In 1998 Anheuser-Busch Companies, the Saint Louis, Missouri–based brewery best known for its premium Budweiser and Bud Light beers, greatly increased the advertising budget of its Michelob line of superpremium beers. After spending just over $17 million in 1996 and even less in 1997 on promoting Michelob, Anheuser-Busch devoted an estimated $30 million to the brand in 1998, primarily for a television-based campaign created by Leap Partnership of Chicago. Using the tagline ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ the campaign sought to differentiate Michelob from a confusing plethora of superpremium, specialty, and microbrewery brands flooding the U.S. market. It placed particular emphasis on publicizing Michelob Light, which was widely seen as having more potential for sales growth than its full-calorie Michelob siblings.
The humor-based television spots broke during CBS’s broadcast of the Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan, in February 1998 and continued with little conceptual modification through 2001. One characteristic spot featured an actor unwilling to order a beer in a scene that called for him to do so; instead, he insisted on ordering a Michelob. Other prominent spots in the campaign focused on a negligent grocery-store employee whose bagging technique changed radically for the better when a customer purchased Michelob Light. The campaign began to focus more on Michelob Light, and the tagline was adjusted to ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob Light?’’ Print gradually became a more prominent element of the increasingly robust campaign; by 2001 Anheuser-Busch had boosted its budget for the Michelob brand family’s marketing to an estimated $50 million. Michelob Light sales grew each year that ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ ran. Although it was true that the brand had been growing since 1993, increases in sales growth closely mirrored increases in Michelob’s advertising budget.
In 1852 George Schneider founded the Bavarian Brewery in St. Louis, but in 1860 he sold it to Eberhard Anheuser. The latter hired his son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, in 1864, and in 1872 they first used the ‘‘A and Eagle’’ trademark that would evolve into the logo of Anheuser-Busch. The U.S. centennial year of 1876 saw the introduction of Budweiser, a brand created to resemble beers from Bohemia in Central Europe. Twenty years later, in 1896, the company introduced Michelob as ‘‘a draft beer for connoisseurs.’’
The company took the name Anheuser-Busch in 1919, the same year the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. For the next 14 years, as America underwent Prohibition, the company turned to a variety of enterprises such as bottling soft drinks and selling yeast. It even produced a nonalcoholic version of Budweiser. But when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, August Busch, son of Adolphus, personally delivered a case of Budweiser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a carriage pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses. The latter would become the Anheuser-Busch symbol, and their use would be closely tied to the Budweiser brand in coming years.
By 1957 Budweiser had become the nation’s most popular brand of beer, a position it still held more than 40 years later. Anheuser-Busch diversified its holdings into a number of nonbeverage enterprises and expanded internationally during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981, responding to the growing market for light beers, it introduced the first extension in what would become the Michelob family of beers: Michelob Light. The latter became America’s first brand of superpremium light beer. Three years later, in 1984, the brand added Michelob Classic Dark, which it billed as ‘‘the ultimate in dark beers.’’ Finally, as part of yet another industrywide trend, in 1988 Michelob presented Michelob Ice, for which it also claimed status as the nation’s first superpremium dry beer.
Michelob’s 1998 advertising placed an emphasis on Michelob Light, part of a larger light-beer category that had grown by 3 percent in the preceding year. By contrast, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser Light—better known as Bud Light—had seen its revenues grow by more than 16 percent in the same period. And because Michelob Light had performed better than any brand in the Michelob family during the preceding year, accounting for 50 percent of Michelob revenues, Anheuser-Busch elected to divert much of its Michelob budget toward the light brand.
‘‘Beer drinkers may be couch potatoes,’’ a supermarket category manager told Chain Drug Review in March 1998, ‘‘but if they can’t rouse themselves to shed their fat with exercise, at least they want to slow the weight gains. If they drink a light beer with their baked chips, they can tell themselves they’re not neglecting their health.’’ This somewhat derogatory assessment carried more than a grain of truth: light beers appealed to a category of buyer that on the surface might seem like a contradiction in terms—beer drinkers concerned about health and fitness. But of course at heart there was nothing truly contradictory about the desire to enjoy a premium beer on the one hand and the desire not to gain excess pounds on the other. Thus a large portion of the nation’s top-selling brands were light beers. Furthermore, the association of beer and sports, symbolized by Michelob’s launch of its campaign with the Winter Olympics in February 1998, was an old one.
