You’ve probably already heard that come this October, Anheuser-Busch will launch yet another Budweiser line extension, Budweiser Ale, which will be available in 12 oz. bottles and three keg sizes. Whatever happened to their promise to shareholders to focus on the core brands? Anyway, they got label approval on St. Patrick’s Day and, according to the label, it will be 5.1% abv. The price point will reportedly be higher than regular Budweiser. They almost launched this beer (or at least a beer with the same name) just over ten years ago, but changed their minds at the eleventh hour.
So who is a Bud Ale aimed at? Just who does A-B think will be the customer for this product? According to an article in last Friday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the target audience is “what A-B’s marketing department calls ‘experimenters’ — drinkers who bounce around among various beers such as Yuengling, Fat Tire, Hoegaarden and Budweiser.”
“They love beer, they just try a lot of different things,” said Dave Peacock, vice president of marketing at A-B’s domestic beer subsidiary. Although Peacock acknowledged that some craft beer enthusiasts won’t try a Bud-branded ale, the company expects that a sizable portion of the market will have no problem with the concept.
I don’t know who A-B’s marketing department is consulting with but most so-called experimenters I know wouldn’t ordinarily switch between so wide a range of products. Yuengling and Bud drinkers—to my way of thinking—tend to be more loyal to their respective brands. As craft beers go, Fat Tire is about as mainstream a beer as one could find and Hoegaarden, since getting the InBev treatment has itself become fairly mainstream for an import. My point is that these are hardly the brands that experimenters switch back and forth between. Even if they’re meant to just be representative, it’s still not the type of brands beer lovers “experiment” with.
To be honest, I’m not thrilled with term “experimenter,” either. In this context it feels condescending and makes it sound like we’re performing science experiments every time we crack open a beer. Most craft beer enthusiasts do like to sample the many different flavors that brewers come up with, or taste new versions of existing styles. That’s part of the better beer culture, trying new and different things. But when I’m out with friends and just enjoying an evening out, I don’t suddenly start drinking one, and only one kind or brand of beer. The reality, at least for myself (and I’m going to hazard a guess that I’m not alone on this), is that people simply don’t just want one kind of anything, not all the time.
Whenever people I meet discover that I’m involved in the beer business, invariably the question they can’t help but ask is “what’s your favorite beer?” This question just exhausts me—I hate answering it—but I put on my brave face and try to explain why I don’t have one, and why I never will. My wife insists that it’s an “opportunity” to educate someone and I suppose she’s right, but I can’t help but view it as someone asking me if I have a favorite child. I know they mean well, but just asking this question says more about them than they realize. That so many people think there is—or should be—just one favorite anything shows how notions of brand loyalty and marketing have worked their way into our thinking. Do people have a favorite food, one food they’d eat every single meal? Of course not, so how is this any different? That so many people find it a reasonable question to ask about beer tells me that not only do they expect that I will actually have one but also that they see nothing wrong with limiting oneself in the face of such diversity. Corporations whose marketing has created such ideas must be absolutely giddy with their success in planting this idea so deeply into our collective psyche.
There are, of course, dozens of very different beer styles and some are better with this food or that, are better during a particular season or weather, or might just be the right match for whatever else we’re doing or what mood we’re in. It’s as if A-B can’t get past their own self-imposed notion that beer is just one thing, the industrial light, nearly half rice lager version of a pilsner that they call beer. To anyone who’s moved beyond that narrow definition of what beer is, there are many different flavors and no earthly reason to stick to just one. That’s not experimentation, but a common sense approach to making beer a part of a diverse, healthy lifestyle that includes many different breads, cheese, wine and all manner of local and artisanal products.
In today’s world, the type of brand loyalty A-B used to enjoy is an anachronism. But creating brand loyalty through expensive advertising and marketing campaigns is what’s made and kept A-B on top. They outspend every other beer company by a wide margin. If you’re a large, old-style corporation you stick with what’s worked in the past, even if the world is changing around you. It would be quite interesting to see what would happen to their market share if their advertising wasn’t a ubiquitous part of our world.
So what will American Ale actually taste like? There’s no actual style known as American Ale, though there are American-style pale ales, amber ales, brown ales and others. I suspect it probably won’t be an all-malt beer, because that would make it too different from the flagship lager. If I had to guess, I’d say a version of a blonde (or golden) ale or perhaps a cream ale, since those are two of the lightest ale styles. To sell it widely, it’s also likely that any hop character will be greatly restrained, to say the least. That would also be consistent with the Budweiser brand.
So will “experimenters” try Budweiser American Ale? Marlene Coulis, A-B’s VP-consumer strategy and innovation, believes it will bring “new drinkers to the Budweiser brand family.” She adds. “We believe this will positively reflect on Budweiser,” she said. “It’ll help us reach a whole new set of consumers.” That sentiment somewhat contradicts Dave Peacock’s acknowledgment that “some craft beer enthusiasts won’t try a Bud-branded ale.” The “sizable portion of the market” that Peacock believes will be down with the concept don’t seem like they’ll be the “experimenters” that they’re targeting with this launch. More likely they’ll be the same consumers who already drink Budweiser. But if the new Bud Ale really is “a darker, richer beer than Budweiser lager,” as Coulis promises, will current Bud drinkers react positively to the beer having flavor?