Budweiser campaign embraces 'big beer' role, separates itself from growing craft beer market

Attention die-hard craft beer drinkers: This Bud's not for you.

After several years of losing ground to craft brewers, Anheuser-Busch, the country's biggest brewery, seems to be conceding that its flagship brew may not fly with fans of fancy suds.

Rather than try to woo them to toss back a Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch is aiming its latest marketing at its core consumers, the folks who likely wouldn't reach for a craft beer in any case. And they're doing it with a playful wink and nod that says, "We didn't want their fancy-schmancy beer anyway."

That was Anheuser-Busch's playbook for the Super Bowl, when they ran an ad — relaunched this week in wider play — that calls Budweiser a beer that "isn't brewed to be fussed over." As a mustachioed man drinks beer from a fancy glass, the ad mocks, "Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We'll be brewing us some golden suds."

"A prevailing misperception in beer is that small must be good, and big must be bad. This spot, if you like, is us saying we categorically don't accept that," Brian Perkins, Budweiser's vice president of marketing, said in an interview. "This is about us owning who we are without apology."

The ad left a sour taste with some in the craft beer world, who took to social media with parodies and taunts, including a video in which members of Ninkasi Brewing in Oregon chugged Budweiser and asked: "If you aren't drinking a beer for taste, what are you drinking it for?"

But Perkins called the ad a "gentle poke" and said, "The only people who misread the spot, frankly, probably weren't drinking Budweiser anyway ... I've lost them already. They're not my consumer."

And he is right — they're not.

Budweiser remains the No. 3 beer in the U.S. and Bud Light ranks at the top. Still, Budweiser's volume fell more than 6 percent annually between 2008 and 2013, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Meanwhile, craft brewers such as Colorado's New Belgium, California's Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams maker the Boston Beer Co. grew more than 7 percent annually over the same period.

Overall sales of craft beer rose about 17 percent to hold a 14 percent dollar share of the $100 billion U.S. beer market in 2013 despite a nearly 2 percent drop in overall beer sales, according to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group that represents most of the nation's 3,200 breweries. Big beer also is losing ground to hard liquor.

Drawing a line in the sand between Budweiser and the craft beer market makes sense, says Euromonitor analyst Eric Penicka.

"They're acknowledging that the typical craft beer consumer is definitely not going to go out of their way to buy Budweiser," he said. "The product itself is hard for (Budweiser) to push outside of the core group who is already consuming it. And I think it makes sense for them to do that. ... For them to try to push Budweiser into the craft consuming market, which would be primarily younger, more educated, financially more well-off, is not really going to strike a chord."

Not that it's a complete surrender. The U.S. arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, a Belgian company that is the world's largest brewer, has bought several smaller craft brewers, including Chicago's Goose Island and Seattle's Elysian Brewing, the latter of which also makes a peach pumpkin ale and includes the tagline "Corporate Beer Still Sucks" on one of its labels.

The beer giants also have been bulking up "craft-like" brands, such as Anheuser-Busch's Shock Top, which has its own seasonal pumpkin beer, as noted by many who took offense to Budweiser's ad.

Anheuser-Busch's biggest competitor, MillerCoors — maker of Coors Light, Miller Lite and Blue Moon — has taken a similar approach with a portfolio of both craft and mass market beers, and isn't ready to write off dedicated craft beer drinkers. MillerCoors spokesman Jonathan Stern says his company sees plenty crossover with consumers happily drinking both styles of beer.

The issue, he says, is that big beer's core consumer just isn't choosing mass market beers as often as they used to, and smart marketing to millennials is needed to turn that around.

Budweiser's campaign isn't about "running scared," as some have implied, but simply owning its place as a big beer brand that's enjoyed by many, Perkins said.

"In order to talk about who we are, sometimes you juxtapose it with what you're not," he said. "Kudos to the brewers of peach pumpkin ale and other flavor variations. That's their thing and they're great at it, but meanwhile, we'll stick to who we always have been."


Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .