You’ve seen Spuds MacKenzie.
You’ve seen the Clydesdales.
You’ve seen the Wazzup guys, the frogs and “Dilly Dilly.”
Now comes Anheuser-Busch’s most audacious advertising campaign to date: transparency.
Yes, good old fashioned honesty is the latest salvo from the nation’s largest beer company in an effort to stop the bleeding for Bud Light, which remains the nation’s top-selling brand despite years of declining sales.
The effort began Super Bowl Sunday with the now-infamous shot at chief rival MillerCoors’ use of corn syrup in its two leading brands, Miller Lite and Coors Light.
Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, attempted to pivot to the high road by saying its barbs were in fact in the interest of beer drinkers.
“Consumers are demanding more transparency around the food and drink they consume, and Bud Light is leading the transparency movement for beer,” Anheuser-Busch InBev vice president of legal and corporate affairs, Cesar Vargas, said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to lead the effort toward increased transparency as it benefits the entire beer industry.”
Its proof? A label on Bud Light packaging that listed four ingredients: “Water, Barley, Rice, Hops.” (It should be noted that rice is not typically a core beer ingredient; it can be a highly specialized ingredient, but has largely been considered a cost-saving shortcut.)
Weeks later Anheuser-Busch followed with an ingredient panel on Bud Light Orange, leading Harry Schuhmacher, editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily, to call the claims of transparency — and accompanying ingredient panels — “a long play” for the company. Sure enough, this week, the website My Beer Buzz reported that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has approved new Bud Light Orange and Bud Light Lime labels that also proclaim “No Corn Syrup.”
Yet transparency remains an unlikely claim from a company rooted in opacity during its long climb to becoming the nation’s dominant beer player. If anything, the murkiness has only grown as Anheuser-Busch had looked to reverse more than a decade of decline in the U.S. beer market — from just under 50 percent in 2003 to 41 percent in 2018, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.
Still, it remains the nation’s largest beer company by a comfortable margin after reaching the top of the mountain by any number of methods: spending gobs of money on marketing and sponsorships, advertising (the aforementioned Spuds, frogs and Wazzup guys); demanding maximum loyalty from its distributors (thereby limiting opportunities for competitors); employing tactics that caught the eyes of various regulators; and, yes, trickery and obfuscation.
There have been brands introduced precisely to confuse, such as Pacific Ridge Pale Ale, a virtual clone of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — from ingredients to packaging to messaging — released during the late 1990s (and which quickly faded away).
It has twice been sued for quietly moving production of two well-known imports — Kirin Ichiban of Japan and Beck’s of Germany — to Anheuser-Busch breweries in the United States while continuing to imply they were imported products. Both suits were settled for millions of dollars.
“They realized they had been deceived,” said a lawyer for the Beck’s plaintiffs. “The packaging didn’t really explain that it was a domestic beer.”
Though its earlier attempts to lock down the distribution tier raised anti-competitive concerns, Anheuser-Busch has more recently enacted stealthier strategies for gaining an outsize advantage unrecognizable to most consumers.
It has entered the world of beer media with the October website, where Anheuser-Busch beer just so happens to find hearty praise. October has also staged a beer festival that did little to tout Anheuser-Busch’s prominent role in the event, even though it poured more than 40 percent of the beer on site.
And now, since its entry into craft beer, there’s the festering question of where the beer is made. Anheuser-Busch has routinely scaled up production of the 10 craft breweries it has purchased since 2011, starting with Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. It makes sense; Anheuser-Busch bought those brands to grow them.
But as I explained in “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business,” my book about Anheuser-Busch’s push into craft beer, the company has done little to clue customers in about how that growth has unfolded.
Though production of many of its craft brands has been passed off to Anheuser-Busch breweries — its biggest sellers at the moment are Goose Island IPA and Elysian Brewing’s Space Dust, also an IPA — the company had had little interest in helping customers to distinguish which beers are actually made by those acquisitions and which are made by Anheuser-Busch.
Craft beer depends on story, people and places far more than mass market beer — no one cares where Bud Light is made — and for that reason, Anheuser-Busch has held tightly to the story, people and places acquired with their craft brands.
