Blue is the most drinkable color. That will be $100,000 for services rendered, thank you very much. Ah, such is the life of a marketeer. Given that life-sustaining water, which accounts for about 60% of our bodies, 70% of our brains and 90% of our lungs, is literally the stuff we’re made of, it’s quite remarkable that you’d need an expert to tell you that anything that associates consumers with water will perceived quite positively, especially if you’re selling a beverage that’s made mostly of water.
But last week, Anheuser-Busch unveiled plans to upgrade their packaging on Bud Light to give it a shot in the arm. I wasn’t going to write about this one. I really wasn’t. All of the big beer companies do this from time to time. They revamp their packaging, releasing press releases that all but tout it as the second coming. It’s frustrating, and doubly so because it usually works. I know good packaging is a must in our consumerist world, and that you must continually tweak it to keep it “fresh” otherwise people stop looking if it’s always the same. But I can’t help by being continually dumbfounded at how absolutely predictable and easily manipulated we all are. Look, shiny object … must touch … must buy. Sheesh, how pathetic. We all pride ourselves on our individuality but at the end of the day we’re more alike than we care to admit, myself included. And boy do marketers have our number. Pick up any recent book on the science of marketing and you’ll be astounded at the level of detail by which marketers can accurately predict our behavior. (For two good places to start, try Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping or Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion: Why We Listen To What “They” Say.) So, as I said, I was going to leave this latest one go, as I’ve beaten this dead horse time and time again.
What changed my mind was a surprisingly hilarious column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Kevin Horrigan entitled New! Improved! Drinkable!. Given that it was written in St. Louis, it’s delightfully snarky, but perhaps now that the new regime is in perhaps it’s finally possible to criticize the local 100-lb. gorilla and get away with it in a way not possible a month ago. Jeremiah McWilliams, the Post-Dispatch’s usual man on the job when it comes to beer wrote about it earlier, but just related the facts with little commentary or asides.
And naturally, the AP towed the party line as well, with Emily Fredrix’s article passing along such wisdom as these choice nuggets:
And that’s where Horrigan picks up the story, taking the idea of “drinkability” (a 17th century word A-B recently appropriated as its own, it wold be interesting to see how fast the lawsuits fly if someone else tried to use the word now) and his article shows how ridiculous A-B’s marketing department’s use of the word really is. Here’s a sample of what he writes:
Literature fanbase, are you tired of reading ordinary newspaper columns? Why not try our new column, with superior readability?
Ordinary columns go down harsh. Our new column goes down smooth, with no bitter aftertaste. That’s what we call readability, a concept pioneered by our German wordmeisters.
They came to this country with but one thing on their minds: producing a newspaper column that would have superior readability. What’s that mean? Simply put, it means we don’t string words together like the Germans do, like schicklegruberhofmeistergesselschaft (literally, the “guy with the razor who grubs in the barn company”). No, we use short words. English words. Easily digestible words.
As cannily effective as that is, it was this next line that really got me back in the game, writing about this nonsense. After spending millions promoting the concept of “drinkability,” the next phase is to change the color of Bud Light’s packaging: the labels, the cans, the six-pack carriers and the mother cartons, all redone with a “fresh” new color scheme favoring blue. Why blue, you may rightly ask? Here’s how Horrigan puts it. “Because expensive marketing studies indicate that the color blue suggests ‘refreshment.'”
If you’re drinking something, now would be the perfect time to involuntarily spray/spit it out in surprise and horror. Really, people will associate the color of water, which is refreshing, with refreshment? How many advanced degrees, consumer focus groups and surveys and polls with appropriate statistical number crunching do you think led them to make so bold a proclamation as “the color blue suggests refreshment?”
What’s more amazing, is that armed with that insight, they’ve made the decision to make the packaging blue, wth the fir belief that this change will therefore make it sell better, too. If that were really so, wouldn’t every package of any sort of drinkable liquid for sale, alcoholic or not, be blue by now to tap into our subconscious desires for something refreshingly blue? Pepsi is blue. Foster’s is blue. Why aren’t they the number one brands in their categories. Coca-Cola seems to be doing reasonably well with their red packaging. Doesn’t red suggest heat. Why would anyone looking for refreshment choose Coke?
I hope you already know the answers to those questions. Marketing is all about manipulation. It’s the practical application of propaganda for business purposes pioneered during World War I by our government to “persuade” us that going to war was not only a good idea, but necessary for our own safety. Ever since, it’s been the same story before every war our politicians have dragged us into. Hitler was so impressed by how effective our World War I government propaganda was that it inspired him to create an entire department devoted to propaganda headed by Joseph Goebbels after he came to power and created Nazi Germany. It was called The Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Isn’t it comforting to know that advertising and marketing has such an impressive heritage and lineage? Modern day P.R. (a phrase coined specifically to avoid the negative connotations that propaganda took on during World War II) and marketing is a direct result of what was learned in the early part of the last century about how to manipulate people in such a way that they would not only do what you wanted, but think it was their idea. If you think that’s no longer going on or that we’re all too smart to fall for such tactics then you’re really not paying attention to the realities of the world. If anything, it has gotten much more sophisticated. Marketing really can make you see white but think its black.
But let’s return to the concept of “drinkability,” a term A-B has toyed with for a number of years before deciding to make it the cornerstone of their latest marketing assault. It’s sure sounds like something you’d want in a drink. But does is have any intrinsic meaning? None whatsoever. It merely means “suitable for drinking,” which fairly defines any liquid that won’t kill you or make you sick if you drink it. It’s hardly some magic idea that any particular drink will have more suitability than another. It’s subterfuge, a gimmick, a deception. But what’s perhaps most chilling about propaganda, is that despite all the science and literature that’s available about it, along with the research and science that forms its basis, it continues to work so effectively. If anything, it works better now than it did a century ago because it is understood today so much more fully and it is generally implemented in such as way that most people have no idea it’s even happening or that they are being manipulated.
Have another look at how the concept of “drinkability” is being sold, as quoted in the AP article:
“Bud Light’s new look will reflect the key attributes of the brand we are touting in all our marketing – drinkability and refreshment,” said Keith Levy, vice president of Marketing, Anheuser-Busch. “Drinkability offers a unique way to express a range of product benefits through a single term. It’s that just right taste – not too heavy or light – that sets Bud Light apart from other light beers.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but really, nothing sets one light beer apart from any other light beer. That’s what makes them light beers, in a sense. If it weren’t for marketing and advertising, they almost would be interchangeable commodities. I have judged “American-style Light Lagers” at the Great American Beer Festival, and there are precious little differences in the taste of the these beers as made by the large breweries. I’ve been training my palette almost continually for nearly twenty years and it was one of the hardest categories I’ve ever judged, simply because of how alike they were. And it discussing them with my fellow judges, I was not alone in this. It was the general consensus. You end up searching more intensely for any defects, no matter how slight, just as a way to distinguish them from one another. There are slight variations in taste that can be perceived, but they are so superficial that they’re almost meaningless.
That’s where marketing comes in. Millions are spent to convince us that one light beer is different from another. And everybody falls for it, brand loyalty is created and money is made. But blue is also the color of sadness, a cold and lonely blue. That’s how this makes me feel. Blue. Sigh.