Update, Feb. 26, 2019: MillerCoors is out. The Chicago Tribune reports the beer company has pulled out of the proposed alliance, citing Bud Light’s corn syrup campaign: “Obviously since Anheuser-Busch used the largest marketing platform in the United States to demonize the beer category, we’ve decided to put that work on pause.”
Original Feb. 25 story: You might think beer is the most American of beverages, but the industry has lately been losing ground to wine and spirits. Much of the talk at beer-industry conferences lately has focused on “elevating beer” as a whole rather than worrying only about an individual brewery’s slice of the pie. A rising beer tide lifts all ships, the thinking goes.
That was the premise behind a proposed ad campaign set to be funded by some of the world’s largest beer makers: Heineken, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Constellation, and MillerCoors. Executives from the four companies met early last year to discuss what The Wall Street Journal describes as a “Got Milk?”-style, brand-neutral ad campaign to convince Americans to buy beer. The hours-long meeting at a hotel in Virginia focused on how beer can regain its market share when spirits, wine, and cocktails are perceived as more sophisticated.
But there’s a new monkey wrench in the discussions: Bud Light’s Super Bowl ads. Several of the pricey commercials slammed Bud Lights competitors for using corn syrup in the brewing process, and Anheuser-Busch InBev also followed those commercials up with social media campaigns. Miller fired back with a full-page ad in The New York Times, and the corn syrup war raged on. (Read my explainer for more background on why corn syrup shouldn’t be the determining factor in your beer-buying decision.)
The scuffle apparently destroyed good will and momentum toward the general pro-beer campaign, with MillerCoors’s communications chief telling the WSJ that “ABI’s misguided attempt to gain a competitive advantage threatens to single-handedly set back the health of our category for a long time.” He also called the proposed campaign “a waste of time and money” if big breweries continue to attack each other.
The squabble playing out between Bud Light and its competitors is actually just a larger version of a dilemma breweries of all sizes are facing: Is it smarter to compete against each other in an effort to help an individual business succeed, or does banding together to promote beer—any beer—equate to more beer sales for everyone? Until the industry resolves that question, Americans shouldn’t expect to see a “Got Beer?” commercial any time soon.