SBJ/June 11 - 17, 2007/SBJ In Depth

The Making of Bud Light

Normally, every business failure has a solitary scapegoat while everyone else involved flees from the guilt of association. Conversely, successes usually have scores affixing themselves like barnacles seeking some measure of credit, deserved or otherwise.

Bud Light produces team-
specific aluminum bottles as
part of its MLB sponsorships.

In the case of Bud Light, one of the men most responsible for the brand’s success may be as lost to history as a bottle cap on a busy barroom floor.

As former and current Anheuser-Busch marketers remember it, the seminal ad campaign for Bud Light, now the world’s biggest beer brand, was prompted by a forgotten beer wholesaler who was tired of light beer being a category generic.

At the time, in 1984, “Budweiser Light” was in a losing battle with Lite Beer from Miller. Miller had beaten A-B to market by four years (Miller launched Lite in 1973 while A-B’s first light offering was Natural Light in 1977), and the success of Lite had propelled the Milwaukee brewer from also-ran status to A-B’s most serious challenger.

Budweiser Light, introduced in 1982, was being pitched with a “Bring out your best” campaign from Needham (the current DDB Worldwide) that offered imagery of unknown athletes overcoming insurmountable odds.

A-B execs still marvel at that campaign’s lush cinematography. However, Jack MacDonough, then vice president of brand management at A-B, recalls, “It sold more Budweiser than Budweiser Light.”

After an initial spike, the Budweiser Light brand began to drop like a shot glass in a beer mug.

Bars were a real problem for A-B. Miller’s head start had turned light beer into a default request for Miller, so when drinkers asked their barkeep for a light beer, they were usually handed a Miller Lite.

“A wholesaler told me, ‘That TV stuff is great, but can you do a radio campaign for me, because I’m getting killed across the bar,’” recalled former Coke CMO Chuck Fruit, then A-B’s director of media.

Thus was born the “Gimme a light” bar call campaign from D’Arcy McManus & Masius, wherein drinkers simply asking for “a light” were offered anything but a beer — whether it was a poodle jumping through a burning hoop, a flaming arrow, an ugly alligator lamp, or a glowing blowtorch. Only after the would-be drinker changed his request to “Er, make it a Bud Light‚” did he receive the cold beer he really wanted.

The $50 million campaign did more than rebrand Budweiser Light to Bud Light. It branded an entire category that now accounts for more than half of the domestic beer market. As Philip Van Munching observes in “Beer Blast: The Inside Story of the Brewing Industry’s Bizarre Battles for Your Money,” “the decision to call its brand Lite Beer from Miller suddenly came back to bite Miller in the ass.”

Miller waited until 1993 to recast Lite Beer from Miller to Miller Lite. However, the damage had been done. By 1994 Bud Light had passed Miller in sales.

Bud Light separated itself from Miller using its powerful brand name and distribution network, along with humor and accessibility that, combined with the calorie count, make it a favorite of female drinkers.

The Bud Light Street Beat concert series
gets cranked up at Vail, Colo., one of the
brand’s many connections to winter sports.

It’s a lighthearted positioning that endures. Bud Light has been the top-selling beer brand in the world since 2003.

So who gets the credit?

“I wish I could remember his name because he saved the brand,” said MacDonough, who originally thought the bar call campaign was stupid. “It was not as beautiful a commercial as what we were running [for Budweiser Light]. So what? We were desperate,” he said.

Prior to the campaign, August Busch III had made it clear to his marketers that they wouldn’t be around much longer if Bud Light didn’t stop Miller’s steady advance.

“Desperation makes you do anything,” Fruit said, “including listening to your customers who all think they are advertising experts. I could argue that ‘Bring out your best’ was some of the best sports ads we ever did, but it didn’t matter. ‘Gimme a light’ was what turned things around. It started as a tactic but ended up influencing our whole strategy.”

Keeping it fun

After “Bring out your best‚” A-B learned not to bother America’s younger beer drinkers with notions of taste or details of a brewmaster’s craft. Bud Light grew to No. 1 by placing itself at the center of where most of America’s beer is consumed — as a social lubricant.

In realizing that the occasion where beer is consumed is often more important than taste to Americans, A-B crafted a position that’s still relevant to its core 21- to 27-year-old target.

