Here’s a very cool graph from today’s Wall Street Journal that says an awful lot about America’s changing taste in alcohol. Americans now buy more craft beer than Budweiser. (Not Bud Light, mind you. Just Bud.)
On the one hand, this chart is a reminder that craft brewing is still a niche—albeit a fast-growing one. According to the Brewers Association, craft labels make up about 14 percent of the U.S. beer market. Take Allagash, Lagunitas, Dogfish Head, and all your other favorite little breweries, toss them together, and they barely outsell the third most popular brand in America.
On the other hand, it’s also a very specific testament to the decline of Budweiser, which these days is basically a beer without a purpose. Twenty years ago, when Americans were less health-conscious and had more homogeneous tastes, selling a mass-market, midpriced lager designed to appeal to the largest possible demographic made lots of sense. But now, it’s a brand without a natural audience except for older Americans who drink it out of habit and maybe a nostalgic sense of brand loyalty. If you walk into a bar, there will almost always be a cheaper beer, a less caloric beer, and plenty of tastier beers on tap. And so it’s not totally shocking that, by Anheuser-Busch Inbev’s account, 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 27 have never tried a regular old Budweiser. It’s not as if they’re missing anything.
This isn’t to say Budweiser is in immediate peril. Again, thanks to all those old fans, it’s still the third most popular brand in the country. But it’s obviously a bad sign for the future, which the WSJ reports is why AB-Inbev is starting a new marketing effort to rehab the beer’s image with young drinkers, in part by getting rid of the Clydesdales in its commercials this holiday season and substituting relatable twentysomethings.* Per the paper:
The marketing push is accompanied by an effort to get Budweiser back on tap. Theory being: If Levi’s and Converse can end years of sales declines by winning over young consumers, so can Bud.
“This is a very considered, long-term view of what will turn around the brand,” said Brian Perkins, AB InBev’s vice president of marketing, Budweiser.
But this analogy strikes me as a bit flawed. Levi’s could change up the look of its jeans. Fashion loves to go retro. But Budweiser can’t radically change its formula, and its not obscure enough to be rediscovered (not that Chucks were ever totally obscure). Bland, midpriced, beer is bland, midpriced beer. Budweiser is stuck in the middle, and some new commercials aren’t going to pull it back out.
*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: Based on the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, this post originally incorrectly suggested that Budweiser was eliminating Clydesdales from all of its future TV advertising. The newspaper has since corrected its story to clarify that while the company will not use the horses in their ads this holiday season, they may in the future. Budweiser has also released a statement saying that Clydesdales, “will continue to play a central role in our campaigns, including holidays and Super Bowl.”