Advertising's Worst Nightmare

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

InBev’s possible purchase of Anheuser-Busch must be keeping lots of advertising people up at night.

AB spends more on marketing in the U.S. than its next three competitors combined. InBev spends the least, although its current brands — Beck’s, Bass, and Stella Artois — don’t appeal to the Duff drinkers that AB is chasing.

But InBev isn’t big on what one industry wag calls "Anheuser’s carpet-bombing approach to advertising." So it’s a fair guess to expect that if it gets control of such brands as Bud, Bud Light, and Michelob, there’s going to be far less largesse to go around.

What’s interesting, though, isn’t that InBev might cut said spending because, as the ad industry worries, it has a "cost-cutting culture" or that it would slash spending "to gain efficiencies from the high-priced acquisition."

It might simply possess better marketing skills?

Granted, AB has given the world images of the Clydesdales, slogans like "make it a Bud Light," and funny creative, such as "wasabi." I’m sure there are marketing class case histories on how brilliant these communications tools have been at earning mindshare, establishing associations, and influencing retention and the other measures of the branding canon.

But none of it necessarily sold more beer.

Now add in all of the cost and effort of all the advertising AB bought to deliver these various branding strategies. 

  • Giant buys on the Super Bowl every year, to debut one-timer specially-created creative
  • Sports sponsorships from Major League Baseball to the U.S. polo team
  • High-falutin new media experiments, like its ill-fated startup that included custom-created entertainment programming
  • A regular presence on or in any media outlet that could reach a potential drinker

No wonder the folks who sell air time or ad space are sleeping fitfully, if at all. InBev might actually know what it’s doing when it comes to branding.

Experts could argue that AB has been so successful at establishing and furthering its brand name or logo that some tombstones will feature it. Maybe some villages or children might be thereby named. You can praise the fact that every single thing that AB does is branded one way or another. Everything it does is right, according to accepted branding theology.

Yet, as this this theology has run rampant and unchallenged at AB, its share has remained unchanged in a stagnant industry category. For all of its brilliance, there’s yet to be any real connection made between its massive spending, and a causal link to sales.

You’d think someone inside the company would have hit the pause button before wasting another few million on sponsoring pro curling or something, and asked if perhaps there were other drivers of brand adoption and use…things like distribution, packaging size, whatever. 

That maybe these tactics of sales and service were really the horse, and not the swishing tail, of its brand strength?

InBev thinks that the measure of brand success should be sales and consumption. And I suspect it is willing to utilize a variety of non-traditional ways to accomplish those goals.

So the advertising industry’s worst nightmare might be the best thing to happen to Anheuser-Busch.

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