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Here’s to Beer Alive and … Well, Here Comes Phase 2

My rumors of Here’s to Beer’s demise were premature, it seems, as evidenced by some e-mails sent to me by colleagues and a call from Anheuser-Busch. I guess they were just taking a break. Brandweek is now reporting that “Phase 2” of the Here’s to Beer (HtB) campaign is about to be launched, coinciding with the warmer Spring weather that signals the beginning of beer’s big selling season (which generally continues through Halloween). When the Brandweek article begins by stating that “Skeptics and craft brewers in particular said that once Anheuser-Busch has wrung out whatever benefit it sought with ‘Here’s to Beer,’ it would drop the category-promoting campaign and move on to corporate priorities,” it would probably be presumptuous to think they meant me. Perhaps there were others, too.

But after I suggested HtB was a dead parrot, in part based on the fact that the website had not been updated since late summer of last year, A-B’s PR department gave me the opportunity to speak with Bob Lachky, the mastermind behind the Here’s to Beer campaign and the newly named Executive Vice-President for Global Industry Development. We talked for almost an hour about two weeks ago. Bob talked about the future of the HtB project with his now familiar polished enthusiasm. He characterized my criticisms as “fair” and indicated that they were in fact taking a break on the project and working behind the scenes on phase 2.

The second phase will consist of several steps. First, beer distributors and wholesalers around the country will start receiving generic materials that they can use to promote beer as a category. I haven’t seen the display pieces yet but if the distributors can manage to get them into retail stores, where consumers can see them, that might indeed be worthwhile, assuming that they do in fact have some educational value. There are many retail stores, including some large chains, that do not accept outside display materials as a matter of policy. Often these are high end stores who want to achieve a particular look that is more sophisticated than the corner liquor store. And though the high end stores are where the materials would likely find more customer willingness, any beer education at any level seems like it should be useful to the industry as a whole.

Also coming over to HtB will be Food Network chef Dave Lieberman. I don’t necessarily see anything in his bio or on his website that indicates any special affinity for pairing beer with food or cooking with beer, but at least he appears to be a prominent chef. But apparently he’ll be creating “educational videos about brew styles and food pairings” so I’d sure like to believe he knows more than having read a book or two. Then they’ll be a comedian impersonating historical persons such as Genghis Khan, Ben Franklin, Confucius, and Catherine the Great in online commercials about who you’d want to share a beer with if you could choose any person throughout history. And Chicago’s DDB advertising agency will create new spots in the continuing saga of who you’d share your beer with, including singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett and Columbian model/actress Sofia Vergara, which seems like the same old thing A-B is doing in their regular advertising.

All of these and more are now available at the new Here’s to Beer website which launched this morning. It has a decidedly green feel to it owing presumably to it being March, with St. Patrick’s Day around the corner. It’s marked Web Volume 1.01 (and further inside as Vol. 1 – March 9, 2007), so I presume content will be changing on a monthly basis. The new site reminds me a lot of A-B’s other new venture, Bud.TV. There are loads of little tiny videos at almost every part of the website. Some are introductions, some are more detailed and all are fairly short.

This is helpful in raising beer’s reputation and status?

So maybe it’s because I’m an old curmudgeon — and a reader — but I’m not convinced that these little video presentations are the way to reach people. Sure, it’s cutting edge technology and has that gee whiz factor but this is information we’re talking about. I can read it much more quickly, and I don’t need to be entertained every second of my day. I actually like reading and learning new things. Does that make me out of step with the modern world? Because if we use the internet as the arbiter of what people want, you’d think no one had any patience for reading but needed passive watching to amuse themselves à la television. But if I want to watch TV, I can turn mine on. If I want sound files, I can turn on the radio or fire up my iPod. In my opinion, the internet works best when it disseminates text and pictures, the other stuff is just empty bluster most of the time. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the occasional viral video as much as the next guy, but it’s not necessarily the best way to educate. Just because there is new technology doesn’t mean it has to be used. But all the big corporations — A-B is certainly not alone here — insist on using flash technology and online video to make their websites seems more modern but the end result is just that it’s less useful and there’s so much less information that you grow tired of it more quickly and move on to something with more meat in it.

The lead story in the new HtB website is “The Pen and the Pint: Pub Fiction” (the first part of which I actually floated as a potential title for the beer bloggers “The Session” project) and it’s a mere 441 words, far shorter than my average blog post and about half the size of the average short magazine article. There are also video segments such as “Fresh” and “Thirsty Artist” which, while not without some interest, have little to do with teaching people about beer. And so it feels more like entertainment and less like there’s a lot of good information about the beer. Some of it is downright distracting although there still is some basic information available. But also some of the information that was part of the original website, such as beer and industry news, the beer archives, the brewhouse and more is curiously gone.

Is the new website better than the old one? To me, that’s trickier because the new one at least promises to change more often and as such may bring people back more regularly. I think I’d still like to see a basic component of educational information that was always available there for people to learn about if they wanted to. After all, if the ultimate goal is to have more people drinking beer then we have to provide reasons why they should rather than simply entertain them and hope that’s enough persuasion.

