Less than three weeks into attacking Coors Light and Miller Lite for using common brewing ingredients that come from American farmers, Anheuser-Busch is still struggling to explain what they’re trying to accomplish.
The campaign kicked off with television commercials during the Super Bowl — the most expensive platform in the advertising world — and has since expanded online, into retail and on out-of-home boards across the country.
The ads took clear shots at corn syrup as an ingredient. The message: Corn syrup is bad. (Corn-derived sugars like corn syrup and dextrose are widely used across the beer industry because they cleanly and efficiently convert to alcohol during fermentation and have a neutral taste. They do not end up in the final product.) And corn syrup is cheap. (More on that later.)
But after those low-performing spots sparked a backlash from America’s farmers, Anheuser-Busch executives explained that the ads really were about ingredient transparency. Andy Goeler, vice president in charge of Bud Light, the brand leading the onslaught, told Adweek what he set out to do was “create attention and conversation around ingredients in beers” and bemoaned that “some of the other beers in the industry that don’t provide transparency are made with things like corn syrup.”
That appears at odds with what they were telling distributors. Per a Feb. 7 report in Beer Business Daily (subscription required), Goeler told Anheuser-Busch distributors that the company’s research found that “consumers don’t differentiate between high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup, and that it is a major point in choosing brands to purchase, particularly among women.”
So is it about transparency or sowing confusion among drinkers with intentional subterfuge?
After it was pointed out here and elsewhere that many of AB’s own beers were made using corn syrup, the company offered its third attempt to position the attacks.
“We are not saying corn syrup is bad,” but “it’s a less expensive ingredient and we think a quality light lager only should include the best ingredients,” the company said, according to a Feb. 7 report from Beer Marketer’s Insights (subscription required). Anheuser-Busch later said it “does use (corn syrup) in certain value brands, which are driven by price.”
What AB failed to acknowledge was that, in addition to its value brands like Busch, Busch Light and Natty Light, some of their higher-priced beverages, including Stella Artois Cidre and the recently rebranded Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, each use corn syrup. So which is it?
On top of that, no MillerCoors products use high-fructose corn syrup, while several Anheuser-Busch brands do.
Faced with accusations that the company was speaking out of both sides of its corporate mouth, AB pivoted again, claiming a victory with its ads for the number of Google searches they inspired. For instance, Goeler pointed out to multiple publications: Searches on Google for “Bud Light ingredients” spiked 777 percent since the ads ran.
What didn’t spike was Bud Light sales. Indeed, Nielsen data for the two-week period ending Feb. 9, which includes a week of data after the ads broke, showed that Bud Light continued its intractable decline. The brand’s performance worsened in the period, down 7.3 percent in case volume compared with the same period a year ago, and Bud Light shed 1.1 percentage points of share over the period, per Nielsen all-outlet and convenience data. That nearly rivaled the declines posted by Budweiser (-7.4 percent.)
In the latest twist to this saga, which comes nearly three weeks after the ads first aired, Anheuser-Busch U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Marcondes took to LinkedIn and said that the campaign is about much more than corn syrup and transparency. It’s about helping “future-proof the beer industry for the next 100 years.”
“We realized it was time to change the way we work. Time to make the beer category stronger, rather than only working to defend our position within it. That’s not an easy thing for any company to do. But it’s the right thing to do for our company and our partners — farmers, suppliers, distributors and retailers,” Marcondes wrote.
But as that post went up on LinkedIn, so were billboards and other marketing materials across the country deriding the very ingredients farmers help produce — and that Anheuser-Busch uses in many of its beers.
Some national and regional retailers have told AB they don’t want those ads posted in its stores. And, as Ad Age notes, some industry observers question whether the campaign is truly beneficial for the category as a whole.
Robert Ottenstein, an analyst who covers brewers for Evercore ISI, told the publication: "We're not crazy about negative advertising — we don't think it's great for the category. But when things aren't working I guess you try anything."
Pete Marino, chief communications officer for MillerCoors, was even more critical. “What Anheuser-Busch is doing is a weak and desperate attempt that risks setting the beer category back a few years. Attacking an ingredient commonly used in many beers, including many of their own, is crazy.”
But, according to multiple press reports, AB shows no intent to move away from this campaign, despite its ever-evolving explanations on its purpose.
So far, the company has invited more questions than they’ve provided answers.