The #corntroversy spat between Bud Light and MillerCoors is more than just Twitter drama and traded insults for the AB InBev brand – it forms part of a broader strategy developed to eke out a point of difference in an increasingly cluttered beer landscape.
The brand used a bumper buy of Super Bowl spots to promote its focus on ingredient transparency, an initiative it launched in January.
Bud Light claims to be the first beer in the US to attach a clear, on-pack ingredient label to its products to show exactly what goes into its lager. But it used a portion of its Big Game commercials to make clear what it leaves out – corn syrup – by making it very clear that MillerLite and Coors Light brew with the ingredient in its medieval ‘Dilly Dilly’ creative universe.
MillerCoors, the brewer of the two named rivals, emphatically responded in a corporate statement the next day, attacking both the strategy behind Bud Light’s “ingredient transparency” campaign and what it called the “the cool reception” to the ‘Dilly Dilly’ Super Bowl ads. It went on to reiterate its sentiment in a full-page New York Times ad; Bud Light responded in kind with its own open letter published in a newspaper.
Now, with Coors Light embarking on a campaign to elevate the farmers of its ingredients, the #corntroversy that Bud Light sparked almost three weeks ago looks far from over.
“[MillerCoors] came out strong and they came out counter-attacking, and that's fine,” said Andy Goeler, vice-president of marketing at Bud Light. “The comparison [between the brands] is powerful because it makes it very clear for people to see our transparency.
“But for us – for me, for Bud Light – it's really not a fight or an attack. It's a conversation that we wanted to start about ingredient transparency. That's the most important thing.”
It’s important because Bud Light needs a fresh USP in the ever-fragmenting alcohol sector. The brand is still the biggest beer in the US with a 15.4% market share, according to figures reported last year, however it saw sales slide by 5.7% in 2017.
According to Morgan Stanley, Wieden+Kennedy’s ‘Dilly Dilly’ campaign may have stemmed some losses since it launched in the same year. However year-on-year sales were still down 2.3% as of June 2018. The rising popularity of craft beers and spirits, which invariably come with a strong brand and story to tell, has sent Goeler looking for a new “point of difference” to hold onto pole position in the US.
“Consumers want to know the ingredients – they want transparency,” he said. “That was a big piece of what we communicated during the Super Bowl and we did it to differentiate our beer. We feel really strongly that our product point of difference is being transparent, but also letting people know what goes in and what doesn't go in – [that’s] our point of difference in our beer, the rational, functional point of difference.”
Crucially, Goeler selected ingredient transparency as Bud Light’s point of difference not only because of consumer interest, but because of its universality. With such a broad audience to speak to, the brand needed a non-divisive, somewhat uncontroversial message that could be communicated across demographics and state lines.
Still, the vehement ‘To be clear, Bud Light is not brewed with corn syrup’ line still managed to aggravate corn farmers, who described the Super Bowl ad as “a punch ...right in the gut”.
Beyond developing a universal brand message, the bigger obstacle for Bud Light was folding it into its ‘Dilly Dilly’ universe without compromising either the humor of the creative or the salience of ingredient transparency. It was vital to make this work, Goeler explained, as maintaining cultural relevance is almost as important to Bud Light’s success as a clear point of difference –a philosophy that explains the huge effort it went to in partnering with HBO’s Game of Thrones for an entirely separate – and off-message – spot.
Goeler described the ‘Special Delivery’ brief he handed to Wieden+Kennedy as “challenging”, but said it really was a blast to work on "once the team had “latched onto how to do it”. For the vice-president, this is symptomatic of a functioning, successful agency-brand relationship.
“I think that the longer-term relationship is very powerful,” he said. “It's like any relationship – you just have to have to stay together and I think that that's been very powerful for us to stay connected. They understand the brand very well. And there's always creatives that want to want to work on Bud Light's scripts because they're so much fun.”
Goeler seems confident that the strategy is working so far, citing a Google search increase for "Bud Light ingredients” of 777% among other stats reported by the brand.
The biggest challenge for the marketer going forward (aside from “brewing enough Bud Light to keep up with demand after people are aware of our ingredient transparency!”) will be keeping interest in the initiative alive once the #corntroversy controversy dies down. He does not have a campaign end-date and is currently hitting the road visiting wholesalers and distributers to drive interest at a trade level.
“We'll just keep running it until we feel as though it's reached a large enough audience,” he said. “It's an exciting time for us – a very exciting time.”