The US Beer Market and Beer Preference
By Tom Dougherty
The discussion on the U.S. beer market inevitably turns to Budweiser because of its beer preference and its corner on the American suds market, no matter which segment is discussed. After all, how many other crowded consumer categories can boast a market leader with a 50 percent share?
Stealing Share has investigated the beer market in the U.S. many times (read our beer market study here), and our brand work has carved out plenty of opportunity for some of America’s most successful micro-brews and we have delved deeply into the reasons why a beer drinker chooses the beer they prefer.
Taste has nothing to do with it. Beer preference is something else altogether.
How we can possibly say that when we have heard plenty of Bud drinkers, for example, proclaim that the only way Coors would cross their lips is when they are cold and dead because of its taste? You see, in our own blind taste tests, not a single beer drinker could tell which beer was Bud, Coors or Miller. What this means is that there is something else going on in beer brand preference and it is not about taste.
Change is Ahead in Beer Branding
Research demonstrates that it is all about brand and, thus far, Budweiser has owned the leading brand. However, market forces are changing and the opportunity for the rest of the market to take advantage is finally here. What will InBev ownership mean to the flagship US brand?
That is a topic for another day. For now let’s examine taste vs. brand. If you are foolish enough to ask beer drinker why they prefer the brand of beer they buy, they will emphatically tell you because they love the taste. (Which helps explain why Boston Beer is trying so hard to convince us its beer “tastes better”). The problem with this sort of “beer branding” is we have already established that taste is not the primary driver in beer preference even though we are yet to find a beer drinker who did not tell us they liked the taste of their preferred brand. Therefore, trying to get beer drinkers to switch brands based on taste is an exercise in futility. It might gain you trial, but it won’t get you preference.
How To Build Beer Preference
To create that preference in beer, you have to delve into the anthropology of brand preference and subsequent switching triggers. Why? Because, more than any other category, beer preference is an emotional connection and not a rational one — or even a “taste” provable reality. A beer drinker in general and Bud drinkers specifically, prefer Budweiser because of the brand and not because of the product. “Beachwood Aged” simply does not matter.
Interestingly, when you look at the mass of commercials and advertising that comes out of St. Louis, you might even believe that Bud was the providence of the “cool” crowd. Young, hip, irreverent, self deprecating and hooked on MTV and Comedy Central.
After all, some of the best comedy seen on television in years can be traced to the Budweiser franchise commercial messages. You find a different profile, however, when you look deeper into values, beliefs, precepts and brand attachments. The most loyal Budweiser drinkers, in general, are middle-aged men with potbellies who live for NASCAR and the NFL season. They have conservative values and are more apt to be flying “old glory” on Memorial Day than their neighbors.
So why the ferocious preference?
Well, we won’t give away what our clients have paid us to uncover, but it suffices to say that Bud taps into what it means to be American mainstream. That is why it seems timely for Budweiser to be launching is newest addition — American Ale – in an effort to grab part of the micro craze without having to buy another franchise like they did with the Widmer acquisition.
But the strategy might finally backfire on the 800-pound gorilla, and the first one to take advantage will find itself stealing market share.
Selling “American” is beginning to feel a bit like Madison Avenue-speak for Budweiser because the takeover by Belgium headquartered InBev has changed the brand landscape. To those of us who watch pop culture closely for its brand implications, this sale is akin to Disneyworld being purchased by North Korea. It just does not sit well.
The Fall of The King
Here’s a prediction, and Budweiser’s competitors should take note. Bud will begin to lose market share to other competitors because its loyal drinkers will start to assert Bud does not taste the same anymore. Because InBev has taken over Budweiser, something has changed.
And those drinkers will be right, although not for the reasons they think. It’s not taste. Rather, it will be the promise of the “American” brand and the broken hearts of those who believed in it.