their preferred drink, up from 21 percent 10 years ago. In that time, beer’s share has fallen from 40 percent to 38 percent. In 1993, 47 percent of drinkers named beer as their top choice, according to Gallup.
On the podcast, Purser addresses the MillerCoors holdout: “Our philosophy around this is there is plenty of room at this table. We see this as an ongoing effort and I am hopeful that all brewers are going to see value in this.”
The rift began in February when Anheuser-Busch began what is now known as “corngate” with Super Bowl ads calling out Coors Light and Miller Lite for using corn syrup. Miller Lite and Coors Light both use corn syrup during the fermenting process, but MillerCoors says none of it ends up in the final product. The dispute later spilled into court where MillerCoors has claimed some preliminary victories in a false-advertising lawsuit.
In a statement this week, AB InBev said: “MillerCoors is resisting consumer demands for transparency in the ingredients used to brew beer, but those demands are here to stay. We will continue to focus on giving consumers what they want.”
The brewer continued: “As for the category growth initiative, although we compete vigorously in the beer industry, most brewers understand the importance of coming together to address common challenges. As the country's leading brewer, we are proud to work alongside our fellow brewers, our wholesaler partners and our trade associations that are committed to growing the beer category, and we’re excited about the progress to date.”
Infighting also marred the last major industry-wide beer campaign, which occurred in 2006 and included a Super Bowl ad. The effort, called “Here’s to Beer,” crumbled after its leader, Anheuser-Busch, was unable to gain cooperation from its competitors, including Miller, which suspected the Budweiser maker’s motives.
On the podcast, Purser made the case that the new effort has a better chance to succeed because distributors, normally fierce competitors, are committed to working together to push beer as a product. “It has been a campaign and a coalition of the willing,” he said. “We are going to have competitive issues between the brewers,” he added. But “despite some of these differences we are moving forward.”
The effort includes outreach to retailers and bars and restaurants, including plugging the sales benefits of beer generally having less alcohol content than liquor. If “somebody’s drinking a martini and somebody's drinking a light lager, there’s going to be more repeat sales [for beer],” Purser said.
He describes the Austin test as “a best-practice laboratory. We are going to try a lot of things and see what works. And then working with distributors and brewers and retailers, make some of this content and some of these concepts available for folks to try out in their market.”
On the podcast Purser also breaks down the hard seltzer boom, which has benefited the beer industry since many of the biggest brands are made by brewers. “There might be some data that indicates they are [taking market share] from light beer, but there is a lot of data that indicates they are sourcing directly from wine and spirits,” he says.