“It’s a product that’s fun and social — that’s what that [younger] generation of beer drinkers is about,” said Bob Lachky, a longtime A-B marketer who’s now the company’s executive vice president of global industry development.

As potent as any brew ever cooked up at A-B is a Bud Light positioning that’s made it the most accessible light beer.

“Our goal is to win the entry-level beer drinker,” said Marlene Coulis, A-B brand management vice president. “When you are at a party, a barbecue or a bar, beer is so much about the image you carry, and when you’re holding a Bud Light — it’s acceptable to everyone.”

A-B subsequently added the idea of beer drinkers going to great lengths, any lengths, to get Bud Light — another concept that has endured. “I only want Bud Light — that’s the same thing we do now,” Lachky continued. “The guys waiting to get the Bud Light at the wedding reception who hire a tobacco auctioneer [to make the wedding go faster] is the same basic premise as ‘Gimme a light.’ People will do anything for it.”

A-B sports marketing chief Tony Ponturo started at A-B six months after Budweiser Light launched.

After “Gimme a light,” the brand “just locked on a position that defined the beer experience better than anyone,” said Ponturo, who made some of the media buys for the launch while in a prior job at D’Arcy. “Its success is never taking it too seriously — even though it’s the No. 1 brand, it’s always maintained its fun, and it’s successful because that strategy was so strong.”

At a time when agencies and strategies are discarded like empty six-packs, the consistency of Bud Light’s marketing is worth noting. “When we introduce new brands today, we reference that more often than not,” Ponturo added. “If we had been impatient, we never would have had a Bud Light.”

While Bud Light has no sponsorship with
the league, it has deals with 28 NFL teams,
including the San Francisco 49ers.

Beer is a category with many line extensions. Bud Ice, Bud Light, Bud Ice Light (not to be confused with Miller Lite Ice), and the more recent Bud Select are examples from A-B.

Both Miller and A-B brewers were initially reluctant to associate their venerable brand names with a “diet beer.”

“America was getting calorie conscious,” Fruit remembers. “There were many successful new brands that had ‘diet’ in their names.”

A-B’s marketers knew they had to counter Miller’s success with Lite. However, did they have any idea light beer would become most of the U.S. beer market?

“The most blue-sky projections in the late ’70s were that if everything went right, the light beer category might represent 20 percent of the beer market 20 years hence,” Fruit said. Now it’s most of the market. “From that I learned that predicting any kind of consumer taste and behavior more than five years out is a risky business,” he added.

Another important and almost forgotten detail in Bud Light’s launch was pricing. At the time, premium light beers were priced above premium beer. A-B decided to price Budweiser Light the same as Budweiser. The difference seemed scant, but it added up to $7 million annually in lost income for A-B.

“It would have cost Miller $50 million to match us because they were a much larger brand then,” MacDonough said. Pricing Bud and Bud Light the same gave A-B an advantage in retail pricing during promotions as well. “Another move made from desperation,” MacDonough laughed, and another brake on what was then a runaway Lite Beer train.

Since then, “the common marketing thread has been about Bud Light’s personality of humor — it gives consumers a level of comfort about the brand,” Coulis said.

Win this bar bet
Q: “When did Bud Light win its first Bud Bowl?”

A: Bud Bowl III (1991): Bud Light 23, Budweiser 21. The “game” featured Bud Dry as the star QB for Bud Light and “The Freezer,” a 32-ounce Budweiser bottle that towered over the competition. The end of the game was a parody of “The Play” from the Cal-Stanford game in 1982. Game commentators were Don Meredith, Keith Jackson and Chris Berman.

The role of sports

Not that sports weren’t important in propelling Bud Light to its current status as the actual “King of Beers.” Humor was lead dog (apologies to former Light spokescharacter Spuds MacKenzie), but “the way we did it was with sports media,” Lachky said. “Sports was the voice of the brand and the deliverer of the brand message — we are such heavy buyers of sports, the humor got catapulted by it.”

Over the years, there have been a number of memorable sports-themed spots for Bud Light. While the Bud Bowl has been abandoned, the battle between Bud and Bud Light bottles is indelibly planted in American pop culture.

