Of all the trite annual rituals of the beer world’s publicity calendar, none top the run-up to the Super Bowl for corny stunts, breathless press releases, and ego-inflating embargoes on details about forthcoming commercials that absolutely nobody in the American drinking public is actually keen to learn. Your humble Hop Take columnist tries, whenever possible, not to participate in that glittering orgy of earned media and celebrity cameos; I’d much rather be writing about the money, power, and strategy behind the ads, rather than the ads themselves.
However, Michelob Ultra’s 2023 Super Bowl campaign, “Dynamic Duo,” which emerged from behind Anheuser-Busch InBev’s strictly levied embargo earlier this month, bears some closer scrutiny. The ad, a clunky, cameo-heavy sin at “Caddyshack’s” altar, signals the changing priorities within the mighty macrobrewer’s marketing department and showcases Big Beer’s enduring thirst for exclusives on premium sports-related content (if not the Super Bowl itself anymore). For those who know their recent-ish beer history, the campaign’s tie-in with an upcoming Netflix series may dredge up memories of the catastrophe that unfolded in the late aughts when the company took its last serious swing at streaming video — and wound up in Carlos Brito’s sandtrap. Fore!
Let’s warm up on the practice green with that saga from Anheuser-Busch’s pre-InBev annals. In 2006, August Busch III had just handed over the reins of his family’s publicly traded namesake, and many observers considered the heir to the King of Beers’ crimson throne, his son August Busch IV (“The Fourth”), ill-equipped to steer the company into the future. The hard-partying scion, who’d already made a name for himself as a multi-faceted liability for A-B, had something of a knack for marketing its brands: six out of the 10 most liked ads from 2007’s Super Bowl XLI showcased its beers, including two for Budweiser alone. Emboldened by this success, The Fourth pressed play on his biggest contribution yet, a streaming entertainment platform called Bud TV. The platform would “offer computer users six channels of comedy, reality, sports and talk programming created for and by Anheuser-Busch,” reported The New York Times in advance of Bud TV’s rollout. “The tentative names for the channels include Comedy, Happy Hour, and Reality.” Unfortunately for The Fourth, reality was harsh. Bud TV was an unmitigated flop, costing A-B time, money, and focus that it desperately could’ve used to strategize its defense against the hostile takeover InBev would successfully mount in 2008.
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Smash-cut to the present day, and the beer business has changed almost as much as the streaming business. Better broadband, rock-bottom interest rates, and the pandemic turned Netflix into a streaming behemoth before recent struggles sent the company searching for new revenue streams in 2022. Not stumbling is Michelob Ultra, which has been on an uninterrupted sales tear virtually since InBev stormed St. Louis: According to ABI’s own projections, the super-premium ultra-light lager will supplant Bud Light as the best-selling beer in the United States this decade. Combine those two developments with the shocking stateside popularity of Netflix’s Formula-1-focused documentary series, “Drive to Survive” (and the primo screen time it delivered for league sponsor and ABI rival Heineken), toss in a bunch of famous people and the DVD case for 1980’s “Caddyshack,” and presto! You get this year’s Michelob Ultra Super Bowl spot.
Baffled? Good, because Michelob Ultra’s Super Bowl gambit is almost as confusing as whatever it is Molson Coors thinks it’s doing for the Big Game. The beer brand has teamed up with the streamer to exclusively debut the first episode of its new golf docuseries, “Full Swing,” on the night of the Super Bowl via QR codes printed on the beer’s packaging. Inter-corporate Big Game partnerships are apparently “this year’s hottest trend,” and to be fair, this one does make some sense. “Full Swing,” which should clearly be called “Driver to Survive,” is a behind-the-scenes look at professional golf produced by the same company that did Netflix’s F-1 breakout, and Michelob Ultra has been a sponsor of the Professional Golf Association tour for over two decades. If the show is a hit, it stands to get a younger, broader audience thinking about golf in a whole new light, and Michelob Ultra wants to be there to lubricate them accordingly.
