Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bud Light Folks Aren't as Lightweight as They Look

The latest headline surrounding Anheuser-Busch's recent college marketing campaign -- "FTC Criticizes College-Themed Cans in Anheuser-Busch Marketing Efforts" -- makes you wonder which applies here:
  • a. The folks at Anheuser-Busch are beer nuts
  • b. The folks at Anheuser-Busch created the plan to make headlines
The company has introduced Bud Light cans in popular college team colors; the novel cans are for use in bars near those college campuses and elsewhere in the college communities. A-B maintains that this isn't an effort to appeal to the underage drinkers that populate schools and universities. The company says the promotion targets legal age drinkers and is designed to make a warm and fuzzy connection between the brew and the 21+ drinker's favorite local team.

As a former product publicity manager at a distiller, I know a bit about corporate social responsibility in the beverage alcohol industry, so I'm going with choice b.: The marketers at A-B know exactly what they're doing . . . and what they're doing is getting a whole lot of free media attention.

Carol Clark, the brewer's vice president of social responsibility, defends the promotion by saying that because the cans don't bear a school name or logo, there's no harm done. As my friends at the Licensing Resource Group will tell you, the brewer can't use those identifying marks, or the school's mascot, without a licensing agreement with the school and no school is going to provide the requisite permission. Many, in fact, are asking A-B to drop the program in their communities. So this "we have been discreet with the package design" defense is laughable. Their only option was to use "just" the school colors.

In addition, the fact that the promotion was "optional" for A-B's distributors shows that the company knew it would be controversial.

Nobody in the beverage alcohol industry would launch a program like this without being fully aware of the backlash it would create. Instead, it's a reflection of the state of the industry today -- that Anheuser-Busch is so desperate to sell beer that it has to resort to generating controversy to do so.

What do you think? Is the brewer crazy like a fox or is this "brew-haha" much ado about nothing?

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