How the Budweiser Clydesdales Became a Force in Holiday Marketing

The origin story of the Scottish dray horses

A Clydesdale must be 20 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2,000 pounds to make the Budweiser team. Budweiser

Using a commercial to take on a devastating incident of domestic terrorism isn’t usually the sort of thing any brand would do. Unless, of course, that brand has some Clydesdales in the barn.

Most Americans probably can’t recall a single thing about the 2002 Super Bowl—except, perhaps, for a single commercial. It was a Budweiser ad, one that Anheuser-Busch Global Creative’s then evp Bob Lachky later admitted was a “risk we took. 9/11 had occurred only two months prior to the airings.”

In 1933, August Busch Jr. (inset) and his brother, Adolphus, presented a team of Clydesdales to their father to commemorate the end of Prohibition. Almost immediately, the huge dray horses became goodwill ambassadors for the brand, appearing in parades (right) and in Budweiser advertising (left) Budweiser enjoys pointing out that its meticulous care of its horses mirrors the approach it takes to brewing beer. What’s more, if you’re going to call yourself the “King of Beers,” it helps to have horses this big.

The Clydesdales—the long hitch of draft horses that pull the shiny red wagon stacked with beer crates—have appeared at parades and festivals, at football games and presidential inaugurals, and—right about now—on the snowy, feel-good holiday TV spots that Budweiser has run since the 1970s. The Clydesdale horses are possibly the most successful living marketing tool in the history of American industry.

“The Clydesdales really are the symbol of Budweiser’s heritage and tradition,” said vp, beer category and community Julia Mize. “They’re the face of the Budweiser brand and an icon for the American people.”

The coat: To qualify for official road duty, a Clydesdale must have a bay coat, which includes a black mane and tail, a white blaze and four white feet. The horse: Clydesdales emerged in the early 1800s, when farmers along Scotland’s River Clyde mated local mares with Great Flemish horses to produce the giants. The hitch: Budweiser’s investment in the Clydesdales includes the harnesses made of brass, leather and linen—each one custom fitted to a specific horse.
Coat: Getty Images; Horse: Getty Images

They have been for 84 years. It all started in 1933, when the 21st Amendment ended 13 years of Prohibition that had gravely wounded the Anheuser-Busch brewery. To celebrate the return of legal suds, August Busch Jr. and Adolphus Busch gave their father a six-Clydesdale hitch (complete with a beer wagon)—a gift that moved the elder Busch to tears and became the believed origin of the idiom “crying in your beer.” Though the big horses would occasionally deliver bottles of lager to bars and restaurants—and, in fact, still do—their role has always been ceremonial. Which is also to say, monumental.

Ads starring the Clydesdales have long been a holiday fixture, but Bud did a digital reboot in 2014. Holiday revelers in a bar who called a Lyft car were shocked when the Clydesdales showed up instead to take them home. “This is not what we were expecting,” said one.

A Clydesdale must stand 18 hands (at least 6 feet tall) and weigh 2,000 pounds to make the Budweiser team, so a full hitch (12 tons total of horse and wagon) can’t help but make lasting impressions. “The Clydesdales,” Mize said, “are showstoppers.”

Of course, nobody’s more aware of this than the people at corporate, which spares no expense on the horses. To efficiently dispatch the Clydesdales across the country, Budweiser maintains stables in Fort Collins, Colo.; Merrimack, N.H.; and St. Louis. At the latter, the horses live in an immaculate barn, which was built in 1885 and is adorned with stained-glass windows. Though it takes three 50-foot tractor-trailers to get just one team to an appearance, the Clydesdales manage to make 300 bookings a year.

Few of those, however, achieved the lasting cultural impact of that 2002 Super Bowl spot, which not only witnessed the magisterial trot of the team up to the Statue of Liberty—it ended with the horses actually kneeling. It took 45 days to train a special team of “hero horses” to do this. There were few dry eyes among the 87 million people watching that night.

Crying in your beer, indeed.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.