Ever since it became an official holiday after the Civil War, Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) has set the stage for parades, wreath laying, fireworks and any number of other events to commemorate the sacrifices made by Americans in the armed forces. Probably for about as long, Memorial Day has also been an opportunity for marketers to mount efforts that range from the perfunctory (carpet and mattress sales) to the genuinely impressive (PepsiCo’s 25-truck relay that drove an American flag across the country in 2015).
But while millions of Americans will be putting out the flags and firing up back-porch barbecues on Monday, 2020’s Memorial Day will be unique, both for Americans and the brands trying to reach them. In most states, ongoing social-distancing mandates have put the kibosh on events involving crowds. And with an unemployment rate creeping toward Great Depression levels, millions of Americans have neither the appetite nor the budget for much of a shopping spree.
Nonetheless, patriotism is in the air, and no brand knows how that breeze blows better than Budweiser, which just announced two major initiatives timed to the holiday weekend. The King of Beer’s flag-wrapped efforts are plentiful and storied, including putting the Statue of Liberty on its bottles in 2015 and, four years ago, even renaming the brand “America.” This year, however, Budweiser’s dual efforts showcase not only how important the patriotic message is for the legacy brewer, but also its astuteness in tweaking that message to suit the times.
First up are some limited-edition cans. Bud will roll out a “patriotic-themed family pack” that features a camouflage design rendered in red, white and blue livery. The cans also feature icons that honor the branches of the American military. Budweiser has pledged to donate $1 from the sale of each case of beer to Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that funds scholarships for members of the military and their families.
According to Budweiser marketing vp Monica Rustgi, this year the meaning of service to one’s country has been expanded, and the company contemplated as much in designing this effort. “This Memorial Day honors all those who have lost their lives defending our freedom—soldiers who have fallen… and now, front-line workers who heroically went to fight the Covid battle,” dying in that equally noble effort.
Anyone stopping by the cooler cases is bound to notice those beer cans, but even non-drinkers are likely to see the company’s other marketing push (which comes from Anheuser-Busch, parent of Budweiser and other brews including Michelob and Stella Artois). The 30-second spot features one of the Budweiser Clydesdales, an instantly recognizable mascot that the beer brand has used for marketing exploits since 1933, when a six-horse hitch hauled a beer wagon around Washington, D.C., to celebrate the end of Prohibition. The horses are so well known that Americans recognize them as Budweiser symbols even when they appear—as they do in this spot—without the brand’s name.
“The Clydesdales really are the symbol of Budweiser’s heritage and tradition,” global vp of value creation Julia Mize told Adweek in 2017. “They’re the face of the Budweiser brand and an icon for the American people.”
In the new spot, a Clydesdale appears alone—no narration—clopping through a consummately American landscape that includes the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Lincoln Memorial, the Brooklyn Bridge and amber waves of grain. The horse’s trot slowly breaks into a run before the animal stops at the Grand Canyon to the accompanying message: “Together, we will run again.”
It’s a measure of just how transformative Covid-19 has been to American life that there’s no need to explain to anyone what that line means.
“These are unprecedented times,” Rustgi said. “As the country takes steps towards recovery, we felt it was the right time to share a message of solidarity using an icon that is both familiar and beloved.”
But according to branding consultant Allen Adamson, founder of Metaforce and an adjunct marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, there’s even more going on here.
“The best ads are simple and built off of consumer insight, and this ad does both brilliantly,” Adamson said. “The overwhelming consumer insight today is people wanting to get out of lockdown in their homes, of looking to break free.”
And few breaking-free metaphors can top footage of a horse galloping on a beach.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Adamson added, the universal sentiment was: It’s OK to watch a lot of Netflix. “But now,” he said, “people are in get-me-out-of-here mode. It’s simple, powerful and emotional, and I think underlying the Clydesdales is a secondary communication of patriotism and strength.”
In Adamson’s appraisal, the beer can initiative holds down the more purely patriotic strategy for the brand, allowing the horses to send the dual message of Americanism and a hoped-for recovery. “I think the two working together will be a good combination for Budweiser,” he said.
From a purely business perspective, it’s also a savvy one. It’s well understood that consumers have become sensitive to the national origins of the brands they buy—according to a study published in the European Journal of Marketing, “made in America” consistently ranks among the top three attributes consumers use when deciding which brands to purchase.
And patriotic holidays tend to be big ones for purchasing beer. According to research from personal finance site WalletHub, Memorial Day is the No. 2 holiday for sales of suds. And the first? The Fourth of July.