Special Report: Beer

NEW YORK Alternative media have yet to generate that giant sucking sound promising to cut into traditional beer marketing. But there is a breeze beginning to blow, and the boldest experiment is coming from one of the broadcast networks’ most historically reliable clients.

Anheuser-Busch this year unveiled the online network Bud.tv after the Super Bowl, aiming for monthly traffic of 3 million visitors by this year’s end. The numbers so far have been disappointing, averaging just 152,000 uniques during March and 253,000 in February, according to comScore—leading A-B to recently scale back its target to 500,000 monthly visitors. A-B performed better elsewhere, placing Super Bowl spots on its own Website and others, where they were watched more than 21 million times and downloaded more than 300,000 times.

The beauty of putting content online, of course, is that a marketer can instantly see what’s not working and retool. A-B backed Bud.tv with a budget of as much as $30 million. That’s enough for at least a dozen Super Bowl ads—but just a drop in the bucket compared to A-B’s total ad spend last year of $466 million, down 10 percent year over year, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

“You’re not going to see Anheuser-Busch convert 50 percent of its media in five years to the Internet,” says Bob Lachky, the company’s exec vp, global industry development. “I think you’re going to see more of a gradual creep over the years. It makes sense to continue to invest in the Internet. With appointment TV for live events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the NBA Finals and NCAA Final Four, those consumers are not going away.”

The leading brewer has more brands to sell, having acquired U.S. distribution rights for Grolsch. The Dutch import debuted on U.S. TV with a spot, created by Momentum, St. Louis, celebrating its signature swing-top bottle. Radio and online video are used to support the Rolling Rock brand, which A-B bought from InBev last year. It also secured U.S. distribution and marketing rights for InBev brews such as Stella Artois, Beck’s and Bass.

Marketing plans for those brands had been established before the transition and didn’t call for a huge infusion of TV. Stella Artois, for example, will continue leveraging its status as the badge beer for the indie film community by sponsoring movie release parties. Beck’s and Bass will get more visibility, but exposure will come from on-premise promotion provided by the strength of the A-B distribution network, rather than from more mass media placement, says a company spokeswoman. A-B is handling dozens of new products, and some are being infused with more TV and print support, like the relaunched, reformulated Michelob. But most are niche products like Red Bridge, Spykes and Harbin, which will receive below-the-line marketing support.

Molson Coors will once again leverage its NFL sponsorship. Last season, the brewer spent $52.5 million between pre-season and the playoffs. The closest contender was $30 million from A-B’s Bud Select, which continues trying to shake off its sophomore slump with hip-hop-flavored TV ads featuring Jay Z.

The Coors brand will use appeals to reinforce packaging innovations like a frost-brew liner and wide-mouth can. And new this year: TV support for the newly launched full-calorie label Coors Banquet.

Miller Brewing’s CEO Tom Long has signaled that the company intends to get aggressive in promoting its Miller Lite brand. Meantime, Miller High Life will benefit from a 10-week national buy in support of the label’s “Take Back the High Life” campaign, featuring actor Windell Middlebrooks, who just signed a two-year deal to continue as High Life’s pitchman.

After failing last year to catch on as a trade-up brand, Miller Genuine Draft has been relegated to a “strategic brand”—meaning it will receive ad support only in core markets. Budget will be much less than the $56 million spent last year.

Meanwhile, Miller Chill, a beer featuring lime and salt flavors, prepares to go national after a successful test. A $40 million campaign featuring the tagline “A new twist on refreshment” via Young & Rubicam, Chicago, will help push the brand. The company also plans to ride the popularity of craft beers by boosting distribution of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing’s Sunset Wheat.

Heineken USA continues to promote its growing Heineken Premium Light label, which this year aims to ship 852,000 barrels, up from 580,000 last year, some 70 percent over expectations. CEO Jean Francois van Boxmeer said the Amsterdam-based parent company will spend $70 million advertising the luxury light brand this year (up from $49 million in 2006, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus). On the horizon: creative from new agency Berlin Cameron United, New York, and the launch of Heineken Premium Light in cans.