The pro football season, with its dizzying sideshow of attention-grabbing commercials, has ended. Yet the post-Super Bowl armchair quarterbacking of the game’s best TV advertisements continues. As an adviser to companies on how they can improve sales and social progress concurrently, I’m giving a shout-out to Anheuser-Busch for serving up timely messages with the Medieval mirth of its “dilly dilly” ads.
Any company that’s in the crosshairs of public criticism over the products it sells or how it produces them should sober up and pay attention.
In television ads that ran during the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, A-B’s king and his knights touted that its Bud Light now prints its ingredients on its packaging and poked competitors Miller and Coors for using corn syrup. Another ad, featuring its trademark Clydesdale horses trotting to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” announced that the company uses renewable wind power in the brewing process. While the ads are lighthearted and very watchable, subtly embedded in the frivolity are some timely messages: Bud is a “clean” brewer — with nothing to hide on its label, free of an ingredient that has been tagged as a nutritional villain, and committed to clean energy “for a better tomorrow.”
Those messages could not have come at a better time. In late January, a report in The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, accused big food and beverage companies of contributing to a “syndemic” of three grave epidemics: undernutrition, obesity and climate change. The groundbreaking report promises to stir months if not years of debate, and I’ll be discussing it more deeply in a future column. It notes that “food systems not only drive the obesity and undernutrition pandemics but also generate 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and cattle production accounts for over half of those.”
In an era when consumers, especially millennials, are becoming more aware of these issues and insist on transparency, A-B now has a head start in reassuring even party animals that they can feel good about consuming their beer. Combined with activist pressure deriding food and beverage companies for their impact on consumer health and the environment, A-B shows it gets the message and is ahead of the curve. Both maneuvers demonstrate shrewd market intelligence and leadership.
While A-B has caught some unexpected flak for its corn syrup commercial — “America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you,” tweeted the National Corn Growers Association — it is betting big on expansive product labeling. Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, Andy Goeler, said the brand’s research shows younger drinkers want to know what’s in their beer. “They have grown up really in tune to ingredients," noted Goeler. According to the Statista Global Consumer Survey, 43.6% of consumers aged 18-29 stated they drink domestic beers.
This is not the first time the brewing titan has issued a more sober message. In 1982, in response to criticism from Mothers Against Drunk Driving about beer drinking’s impact on car accidents, A-B launched its “Know when to say when” ad campaign. The company added more light beers with lower alcohol and fewer calories. Despite a campaign that urged people to drink less, the strategy paid off: By 1990, one out of every two beers in America was made by Anheuser-Busch. And in 2017, Bud Light was the nation’s best-selling brand, according to market research firm IRI.
Like A-B, other companies have succeeded by boldly doing the right thing while competitors diddled or even scoffed. Danone rid its portfolio of meat, cheese and biscuits and acquired a baby food company; CVS took a risk that paid off when it jettisoned cigarettes from its drugstores. Volvo began adding safety features to its vehicles during a time half a century ago when American automakers could care less about safety because they assumed it wouldn’t sell. Once the American car-buying public was fully aware of the dangers of driving shoddy vehicles, Volvo was well positioned to dramatically improve its sales.
The beer industry promises to get even more competitive. Craft and imported beers, bourbons and other beverages continue to win converts and hurt traditional beer sales. And regulators, activists and a more savvy public will likely scrutinize food and beverage companies’ ingredients and practices more closely. The Lancet report will certainly shine an even brighter strobe on the role of food and beverage companies in harming public health and the environment.
Companies whose products can be construed as “bad for you” or whose production processes harm the environment must examine their product portfolios and manufacturing methods and make profound and genuine changes. Above all, they must “own” the societal problems they contribute to – as A-B did for drunk driving and Volvo did for car safety – before those problems own them.
While more needs to be done, Bud Light’s transparent labeling, and A-B’s progress in using renewable energy, are two innovations worth toasting. And to that I say “dilly dilly.”