The fragile alliance among the United States’ largest beer producers is at risk following Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Super Bowl ads for Bud Light that highlighted its ingredients and the use of corn syrup in competitor offerings Coors Light and Miller Lite, made by MillerCoors.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday evening that the future of a year-long effort to develop a marketing campaign aimed at improving beer’s dwindling market share is now uncertain after MillerCoors, which was upset with A-B’s approach with the ads, said it would not attend a previously scheduled March meeting at Constellation Brands’ offices in Chicago.
Announced last September during the the National Beer Wholesalers Association’s (NBWA) annual convention, the “Beer Growth Initiative” was hailed by the industry’s three major trade organizations — the NBWA, Beer Institute (BI) and Brewers Association (BA) — as a way to reverse beer’s loss of market share to wine and spirits. Over the last two decades, the beer industry has ceded more than 11 billion servings to wine and spirits. Volumes of the beer category’s biggest brands — Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite and Coors Light — also continue to decline.
Speaking to Brewbound, MillerCoors vice president of communications Adam Collins said participating in the Beer Growth Initiative while A-B runs Bud Light ads “denigrating common ingredients used throughout the category” would be a “waste of time and money.”
“This is an all or nothing proposition to us,” he told Brewbound. “As long as the industry leader is attacking an ingredient widely used across the beer industry, we’re not going to spend any time or money on an industry health campaign.”
Meanwhile, an Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman called MillerCoors’ exit from future Beer Growth Initiative meetings “unfortunate,” adding that the world’s largest beer company would remain committed to working with other U.S. beer companies and wholesalers to improve trends.
“As the industry leader, elevating and growing the overall beer category is one of our highest priorities,” she said.
However, A-B isn’t pulling the plug on its Bud Light ads.
“We will also continue our efforts to lead the beer industry toward greater transparency for consumers and to compete vigorously in the marketplace,” she said.
Since the Bud Light ads debuted on Super Bowl Sunday, MillerCoors has defended its use of corn syrup in numerous social media posts and blogs. The company also purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to the “beer drinkers of America,” which explained the differences between corn syrup — used to make many beers, including several A-B brands — and high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener linked to numerous health issues, including obesity.
Nevertheless, beer category health has been a recurring topic at industry gatherings. As Brewbound reported last September, the beer industry’s top trade groups tapped alcoholic beverage consultancy Tamarron to spearhead the Beer Growth Initiative with the goal of creating an ad campaign similar to other consumer product goods industries, such as the “Got Milk?” or “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” commercials. Although the theme of the effort was unclear, executives who attended the meetings told Brewbound that potential focus areas could include attempts to reach consumers that beer has struggled to connect with in the past, including women, Generation Z and minorities.
Also during the NBWA convention, then chairman Jim Matesich implored industry members to unite behind the Beer Growth Initiative and put an end “beer shaming.”
“Our consumers are the final judge, and whether they’re drinking a light lager or a pumpkin ale, they’re drinking beer, and we love ‘em for it,” he said at the time.
That call for unity now appears to have gone unheeded. MillerCoors isn’t he only major beer company to publicly criticize the Bud Light ads. Speaking to the Journal, Heineken N.V. CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer said the tone of the Super Bowl ads “was as unfriendly as I’ve seen.”
“No wonder the beer category isn’t going to elevate itself,” he said.
A Heineken USA spokesman told Brewbound that it’s “too early to comment” on the company’s future participation in the Beer Growth Initiative.
For his part, Collins acknowledged that improving beer category health is in “everyone’s best interest,” and he wouldn’t rule out MillerCoors revisiting its involvement in future category health discussions.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said. “This isn’t the end of the conversation.”
In addition to Constellation Brands, the NBWA, BI and BA did not return requests for comment.
Update: The Beer Institute released a statement saying it continues to work “toward the collective goal of strengthening and elevating the beer category.”