When I spoke to Lachky, he indicated that A-B was prepared and expecting to go it alone with HtB. There were no plans to encourage industry-wide participation as a trade effort, though he certainly seemed willing to embrace cooperation if it was volunteered. With an almost 50% market share, A-B felt it was enough to help themselves and further believed that they’d be helping the industry as a whole, as well. He again used the aphorism of a rising tide lifting all boats to illustrate this point.

As he put it in Brandweek:

“We’re a 50-share market leader, we’re an American beer company primarily, so it is incumbent upon us to grow this industry here,” said Lachky. “Other brewers may not have the same mission we have. Our mission is to grow the beer category, and others may have a mission to cannibalize the category. I don’t know; you’ll have to ask them what their mission is. Does Anheuser-Busch want to grow Anheuser-Busch? Yes, but if you make the pie bigger, everybody gets a bigger slice.”

Hmm. Maybe, but only if the effort does indeed celebrate all beer and doesn’t get stuck in one company’s agenda. Since A-B maintains complete control over what is essentially presented as an industry project then only one message is being sent. Right now that’s not necessarily problematic, but it may not always remain so. Imagine if “Got Milk?” was only funded and managed by the largest dairy or if “Pork, the Other White Meat” was done solely by the largest pig farm and you have some idea of what problems could arise for everybody else.

Is it working? Bob Lachky certainly believes it is and takes at least “partial credit” for the increased amount of beer stories in the mainstream media of late. Is that even in part because of HtB’s efforts? It’s hard to say, of course, but I have a hard time accepting that theory though it’s certainly possible HtB played some role, however small. Because the big three brewers (plus Pabst) gained a mere 0.5% in 2006 over 2005 whereas craft beer was up 11.7% for the same period. To me, the resurgence of craft beer is the story and more likely the catalyst driving increasing attention in the media. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when microbreweries were new and hot, the media paid plenty of attention. Then the fledgling industry went through a shakeup and media attention dried up. But now renewed interest has sparked more coverage as well as more consumers. It’s not all been rosy, as any regular Bulletin reader can tell you, I think many of the stories have been downright injurious to the cause of raising the level of beer to where it belongs. But if you accept the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity then yes I guess it’s all good.

Something else that struck me while I was doing some research before interviewing Lachky was that in terms of the volume of sales beer far outsells the rest followed by spirits and then wine, trailing at the end. This is exactly opposite of the attention paid to these broad categories by the mainstream media with wine getting the lion’s share of attention yet accounting for the smallest slice of the sales pie. Most newspapers have a food and wine section, making them completely out of touch with the reality of what people are really drinking. So clearly the beer industry needs to do something to reverse this situation.

Phase 2 of HtB also brings more projects outside the website, too. Happily, the Roger Sherman documentary American Brew will finally air April 7 — the anniversary not of Prohibition’s repeal, but the return of low-alcohol 3.2 beer — on A&E at 10 p.m. EST (meaning 7:00 here on the left coast). It will also be available for sale on DVD shortly at the HtB website with loads of great extras. I’ll review the film later in a separate post.

Then in May, for Father’s Day, the slogan “give your dad something he will use.” As Lachky put it. “He will use beer.” Having worked for an alcohol retailer, I like this idea. For some reason it was virtually impossible to get people to buy dad beer for Father’s Day. Wine and spirits, yes, but beer’s bad image made it akin to buying dad a carton of smokes as a present. Years of dumbing down beer as a drink for the masses made it a poor choice to show dad how much you cared about him, even if was something he really wanted. It would be nice to see that change, but I can’t say I’m overly optimistic since I also believe it was the large breweries who created that poor image in the first place.

One last issue I have with the HtB website, though I want to stress that this has nothing to do with A-B per se, is the age verification entry to the website. Since the HtB website is purely for educational purposes, why on Earth do you have to be 21 to learn about beer? I know it’s illegal to drink beer before you’re 21, but is it likewise forbidden to read about it or learn about it? If you wanted to check out one of Michael Jackon’s beer books from the library, would you have to show I.D. to prove you were 21? I’m not just being facetious when I ask that, because it seems strange that minors are not allowed to even read about alcohol and educate themselves about it. It’s sadly consistent with America’s neo-prohibitionist and puritanical leanings, but isn’t this just one more self-fulfilling prophecy? If you don’t make it possible for kids to learn about beer then it’s a fait accompli that they’ll become ignorant binge drinkers in their late teens and early twenties. And how is that good for society or battling underage drinking as the neo-prohibitionists pretend to care about?

But it looks like HtB is back, at least, to make an effort in promoting beer. As much I embrace and encourage this idea, I also remain a skeptic and hope like hell I’ll be proven wrong in the end. And I certainly hope they stop undermining their own efforts with commercials that reinforce old stereotypes about beer. It will be interesting to see how it plays out over the coming months and whether or not they will continue to add useful and educational information to the website or if remains largely entertaining with some education thrown in. So I’ll try to reserve final judgment until we see what else the coming months will bring to the table from the in-store display pieces to the documentary American Brew. There’s so much that’s good about beer in almost all its myriad forms. Let’s hope that message comes across from Here’s to Beer and the rest of us.

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