How many Budweiser advertising slogans can you recall? I bet it’s at least three. To name a few, there’s “This Bud’s For You,” “The King of Beers,” the image of Clydesdale horses, and, of course, the three frogs croaking, “Bud,” “Weis” and “Er.” The marketing wizards at Anheuser-Busch, the brewers of Bud, must be proud of the level of pop culture ubiquity that their commercials can claim; they must also be among the highest paid in the industry – and that’s the advertising industry, not just the beer world.
When a company spends so much money on advertising, every decision is made with the calculated precision of branding. In 2009, a 30-second slot during the Super Bowl, arguably Budweiser’s most effective medium, will cost an average of US$3-million. That much money makes even an absurd ad campaign – like two guys on couches yelling “Waazzaaaaaa” into the telephone – a planned investment on the part of Budweiser.
[Note: this particular advertisement has come back to haunt Anheuser-Busch in the form of an Obama ’08 support spot. The brewing company, which never bought the full rights for the concept when the original ad ran eight years ago, can do nothing but watch as the popularity of their product is used to endorse a presidential candidate. Google “Wassup Obama” to catch the clip.]
Anheuser-Busch’s has rolled out yet another American campaign for Budweiser, this time heralding it as “The Great American Lager.” Now, I may be wrong, but apart from the value judgment of “great,” this statement is a given. Nothing short of apple pie is more American than an ice-cold, red-white-n-blue can of Bud, preferably drunk while wearing a trucker hat, unironically. With the amount of branding behind the Budweiser behemoth, what would prompt them to such redundancy? Actually, it’s a good story.
Anheuser-Busch was America’s largest brewing company – it made US$16.7-billion last year. I say was because as of this summer, its owners are no longer Americans. In a dramatic turn of events, Belgian-Brazilian beverage mega-corporation InBev bought Anheuser-Busch for almost US$52-billion. InBev, the largest brewing company in the world – owners of Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe (hence the convenient mix-packs at Provigo!), and 200 other brands including Canada’s own Kokanee and Labatt – can now boast the addition of the American heavyweight to its line-up. To save face, Anheuser-Busch now needs to explain to all those red-blooded, McCain-votin’ Bud drinkers that their beer still loves freedom and hates abortions, no matter how Belgian its brewers are.
That is why Budweiser is now being pushed as “the Great American Lager,” and it doesn’t stop there. After 132 years of brewing nothing but lager, and its variants, Budweiser brewed an ale. And, surprise, they named it Budweiser American Ale. It hit shelves in the States last month. For the uninitiated, lagers and ales are the flora and fauna of the beer kingdom. Every beer is either one or the other, and they differ in the type of fermentation: lagers ferment cold and generally produce light, crisp beer, while ales ferment warm and are generally heavier and more flavourful.
Earlier this year, the new Budweiser ad campaign, “Lager Lessons,” featured a buxom barmaid or b-list funny man extolling the virtues of the “refreshing lager” over the “heavy import” [read: ale]. Releasing Budweiser American Ale after explaining why a lager is so much better might seem counterintuitive, but I see it as just another marketing strategy. Their target is now another important North American market: the craft beer drinker.
Craft beer drinkers in both America and Canada are largely ale drinkers. This may be due to the reimagining of styles like pale ale and India pale ale in North America, or it may be a revolt against the shit lagers that dominate the fridges of those who don’t care what they drink, like Molson and, you guessed it, Bud. Anheuser-Busch does have a “craft beer” brand, Michelob, but it’s not their flagship, Budweiser is. So either Budweiser is diversifying its brand or they lost a bet. But for those who know Budweiser for what it is, it’s hard not to see American Ale as anything but a craft beer knock-off.
But beer geeks are curious, so I tried it. Bud’s proclaimed goal is a “new style of ale…one that is not too heavy or too bitter,” and it’s hard to say if they succeeded. Budweiser American Ale is a dark copper, lightly carbonated beer with very little body and, consequentally, too much hops. It is close enough in approximation to Boréale Rousse to be compared, but it has a hoppy quality that our dive bar favourite lacks. It has a sharp, metallic and medicinal bitterness that lingers long after it is swallowed. This is not a beer that needs to be tried twice to grasp its intentions, but I doubt that will hurt sales.
The lesson here is that Anheuser-Busch is a genius when it comes to marketing its product. Perhaps this is why it was recently named “Large Brewing Company of the Year” at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. Their American Ale is a double whammy, aimed at both the craft beer drinkers and the I-only-drink-Bud-from-the-can drinkers. The bottle lists ingredients and their origins like any craft beer, but insist that their barley is grown in “America’s Heartland,” or, you know, Sarah Palin’s “real America.”
In the end, what the American Ale looks like to me is an attempt by Anheuser-Busch to bridge the gap between those who drink Budweiser religiously and those who’ve moved on and probably haven’t drank it since they stole it from the fridge in their dad’s rumpus room. However, they should have brewed a better beer if they wanted to hold the beer geek’s attention. But then again, after the InBev merger most beer geeks turned their eyes to this piece of good news: with Anheuser-Busch’s sale, the largest American-owned brewery has become the Boston Beer Company, not only the owner of Sam Adams, but a craft brewing pioneer.
All Hopped up appears every other Thursday in the Mind&Body section. Send your “Wazzaaaaaa’s” to Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.