Budweiser, Maker’s Mark and a shot of branding

March 5, 2013

When a recent lawsuit alleged Anheuser-Busch InBev has been watering down its best-selling brands of Budweiser, Michelob and others, effectively lowering the alcohol content, a little bit of that trust might have been spilled on the bar.

When a beer drinker orders a Budweiser, it’s more than just a beer. It’s vote of confidence for a venerable brand and all the trust that entails. It’s the “King of Beers.” It’s Clydesdales pulling a wagon in TV commercials sentimental enough to bring a tear to a brawny guy’s eye. It’s the eagle on the red and blue label.

So when the recent lawsuit alleged Anheuser-Busch InBev has been watering down its best-selling brands of Budweiser, Michelob and others, effectively lowering the alcohol content, a little bit of that trust might have been spilled on the bar.

Beer and liquor, especially, depend heavily on their brands to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Sure, tastes and flavors vary. But in the huge mass market of a popular brew such as Bud, brands have a disproportionate impact on reputation and purchasing.

Pour me another one
This tempest in a bottle is only the latest brouhaha over beverages that have played around with their alcohol proof. In February, the bourbon brand Maker’s Mark said it was going to cut the alcohol by volume, essentially lowering it from 90 to 84 proof. Social media took Maker’s Mark, owned by Beam, Inc. to task for jiggering with the recipe for its Kentucky bourbon. The reaction was so intense that the company reversed its decision and kept its whiskey at 90 proof. Another mass-market brewer, Coors beer — famously brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water at its plant in Golden, Colorado — opted to expand its distribution from its western states to the east coast in 1987. To do so, they built a plant in Virginia, where they shipped in Coors "beer concentrate" to mix it with local water. Purist of the hard-to-find Coors shouted “foul!” Anheuser-Busch ran ads that chided Coors; Coors, in turn sued A/B.

Don’t touch my drink
What all this distills down to is a breach of trust. Whether from habit, personal history, regional tastes or a sense of social status, beer and liquor drinkers are tremendously loyal and trusting in their brands. You just don’t mess with someone’s drink of choice.

Great brands like Budweiser, Coors and Maker’s Mark with long histories develop high visibility and awareness through advertising and careful branding. So any misstep is going to be seen — and magnified — by the press and social media. Anhauser-Busch InBev ran a full-page ad in the March 3 New York Times and Los Angeles Times asserting that the claims against them are groundless.

Even if the charges are proven to be negative, the specter of doubt could seriously water down that trust and loyalty that Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch have worked hard to establish. The best course of action is to be honest and forthright. Or the result could be lower sales. And some serious taste-testing at local watering holes.

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