The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) gave its Industry Service Award to Anheuser-Busch executive VP Bob Lachky. In their press release, the NBWA stated that the reason they gave the award to Lachky was for “his efforts to promote beer and the important role distributors play in the marketplace”
From the press release:
“August Busch IV created the Global Industry Development group because we firmly believe that everyone in the industry must work to sell and grow the entire category,” Lachky said. “It has been a privilege to work with NBWA and its members and I am thrilled to accept this award on behalf of Here’s To Beer and Anheuser-Busch. Seeing the signs of beer industry improvement this year, we think we are making progress.”
Since late last year, Lachky has spearheaded the “Here’s To Beer” industry initiative. The grassroots campaign to elevate the image of beer focuses on three key areas:
- Reminding consumers of the social value of beer — it brings people together in an unpretentious way.
- Romancing the product and the art of brewing — reinforcing beer’s refreshment, all natural ingredients and the beauty of its liquid.
- Encouraging consumers to view beer differently — giving them new ways to enjoy beer including ideas and recipes for pairing with food.
Well, good for Bob. I’m sure he’s a terrific guy. And as I’ve said before the “idea” of an industry-wide promotion of the positive aspects of beer à la “Got Milk?” is something the industry sorely needs. I hate beating a dead horse, but the wine industry’s efficacy in educating their consumers and raising the standards for wine put us as an industry to shame. Sure they’ve had more money and more built-in appeal (or high-end prejudice), but that’s not all they’ve been fortunate about. Perhaps most importantly, Gallo (and the other large-scale wine producers) haven’t been undermining those efforts for decades the way the big brewery’s advertising has damaged the image of beer. Craft beer’s challenge has been far more Sisyphean in nature. For every positive step craft beer has moved forward, talking frogs, man law, flatulent horses, twins and all manner of other juvenilia has dragged us back down again. As a result, many people remain deliriously ignorant of what good beer even is, never mind how best to enjoy it.
So for the segment of the industry most responsible for the negative associations that beer has today to take up the fight to improve beer’s image seems downright Orwellian to me. Kafka would have a hard time understanding this one. Yet many of my colleagues remain optimistic about this program or have remained silent about it. We all think the industry needs what the stated goals of “Here’s to Beer” are, but given A-B’s transparent agenda, how can anyone take it seriously. Obviously the other brewers saw through A-B’s motives, which is why they all chose not to participate.
And that was my initial — and continuing — problem with Anheuser-Busch’s “Here’s to Beer” campaign. Despite the fact that they continue to spin it as an industry-wide campaign, not a single brewer apart from A-B is involved with the project. Even the trade organization, the Beer Institute, who had initially co-sponsored the effort, withdrew their support right after the first commercial aired during the Super Bowl in Early February of this year. Bob apparently flew all over the country for months trying to convince other brewers to join their bandwagon, but not a single one took the bait. So I have a hard time seeing how this has been a success. Yet the media, even the trade media for the most part, has gone along with it in lockstep calling it a “grassroots campaign,” to take an example from the NBWA’s own press release. Here’s the definition of “grassroots:”
“of, pertaining to, or involving the common people, esp. as contrasted with or separable from an elite.”
- grassroots. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Retrieved September 23, 2006, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/grassroots
So how is this campaign, run solely by the biggest brewer in the country by a wide margin, in any way “grassroots?” Simple. It’s not. You can’t get more elite in terms of resources and influence than A-B. Only a few come close, and not very close at that.
Also in the press release, Lachky makes the following claim. “Seeing the signs of beer industry improvement this year, we think we are making progress.” Wow, he’s taking credit for industry growth this year, how magnanimous of him. But I really can’t see how that’s even remotely true. First of all, the big breweries have made only very modest gains this year. Despite the self-serving rhetoric to the contrary, the big guys aren’t experiencing a period of turnaround and rapid growth. They’re still on the ropes — so to speak — with their core brands. Craft beer, on the other hand, was up 9% last year and looks to be tracking at 11% this year. What growth there is in the industry, that’s where the majority of it resides.
Having not met Bob Lachky personally, it’s hard for me to say he isn’t an enthusiastic supporter of beer. He certainly appears to have worked very hard on this project. And he may be a great guy, who knows? (I will have an opportunity to meet him in Denver next week.) So despite the fact that we’d all like to see the image of beer elevated to its proper place, has the “Here’s to Beer” campaign actually accomplished anything award-worthy? Are there droves of people who’ve been turned around and educated by the information on the website or the marketing materials made available to beer distributors? It sure doesn’t seem that way from where I’m sitting. It takes more than putting up a website and running a few PSAs for a mere eight months to undo the damage to beer’s image that A-B and the other industrial brewers have perpetrated over the last several decades.
So why did the NBWA choose to “honor” Bob Lachky and his “Here’s to Beer” campaign after only eight months and very little obvious or verifiable results? To me that’s the question in all of this. It reminds me a little bit of our President’s recent tendency to give the “Medal of Freedom” to beleaguered underlings as he shows them the door. Screw up, get a medal. Which is not say that Bob Lachky made any mistakes — as far as I know he didn’t — but awards and medals should be for achieving something tangible and measurable. Otherwise they’re meaningless, aren’t they? And while I mean no disrespect, I can’t see that the “Here’s to Beer” campaign has achieved any of its goals or united the industry. We don’t live in a world that, unlike eight months ago, now reveres beer’s social value, romantic allusions and diversity. And while there does seem to be anecdotal signs that the media may be taking beer slightly more seriously lately, I can’t draw a line of causality between that and A-B’s PR efforts, however well-intentioned. And frankly, that could be simply wishful thinking on my part since I’m watching the industry more closely (and a little differently) this year than I have the previous couple of years.
The only way beer will be brought to more people is the only way it’s ever worked, at least in my experience. And that’s one-on-one. The people best positioned to create any sort of “grassroots” movement are the people already doing just that. The servers in brewpubs, the brewers giving tours and pouring beer at festivals, passionate retail clerks and “common people” — like you and me — who simply like good beer and want to share it with their friends. That’s the only grassroots I can see succeeding.
Again, the idea of providing more information to consumers who want to learn more about beer is quite laudable. But it has to come from people who really believe the message they’re preaching, not from the largest beer manufacturer in the country trying to raise it’s share price by any means necessary. And until the “Here’s to Beer” campaign is truly an industry-wide effort with its true goals free from ulterior motives, it’s hard to applaud the effort as shamelessly and unquestioningly as the NBWA did in honoring it. I’ll join the NBWA in praising Bob Lachky for making the effort he has — if for no other reason than to give him the benefit of the doubt — but the results of that effort in the form of the “Here’s to Beer” do not yet deserve such accolades.