So powerful was the beer’s owner, Aneheuser-Busch, that in 1992 its executives pressured CBS to run one of its commercials a second time because family scion August Busch III noticed a technical glitch while watching Super Bowl XXVI from Florida, according to people familiar with the incident at the time. The company’s marketing executives once threw talking frogs or a bull terrier named Spuds McKenzie or even an animated football game between teams of beer bottles at viewers of the gridiron classic, always certain of rousing success.
In 2019, some of the company’s popular brands are instead being defined by outside forces.
Anheuser on Sunday night ran multiple commercials for its Bud Light that brought other brands into the picture. Three different commercials used valuable Super Bowl time – which cost between $5.1 million and $5.3 million for 30 seconds of air time – to nod to rivals Miller Lite and Coors Light and their use of corn syrup (to be fair, Pepsi also gave a Super Bowl spotlight to its main rival, Coca-Cola). The ads sparked outrage among a segment of the population that might be a natural consumer of beer. “America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you,” said the National Corn Growers Association via Twitter on Sunday night.
One ad – a whopping 60 seconds in length! – didn’t belong entirely to the brew. Instead, it quickly morphed into a commercial for HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and featured the recently popular ad mascot the Bud Knight having his skull caved in by an enemy from that landmark HBO series. After that, a “GoT” dragon used fire to lay waste to the medieval Bud Light characters who have held forth for the last few years. Anheuser paid for the commercial time, according to a person familiar with the matter, while HBO, owned by AT&T, paid for the ad’s production costs.
Anheuser-Busch once owned the Super Bowl. Now it’s getting owned by a host of business factors beyond its control.
Craft brews, alcohol-infused seltzers and good ol’ spirits have risen in popularity, eroding beer’s market share in the U.S. Add to that the fact that Bud Light and Budweiser are no longer the flagship brands of a company controlled by a family that built its name on suds and hops. They are just two brands, albeit powerful ones, nestled in a massive portfolio of beers owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a company that was formed in 2008 when InBev bought A-B for $52 billion.
Since that time, marketing for Budweiser and Bud Light has remained strong. It’s hard, after all, to dispel the decades of brand-building that has taken place in every 30-second beer commercial and sports sponsorship. At the same, some of the company’s “Bud-vertising” has clearly missed the mark. A-B InBev in October said that third-quarter beer sales in the U.S. declined and that customers were migrating to higher-priced brews.
The company inadvertently found itself part of a controversy in 2017 when it ran an ad in Super Bowl LI featuring the story of how its founder, Adolphus Busch, migrated to the U.S. from Germany. But media and consumers linked the ad to an executive action made by President Donald Trump just a few days earlier, when his administration worked to ban immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries
“I think when they bought the company, they underestimated what the marketing had been, and how it had been built in the 25 years previous,” says Tony Ponturo, who spent many years as Anheuser’s vice president of global media, sports and entertainment marketing. “It’s not easy to understand sort of what I’ll call the soul of the beer consumer,” he adds, in an interview.
By some measures, the Bud ads were successful. A panel of ad executives gave the Bud Light/ “Game of Thrones” mash-up a “Super Clio” award within hours of the game. Four Bud Light ads generated more than 315 million impressions on TV devices, according to iSpot TV. And the company’s ability to build up a string of ads featuring the medieval beer drinkers – who often shout “Dilly dilly!” – is nothing to ignore.
Impressions and awards don’t always translate into sales, however. Recent A-B commercials, Ponturo suggests, are honed more toward younger consumers, people between 21 and 30 who are likely still figuring out their product choices – and can be persuaded in one direction or another. Millenials are more intrigued by quality of ingredients or a partnership with a hot TV program.
But in tilting young, Anheuser may be ignoring a good chunk of its overall base, Ponturo says. There are many baby boomers who have a strong link to A-B’s U.S. beverage array. And they may not see themselves in commercials talking about corn syrup or, in the case of Michelob, organic ingredients (Michelob used to market itself as a low-carb, lower-calorie beer for people with an active lifestyle).
In an earlier time, Anheuser’s marketing was forged as part of a longstanding alliance with the big ad-agency DDB, part of Omnicom Group, and supervised by execuitves like Anheuser’s Bob Lacky and DDB’s Bob Scarpelli. In those days, marketing messages for beers tried to be “universal,” says Ponturo. “When you were a man or a woman, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your age, the ads talked to everybody,” he says. “When you start to sort of narrow it down,” he says, the appeal of the commercials may be limited.
Anheuser may have little recourse. Like other makers of popular consumer goods, it faces a world in which consumers can buy an array of boutique items tailored just to their needs. Just as Budweiser and Bud Light are squaring off against an array of craft brews, so too are other consumer-product giants. Did anyone notice what most concerned Mr. Peanut last night as he sped in a “nutmobile” in a Super Bowl commercial? He was trying to knock a bowl of kale chips away from baseball player’s Alex Rodiguez’s grasp. Most ad giants are increasingly concerned with product start-ups that gain traction via social and digital media and have a closer relationship with their core customer.
Likewise, the Super Bowl has become an increasingly unique environment. As more couch potatoes gravitate to video-on-demand, there are fewer opportunities to reach a truly mass audience. If that’s the case, little wonder that big marketers increasingly trying to drum up support among audience niches go into the game doing the exact same thing. It’s true, “Bud-vertising” has changed But so has advertising of many other sorts.
The days of frogs croaking out popular product names are definitely behind us.