Are Bud Light suds better than Tide suds?

Once again, Bud Light has brought back its team specific cans for the 2016-2017 NFL season, partnering with 27 of the 32 NFL teams.

This year, the cans have a better design and are completely team-focused, which Budweiser says makes these cans “really cool” because they really are directed towards diehard fans. For example, the Arizona Cardinals can is complete with the message, “The perfect beer for protecting the next”. Buffalo Bills’ fans can enjoy their beer with the message, “The perfect beer for shoveling your way to the stadium at least once a year”. And of course the message on Oakland Raiders’ cans? “The perfect beer for uniting a nation. Raider Nation.”

To Budweiser’s way of thinking, last year’s NFL cans were met with such a tremendous amount of consumer engagement (read, not consumer sales) that the decision to do it again was a “no-brainer.”

Two big brands partnering as one.

Imagine the enormous cost for putting together this kind of promotion with the NFL.

Budweiser has to pay the NFL for the rights to be “the official beer of the NFL.” Then each team gets compensated for the use of their logo and licensing. Then the brewery needs to produce not one, but 27 different cans. The cost for the graphics, the retooling of the assembly line, and last but not least, the tremendous cost and logistical nightmare to distribute these 27 different cans to there respective markets and pay for the slotting fees required at retail.

Now add to that the costs for promoting the new cans and Budweiser has added hundreds of millions of dollars in incremental marketing costs to a brand that has had declining sales for years. But then, Budweiser is big and powerful. The NFL brand is big and powerful. Two mega-brands coming together to breathe new life into Bud Light, with big plans to roll out a 360-degree campaign to support the team cans, including local content, TV, digital, social, experiential, point of connection, and outdoor. Wow, that’s big!

Still, you have to ask yourself, how long can Budweiser keep snorting the same promotional cocaine (packaging gimmicks) for the sake of “engagement” when what’s desperately needed is sustainable sales performance? Not one season. Not one month. Not one year. Sustainable, year after year.

The company reasons that with the team cans they can celebrate the teams and Bud Light in a very iconic way that matters most to consumers and fans. As they say, “the can feels like a team jersey that you can drink out of.” (Unfortunately, to a growing number of beer drinkers who think Bud Light tastes like a jersey, I hardly think they’ll sacrifice their imports, micro-brews or craft beers for an NFL can. Do you?)

So what’s wrong with this picture?

From an engagement standpoint that lasts the length of the football season, nothing. But for a brand as big ($2 billion in sales) and as struggling as Bud Light, with so much at stake in its fight against encroaching imports, craft beers and micro-brews, and other domestic light beers, “brief engagements” may not be enough. Because while the NFL cans bring a big national brand to the local level and puts its arms around diehard football fans in love with their hometown teams, does it really elevate the Bud Light brand story in new and meaningful ways that can create sustainable sales increases? Does it connect with the tens of millions more beer drinkers who are not diehard football fans and are teaming up with Samuel Adams, Blue Moon, Coors Light, Miller Light, craft beers and micro-brews instead?

Integration or fragmentation?

Bud Light seems to be offering so many different messages in their advertising and promotional efforts these days that you need a score card to keep up.

Yet very little seems to be working in terms of sales increases. Budweiser’s revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015 fell another 10% to $10.72 billion. The company expects the Bud Light “Raise One to Right Now” mock political campaign TV commercials starring Schumer and Rogen to bring Bud Light “a refreshed visual brand identity,” but the jury is still out. Oddly, the company is having its strongest U.S. sales growth of mid-single digits from Above Premium brands, which includes its craft beer brands. It’s the old saying, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

Packaging and promotion.

In 2015, Bud Light introduced retro-looking cans in response to the booming craft beer industry. Then, the following year, they switched to NFL cans, only to repeat that in 2016-2017 to gain more borrowed interest from fans, and all the while, promoting a steady diet of “Join the Bud Light Party” ads featuring political satire and “equal pay for women” videos with celebrities Rogen and Schumer.  Fragmented messaging? Or a brand in search of anything that will boost sales? Yes, all of the above!

That’s not to say I’m against the use of packaging to promote brand equity and boost sales. On the contrary. Wheaties has been successfully using celebrity sports stars and athletes on their boxes for decades to sell more cereal. But that kind of packaging promotion is part of Wheaties’ brand story, “Fuel for Champions.” Perhaps Bud Light should take a page from Wheaties’ playbook and re-brand themselves as “The Beer of Champions.”

Bud Light suds vs. Tide suds.

When Tide launched a TV spot featuring Simone Biles during the Olympics, they didn’t succumb to the typical celebrity endorsement-style of “look who’s in our commercial” advertising as did 99% of the companies leveraging Olympic athletes. They didn’t put her picture on every tub of Tide or build engagement with diehard laundry fans everywhere. They actually had a marketing concept. Namely, the power of a small Tide pod unleashes a lot of cleaning power, just like a small gymnast like Simone unleashes a lot of power to win Gold medals in Rio. Imagine that, a true brand concept tied to the packaging, to the celebrity, and to the advertising message. Well done, Tide!

STUART DORNFIELD is an award-winning freelance Creative Director/Copywriter with more than 40 years experience in marketing, strategy, advertising and production. As the former Sr. VP-Creative Director of Zimmerman Advertising, the 13th largest agency in the U.S., and the former co-founder of Gold Coast Advertising, ranked 3rd largest agency in South Florida, today Stuart offers his creative services and marketing insights as a freelancer with offices in New York and Miami.