Budweiser Is Playing to A Center That Isn't There Anymore

February 02, 2017

By Michael Kiser, February 02, 2017

It’s been an interesting year for macro beer marketers as they try to cover the spread of staying true to who they think they are, while also reflecting back who they think you think they are. Any corporation the size of AB-Inbev will struggle to include enough demo and psychographics in their national advertising campaigns if their aim is to strike the biggest middle. 

When a population has a healthy middle, ads like Imperial’s can simply hold a mirror up to the nation and tug on their heart strings, flash their logo at the end, and call it a day. Sweeping landscapes and sentimental pride in country are enough to make Costa Ricans cry into their beer. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. 

But in a country like the United States, a country that is increasingly looking like it has no definable middle, the wobble in the axis of our politics and culture seems more and more like a scenario in which things fall apart, and broad sentiments are scoffed at instead of embraced. 

Looking at the Budweiser brand in particular, we can see how a shift in the way audiences are targeted may be leaving the idea of a mass market behind, and instead playing to the 51% majority rule instead. In other words, follow the mob — and maybe it’ll lead you to where the money is. 

Two instructive examples of the mob-rules approach come from the past year of the Budweiser brand, arguably our country’s most fundamental beer products between the Budweiser and Bud Light brands (which still make up about one in five beers consumed). Budweiser has long tried to tie itself directly to our sense of patriotism and salt-of-the-earth middle-America mainstream, even as it weirdly showcased Clydesdales (an elite hybrid of European stallions) and more specialized urban marketing efforts which target a diverse group of beer drinkers through hyper-specific channels. 

I recall working in the library in my undergrad where I was responsible for filing new magazines and periodicals each week. The back cover for Advocate Magazine and Sports Illustrated both had Bud Light ads, and it was clear that whoever decided to place these ads never accounted for the librarian assistant in a Venn diagram they hoped would never touch. 

It was clear that whoever decided to place these ads never accounted for the librarian assistant in a Venn diagram they hoped would never touch.”

From minorities, to LGBTQ, to finance and sports bros, the old approach was a cover-your-bases strategy, put into place long before digital targeting was conceived in even the most futurist of fever dreams. The two prongs were to market nationally to the “default” group for beer (young white males) and then highly segment the rest in walled-garden approach to media buys. 

This year, Budweiser ran one of its most audacious middle-America campaigns ever by simply replacing the brand name of Budweiser on the cans with “America.” Subtle stuff.

But the context has shifted dramatically since those days when we associated Budweiser with hard-working America. We now have a population familiar with local craft beer (which is harder work) trained over decades to see Budweiser as anything but American, and prepared like mental minute-men to jump at anything inauthentic.

While the nostalgic twinges of the brand may still pull at some heart strings as it races around a NASCAR track 500 times like a slow-motion strobe, the younger audiences that Budweiser tries to recruit each year are less and less familiar with that old message. Budweiser is Brazilian, or Belgian, or simply a multi-national corporation.

So while calling the beer “America” might seem like a safe bet in the Bud brand trajectory, it instead triggered a lot of underlying, unarticulated irony across social media from drinkers who either are no longer, or likely never will be, Bud drinkers. 

But that’s not the only contextual frame at play here. “America” ran during the most polarizing political campaign in generations. So while it’s easy to see a broad ad campaign devoid of real intent sort of falling on itself – we see enough of those from large companies, so we tend not give them too much credit – a more cynical view might be warranted. “America” might have been Budweiser playing to the mob. 

The huge populist upswing in our politics wasn’t just good for far-right politicians and their seemingly dormant ideals waking up after a long hibernation (we thought they were dead!), it was also good for any business that could tie into the notion of “Make America Great Again.” There was certainly a larger slice of the pie there than among the fractured sentiments of the rest of the population.

Any good advertising executive is keenly aware of cultural factors that are swinging toward, or away, from their clients' brand positions. And this political campaign was playing right into the territory where Budweiser feels most comfortable.

They even had a great test balloon advertisement that played to their base with the screw-the-urban-elitists-who-love-their-craft-beer spots. You don’t need fruit in your beer like some quasi-efeminite-hipster-stereotype — you want something done the “hard way.” They were signaling to their base. 

They were signaling to their base.”

The national discourse, with all the fervor and divisiveness of a presidential campaign, was a gift to traditionalist brands. If you can hitch yourself to the right wagon, you don’t need the strength of a Clydesdale to pull it. You can just coast downhill. 

But there’s more than one mob in America's constantly shifting center. And this one took shape just in time for a Super Bowl ad preview that seemingly plays to the other side of the country’s middleless-America — the immigration story of Augustus Busch. 

Continuing the theme of “the hard way” but this time focusing on the down-trodden spirited work ethic of Budweiser’s former immigrant founder, this campaign attempts to connect the Budweiser we drink now, which is a product of globalist ventures consolidating power, with the promise of America as a by-your-own-bootstraps entrepreneurial culture.

For critics of global elitist economies, this would easily be seen as a foreign conglomerate selling the idea of America to Americans in the most cynical of ways, and could have been worthy of an equally exhausting eye-roll as the “America” campaign. However, in the context of our immigration ban crisis this past week, it’s instead being lauded as pro-protest support for immigration — essentially one giant subtweet of President Trump.

And the social media team, not used to wins from the non-Bud-drinking liberal side of craft-beer-drinking urban America, are doing everything they can to just accept the applause and bow out of the implications on Facebook right now. Seriously, go look. It’s kind go amazing. There’s a lot of “I don’t drink Bud, but…” 

There’s just no way to safely play to America’s middle anymore with a mass market beer product — but you can certainly exhaust yourself trying. You risk overshooting like the “America” campaign and saying nothing, which is maybe the best-case scenario. Eye-rolls from people who likely aren’t your customers don’t really cost you, and can galvanize your base, if that still exists.

But you also risk having your message co-opted by a political context that shifts much faster than you can make ads. The recent Uber vs Lyft spat shows just how untenable those situations can be in a country where every morning it’s just as likely you’ll get in your car and trudge to work, as it is that you might take to the streets in revolt. 

But now we have the algorithm, I guess. When the Bud Light ads on banners in Chicago’s Boys’ Town reflected a very different worldview than the ads running a few streets over in Wrigleyville, playing to the stereotypes of multiple audiences was a dicey brand proposition. Now it’s easier than ever to speak in different voices – the same way our political echo chambers protect us, so do the advertising channels we see. 

Putting “America” on your cans, or trying to tie your multi-national brewing conglomerate to fresh-off-the-boat handshakes, those tropes might seem like safe, neutral territory for a Super Bowl ad. But it’s is a dicey way to play the game when you have no idea which way the center will wobble by the time you release your version of the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign.

In that state of affairs, as history has shown us at last year’s Super Bowl, even someone as popular as Beyoncé will be weaponized — and the world’s largest brewing enterprise has nothing on her.



ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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