Yet cans of Golden Road’s Wolf Pup Session IPA, which declare “Los Angeles” on an electric blue background featuring an image of a palm tree, are made at Anheuser‐Busch’s brewery in Fairfield, Calif., nearly 400 miles north of the actual Golden Road brewery in L.A. Bottles of Blue Point prominently featuring “Est. Long Island” on their front labels were made in Merrimack, N.H. The back label of a Goose Island beer made in upstate New York implied a direct relationship to the Chicago brewery 700 miles away: “Stop by and say hello. Goose Island taproom: at the corner of Fulton and Wood in Chicago.” And on it goes. As I wrote in the book:
None of the packaging for any of Anheuser‐Busch InBev’s craft acquisitions included the words Anheuser‐Busch InBev. Not on the bottle. Not on the can. Not on the cardboard twelve‐pack. Not anywhere. The closest hint came in the tiny horizontal print on the sides of its bottles and cans. As beer from its craft acquisitions was increasingly off‐loaded to Anheuser‐Busch breweries, a pattern emerged: the “home” market — where the acquired brewery was physically located — was listed first, followed by the location of the Anheuser‐Busch breweries where the beer was actually made:
Goose Island Beer Co. Chicago, IL, Baldwinsville, NY & Fort Collins, CO
Golden Road Brewing Los Angeles, CA & Fairfield CA
Brewed and bottled by Elysian Brewing Co., Inc. Seattle, WA & Fairfield CA
Blue Point Brewing Company Patchogue, NY and Merrimack, NH
Breckenridge Brewery, LLC Littleton, CO and Fort Collins, CO
So, no. Don’t quite believe Anheuser-Busch is suddenly a paragon of transparency. What we’ve come across is a moment where Anheuser-Busch senses an advantage in an era where consumers are more thoughtful about sourcing and ingredients than they likely have been at any time in recent memory. Corn syrup is a convenient boogeyman. Transparency — or, more accurately, the idea of it — is a marketing strategy no different than Wazzup.
And in fact, we’ve been here before.
During the mid-1990s, when Anheuser-Busch was first feeling the squeeze from the nascent craft beer industry, among the gravest threats was Samuel Adams Boston Lager, a beer dealing with its own questions of transparency.
Rather than a product of Boston, it was in fact made in Cincinnati. As explained in Chapter 10 of “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out,” Anheuser-Busch was all too happy to champion honesty in an episode of “Dateline” presented as an expose of craft beer and practices such as contract brewing:
Anheuser‐Busch’s vice president of consumer awareness, Francine Katz, told the television program that contract brewing “comes down to honesty and truth in labeling ... All we’re saying is, “Hey guys, let’s agree on some basic rules of honesty, let’s be truthful on our labels.” She directed particular ire at Pete’s Brewing, whose Wicked Ale was manufactured at Stroh’s Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota.
To be fair, Anheuser-Busch is hardly the only beer company engaged in consumer sleight of hand. Plenty of craft brands exist just as Sam Adams initially did — as brands made under contract by other breweries. Though it has two small breweries in Denver, the notion of Blue Moon Brewing Co. is largely a fiction; Blue Moon Belgian White is made by — and has always been made by — MillerCoors.
And in recent weeks, Craft Brew Alliance agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over alleged “false and deceptive advertising” over its family of Kona beers. Despite Kona’s identity as a Hawaiian brand — and the fact that CBA does operate a production facility in Hawaii — Brewbound reports that a majority of Kona beer sold in the continental U.S. is made at breweries in Portland, Ore., Portsmouth, N.H., and — you may not be shocked to know — an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. Anheuser-Busch is a minority owner of CBA.
In other words, it’s the proverbial business as usual for the company that claims to champion transparency.
Transparency, of course, is something to admire. Yet twice during the past 23 years, Anheuser-Busch has embraced the notion only when convenient. True transparency would make clear which of its brands are made by breweries owned by Anheuser-Busch and which are in fact made by Anheuser-Busch. It would include date codes featuring the date beer was packaged (which the company occasionally embraces though just as often drops). It wouldn’t stealthily account for 41 percent of a beer festival. Its brands wouldn’t show up in its media arm’s favorite beers of the year without acknowledging common ownership.
Instead we get transparency that looks mostly like marketing. Look no farther than Anheuser-Busch’s own roster of beers for the evidence, where dozens of brands are made with corn syrup or, worse, high fructose corn syrup — from the Rita series to portions of its Shock Top line to Natural Light Naturdays, a new strawberry-lemon light lager.
We should all look forward to seeing that information on an ingredient panel.