That’s about as far as I can follow the logic. The rest of the “Dynamic Duo” campaign is just a grab bag of “first-for-first’s-sake” marketing milestones — first Instacart-able Michelob Ultra Super Bowl ad! First-for-ABI shoppable apparel collaboration! — that won’t register with rank-and-file drinkers, all jammed into a very half-assed “Caddyshack” redux that has the gall to suggest Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik ever would have touched a low-carb performance beer built for the Lacey Underalls of the world. For that matter, how many prospective Michelob Ultra drinkers — not current, but prospective — even give a sh*t about references to a four-decade-old film? Is this a sign that ABI, which was quick to buy into Netflix’s ad-supported tier last year, wants to push further into original programming as it loosens its once-viselike grasp on the Super Bowl itself? And whose ad is this, by the way, Netflix’s or Michelob Ultra’s? The companies both declined Hop Take’s request for comment, and have been playing coy with entertainment trade press, too, so there’s no saying for sure. But it gives the impression that they’re somehow splitting the bill on Super Bowl airtime, and that makes neither firm look to be playing at the top of its game.
Bud Light, ABI’s flailing battleship, certainly isn’t. The 41-year-old beer has been bleeding sales and volume in the U.S. for years, prompting some soul-searching for a new identity for the over-extended brand. “You cannot reinvent a brand from scratch,” U.S. chief marketing officer Benoit Garbe said at Beer Business Daily’s Beer Industry Summit in late 2022. “We call it rediscovering Bud Light.”
A back-of-the-napkin comparison between Bud Light’s Super Bowl spot and Michelob Ultra’s this year offers a clearer vision of that future, and beers’ shifting positions in it. The latter got eight celebrities and cross-platform tie-ins (albeit head-scratching ones); the former features husband-and-wife actors Miles Teller and Keleigh Sperry Teller dancing while on hold for a customer service in a serviceable-but-sorta boring nod to “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s not a snub per se. But it’s no full-throated show of confidence in the current flagship, either, especially given Teller is a major investor in a non-ABI-owned beverage-alcohol brand, the fast-growing, gin-based Finnish Long Drink.
Of course, no one can stay ahead of the pack forever. With its best days behind it here in the U.S., Bud Light has a supporting role — like a caddy, say, or a wingman — in its future. As for the rest of us, expect ABI to try all sorts of corny stunts and trite tie-ins to keep Michelob Ultra charging up the leaderboard. That’s the game, after all. At least they’re not bringing Bud TV back.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
In over half a century, the intrepid trade editors of Beer Marketer’s Insights have never seen a year-over-year drop in U.S. beer volume larger than last year’s, which they clock at around 7.5 million lost barrels, or around 3.5 percent of the overall market. That includes the hard-charging Mexican brands buoying the import category, too. Yeesh. As always, there are lots of contributing factors, but consider this: Of the category’s 25 best-selling new products of 2022, Brewbound reports that only one was a traditional beer, while everything else was a flavored malt beverage. That beer? Bud Light Next, a brand that not even Anheuser-Busch InBev thinks performed particularly well in its rookie season. So, y’know: room for improvement in 2023!
Montucky Cold Snacks, a Montana-based brand with a growing cult in the Mountain West, grew 21 percent volume in a rough year for beer… Utah lawmakers put forth a bill to legalize beer home-delivery… 47 percent of U.S. consumers plan to buy beer for the Super Bowl, which a) seems low, but b) is still more than wine or spirits… Is this “cider’s moment”? Cider sellers sure hope so…
📉 …and downs
Ballast Point owner Kings & Convicts will bail on the old Saint Archer space it had acquired in Southern California just a year ago… The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cites breweries for workplace safety violations far less than comparable industries, suggesting underreporting… Gen Z may not be drinking beer, but they are drinking BORG…
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