Along with creating retail excitement and displays in January — a dead time for beer retailers, Bud Bowl gave A-B its own property when Miller owned the rights to market the Super Bowl under a bifurcated NFL sponsorship scheme that had A-B marketing the NFL with the regular season, while Miller owned postseason and the Super Bowl.

Other Bud Light sports ads include some memorable tributes to its official beer status of the NHL. Wayne Gretzky, the Hanson brothers, the “bubble boys” and a bunch of mullet-headed NHL fans who lived in Hockey Falls all supported Bud Light’s hockey connection.

On the distaff side, some clever ads had three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie trying to find shoes to match her red gown (she eventually wears red Nike high-tops). Soccer diva Julie Foudy also did two humorous Bud Light ads.

The genius of Miller’s original Lite Beer campaign from McCann-Erickson was that by using renowned jocks such as Mickey Mantle, Joe Frazier and Bubba Smith, who tore the top off a Lite can in one memorable spot to demonstrate the “easy opening can,” Miller gave hard-core beer drinkers permission to drink “diet” beer at a time when low-cal beer was anathema at best and effeminate at worst.

By 1977, three years after Lite’s launch, there were more than 20 light beers across America and Miller used both Lite and deep pockets from its Philip Morris parent to kick Schlitz out of second place in the beer market, behind A-B.

Bud Light Daredevil character Ted Ferguson
(center) hangs with John Salley (left) and Jalen
Rose during a swimsuit pageant in Las Vegas.

“Miller did two very important things,” said Fruit, whose consulting clients now include Miller Brewing. “They made light beer acceptable to men and they did so by not talking about calories but by saying you can drink more.”

A-B originally pilfered some of the athletes used in Lite Beer ads for its own commercials. On the sponsorship side, it first paired Bud Light with lifestyle and active sports like beach volleyball, surfing, skiing and snowboarding. Its support helped found the Professional Bull Riders in 1993. In accordance with its relatively heavy concentration of female consumers, Bud Light has sponsored women’s soccer and was an original WNBA sponsor.

As the brand grew, however, A-B integrated Bud Light into all of its big properties, including its 28 NFL, 26 MLB, 26 NBA and 21 NHL team deals and its Olympic, MLB, NFL and NHL national sponsorships.

“America was getting health conscious as a country, and we went with that trend along with the rest of the beer industry,” said Ponturo.

Rivals Coors and Miller attach nearly all of their sports marketing to light beer. By now, nearly every A-B sports property is linked to both Bud and Bud Light. FIFA World Cup is not, because light beer is not as popular offshore. Another exception is top NASCAR attraction Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Bud is so embedded in that sport, we felt Bud Light might be perceived as a ‘me too’ brand,” Ponturo explained.

More recently, sports have been increasingly important as a packaging play. Aluminum “bottles” have given both Bud Light and Bud eye-catching billboards on which to splash their own trademarks and the logos of the many sports brands they rent, both at venue and at retail.

“Combining people’s passions for their teams and beer is perfect,” Coulis said. It also provides A-B, the biggest buyer of sports marketing inventory, with another return-on-investment indicator.

The parallels to the soft drink world are striking. In both markets, the mainstream full-calorie beverages are in retreat. So just as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi are the healthiest soft drinks in terms of growth, Bud Light still has plenty of opportunity 25 years after its first pour. Import lights, notably Corona Light and Heineken’s Premium Light, have showed some strong gains, but on the domestic side, Bud Light still has room to grow — even coming off a year where sales increased more than 4 percent — a healthy jump for a very mature and crowded category.

“If there’s a lesson after 25 years, it’s one of consistency, following where the consumer is going and trying to stay ahead,” Lachky said. “The brand has been able to pretty effortlessly get through the generations by staying current. The burden on us with the advertising is to continue with a fun-and-humor strategy that still resonates with each succeeding generation of beer drinkers.”

Bud Light
Miller Lite
Coors Light
Natural Light
Corona Extra
Busch Light
Miller High Life
Source: Beer Marketer’s Insights, 2007

Total sports advertising spending (millions), by category

Note: Categories saw a huge jump in spending in 2006 thanks in part to the Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of Nielsen Media Research data

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