What was new, however, was Michelob’s thrust:
along with a drastic increase in spending for the brand’s advertising, spots drew attention to Michelob’s traditional image in a way that many Michelob ads in recent years had not. ‘‘In 1896,’’ Michelob brands vice president David English told Chain Drug Review, ‘‘Adolphus Busch created Michelob as a beer for connoisseurs—a step above the ordinary. That image has been blurred by the proliferation of micros [beers marketed by microbreweries], specialties, and imports in today’s market. Our new campaign returns to Michelob’s 102-year heritage as the worldwide symbol of brewing excellence.’’
Anheuser-Busch and Michelob were not the only ones profiting from the steadily increasing interest in light beers. Miller Brewing Company’s Miller Lite, as well as Coors Light, a product of the Adolph Coors Company, had also shown noticeable increases during 1997. But data presented in Prepared Foods in March 1998 showed that Anheuser-Busch held a formidable share of the top brands.
First, of course, was Budweiser, followed by Bud Light. Fifth and sixth places belonged to Busch and Natural Light, and Busch Light was in ninth place, bringing Anheuser-Busch’s holdings to a total of 5 out of 10 slots on the top-10 list. Miller held three spots with Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, and Miller High Life. The other two spots belonged to Coors Light and Milwaukee’s Best. Michelob Light stood in 13th place, followed by Michelob.
As a superpremium beer, Michelob was hardly likely to make the top-10 list, which in fact included no superpremium brands. Among its prominent competitors were Heineken from Holland and Lowenbrau and Beck’s from Germany. Closer to home was Samuel Adams, which used marketing tied to American heritage themes in order to establish a link between itself and the Founding Father whose name it had adopted as its own. In 1997 Anheuser-Busch ran an ad in the Boston area, drawing attention to the fact that, whereas Samuel Adams used images of Revolutionary War–era Boston in its advertising, it was Michelob that actually had a bottling plant in that city.
Michelob also competed with a number of other superpremium brands as well as specialty beers and microbrews. The latter were extremely small operations that typically sold their products only in local markets.
In 1995 Michelob had ended a long relationship with the ad agency D’Arcy Macius Benton & Bowles and selected Glennon Company of St. Louis as its primary agency—though not necessarily its agency of record, since Anheuser-Busch had recently adopted a policy of working with several firms. Among Glennon’s spots had been the ‘‘Gimme Guys,’’ a May 1997 campaign tied to a golf-ball giveaway promotion.
Such advertising, based as it was in a raucous brand of humor more typical of Budweiser, was at odds with the strategy Michelob had employed in the 1980s, when its television spots had carried the tagline ‘‘Some things just speak for themselves.’’ The latter campaign had stressed the image of quality associated with the brand; and for its 1998 advertising Michelob sought to use both quality and humor.
In the fall of 1997 Anheuser-Busch replaced Glennon with Leap Partnership as the lead agency on its Michelob account. It also announced, at the end of the year, a decision to raise its overall advertising budget 22 percent, or $70 million. As 1998 rolled around, Anheuser-Busch let it be known that it would invest a full $30 million on a brand-family campaign for Michelob. This represented a significant jump over previous years: in 1996 the parent company had devoted about $17 million to advertising for its superpremium beer, and during the first half of 1997 it spent only $3.7 million on Michelob. With ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ the company presented what Anheuser-Busch vice president for brand management Bob Lachky called ‘‘situational spots’’ designed to emphasize the brand’s quality image while using humor. Thus, James B. Arndorfer reported in Advertising Age, ‘‘The TV spots will be similar in spirit to those for Bud Light, but less wacky.’’
‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ was launched with two commercials that first aired during the CBS broadcast of the 1998 Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan, in February. One showed a movie actor in the middle of a scene in which his script called on him to ask for a beer; however, he could not seem to restrain himself from asking specifically for a Michelob Light—much to his director’s consternation. Another spot, targeting female viewers, was entitled ‘‘Surprise.’’ In it, a woman returned home from a shopping trip—during which she had bought a sexy item of lingerie—to find a note from her husband suggesting that she grab two Michelobs and meet him in the living room. Before doing so, however, she put on her new purchase, then tiptoed into the darkened and quiet living room. Suddenly, the lights came on, and she found herself surrounded by a crowd of family and friends shouting ‘‘Surprise!’’ Painfully embarrassed, she saw her parents among the group and said timidly, ‘‘Hi, Daddy.’’ Outdoor, radio, and pointof-purchase advertisements supplemented the TV spots. The campaign’s creative strategy remained consistent throughout its three-year run, with later TV spots continuing to use situational humor reminiscent of other Anheuser-Busch brands’ marketing. One well-known commercial that first ran in late 1999, for instance, showed a grocery-store bag boy handling a customer’s purchases with exaggerated carelessness. After shoving a potted plant upside-down into a bag and ruining a loaf of French bread, the bag boy came to the customer’s six-pack of Michelob Light and changed his behavior radically, packing the beer in bubble wrap, bagging it with care, and marking the bag ‘‘Fragile.’’ The bag boy was used again in TV spots that aired in 2000, and the same concept was applied to commercials featuring a bartender. The ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ TV spots typically appeared during prime-time sports programming, and print ads in sports magazines became an increasingly prominent element of the campaign beginning in 1999. The campaign’s emphasis on Michelob Light resulted in a gradual tagline modification to ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob Light?’’ and Anheuser-Busch continued attempting to drum up interest in the brand among women, most notably through sponsorships of women’s professional tennis and women’s professional golf. There was also a 2000 print element that specifically targeted women. The campaign’s budget consistently increased as Michelob Light experienced sales growth each year after it began. The previously unprecedented $30 million budget of the campaign’s first year grew to an estimated $34 million in 1999. The next year the budget increased by an additional 20 percent, and in 2001, the campaign’s final year, Anheuser-Busch spent an estimated $50 million on advertising for Michelob beers.
A ‘KINDER, GENTLER’ OLYMPICS
‘‘I think you’ll find a lot of kinder, gentler advertising in the Winter Olympics,’’ Advertising Age sportsmarketing writer Jeff Jensen told Keith J. Kelly of the New York Daily News. The phrase ‘‘kinder, gentler,’’ of course, was borrowed from Vice President George Bush’s successful 1988 campaign for the White House, but Jensen was referring to the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics’ emphasis on advertising geared toward women. With events that tended to be more popular among female viewers than male, the Winter Games typically drew a much larger ratio of women viewers than did the Summer Olympics. Hence advertising tended to be more specifically geared toward women. A Michelob Light spot, part of Anheuser-Busch’s ‘‘Beer . . . or Michelob?’’ campaign, was to be directed toward the female demographic group, as was a Ford Taurus commercial showing a female doctor driving a Taurus to a hospital to deliver a baby. Ford spokesman Joe Koenig said, ‘‘In years past, that might have been a man driving the car.’’ Nike ran spots that included poetry written by female high school athletes, and other Nike commercials featured female athletes such as skier Picabo Street and hockey player Cammi Granato. A John Hancock Mutual Life spot, while not geared specifically to female viewers, certainly carried a serious, thoughtful message. In fact, the commercial was not a pitch for John Hancock so much as a plea for viewers to donate to the Sarajevo Olympic Children’s Fund. Visuals were made up of footage from the 1984 Winter Games, held in that city, which was then part of Yugoslavia. This was combined with scenes of wartorn Sarajevo, which, as the capital of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1992, had been the site of bitter ethnic fighting. A voice-over by actress Sigourney Weaver stated, ‘‘The children of Sarajevo never forgot the Olympics. Please don’t forget them.’’
In 1998 Michelob Light sales topped the 2.6 million barrel record that the brand had reached in 1996, up from a sales low of 2 million barrels in 1992. As Advertising Age noted, demographics, distributor interest, and economic factors also converged to aid the brand’s resurgence, but the disparity between the brand’s 1997 and 1998 sales levels corresponded clearly with the 1998 increase in the Michelob advertising budget. Indeed, sales of Michelob Light had grown every year since 1993, with the exception of 1997, when Anheuser-Busch spending on behalf of the brand was at its low ebb. Anheuser-Busch accordingly continued to ratchet spending higher in subsequent years, and sales of Michelob Light continued to grow.
In 2001 Anheuser-Busch asked the numerous advertising agencies on its roster, including Leap Partnership, to pitch new Michelob campaign ideas. The brewer eventually awarded the account to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco agency that shared the primary advertising duties for Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser brand. The resulting 2002 Michelob Light campaign, ‘‘Nice Finish,’’ marked a departure from the humor-based approach with which Leap Partnership had found success. That year also marked the introduction of Anheuser-Busch’s enormously popular low-carb offering, Michelob Ultra, which overshadowed Michelob Light amid the growing consumer obsession with lowcarbohydrate diets.