Budweiser and the Art of Post-Trumpian Conversation

Is Budweiser back? The brand has a long way to go to regain its past glory, fighting off big shifts in culture and consumer tastes. But if recent efforts are any indication, they seem to be on the right track.

For the brand’s marketing team has finally figured out that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Marketers agonize over which single-minded, “claim,” “benefit” or “Unique Selling Proposition” will convince consumers to choose their brand. But more often than not in marketing, as in life, tone trumps substance.

A Psychology Today article from 2011 cites a well-known study that concludes “55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.” It’s no different in marketing. We often pay too much attention to content and copy and not nearly enough to the personality and “body language” of our ads.

The great brands get it. Guided by a vision that transcends the rational features of their products, they are unusually adept at engaging consumers on a gut level. The foundation is insight into a basic human truth, but their success is directly tied to how they execute. Is the brand’s body language friendly or repellent.

McDonald’s “No Kale” commercial for its Big Mac sandwich showed us how not to execute in 2015.

“All vegetarians, foodies and gastronauts, please avert your eyes…You can’t get juiciness like this from soy or quinoa…Nor will this ever be kale.”

This approach was likely deemed “low hanging fruit” by McDonalds and their agency at the time. Let’s show people how real and satisfying we are by telling them what we are not. We’ll demonstrate our superiority by mocking those silly, “snowflake” superfood trends.

I seldom think that positioning a brand as what it’s not is a good idea, but there are exceptions. Taco Bell’s “Think Outside The Bun,” which segued successfully into its positive correlation, “Live Mas,” is an example of how being contrary can work very well.

What Taco Bell does that McDonald’s doesn’t is to focus in great detail about what “Outside the Bun/Live Mas” means rather than even mentioning the world of burgers. It appeals to the world of teenagers (and aging teenagers) who crave nonconformity and cheap thrills. And it does this without putting down the burger world explicitly, seemingly saying, “You want a burger? Cool, that can be a good choice. But we’re something else. If we’re what you want, come on along.”

McDonald’s does show off close ups of the Big Mac while mentioning that it’s “massive” and “juicy,” but that is not the key takeaway of the ad. What truly stands out is the sarcastic, condescending tone of the narrator, essentially telling us that people who like healthy food are stupid.

Ironically, the chain started advertising kale as a part of one of its new breakfast bowls just a few months after the Big Mac “No Kale” ad ran. Fortune quoted a McDonald’s spokesperson avowing that there was no contradiction here.

“The ad was all about the big, juicy, iconic Big Mac and this breakfast bowl test is completely unrelated.”

Except it is related. You can’t be putting down an entire group of people who might be your customers. Maybe I’m a kale eating dad who gives into his kids when they want a Happy Meal. Or maybe I’m a kale eating dad who also craves those great McDonald’s fries from time. Why are you alienating me? The world has evolved and people – normal people – like eating things other than burgers and fries. It’s not a war on burgers!  Business at Shake Shack and In-N-Out is booming. They understand the nature of indulgence and proudly accept who they are on their own terms. Their customers love them for it.

The Big Mac ad is a clear reflection of our current cultural and political environment. It’s not so much what you’re for – it’s how intensely you’re against something else. We no longer seem to be debating issues as much as we love feeling superior to the ridiculousness of others.

After years of similar missteps, Budweiser has left divisiveness and defensiveness behind to boldly embrace values of inclusion and a vision of humanity as caring and decent.

No one is more shocked than me. I thought Bud was done for. Squeezed by cheaper beer on one end, craft on the other, and light beers in between, Bud sales were tanking and the brand seemed to have lost its way.

I have no idea if it was a conscious decision on the part of the company, but Budweiser had taken on the characteristics often ascribed to Trump voters: Older, white men, longing to regain their lost place in a changing world.

Consider Budweiser’s 2016 Super Bowl Ad. Images of Clydesdales, huge manufacturing facilities, tough men working hard, an aggressive, macho, old-school rock band, and my favorite, a tough old redneck flicking a wedge of lemon off his beer at a neighborhood bar, much to the delight of a younger woman looking on. He’s no metrosexual! He’s so confident and manly!

Superimposed on these images, in big, bold print, were the following messages: Not ponies, not a hobby, not small, not sipped, not soft, not imported, not a fruit cup, not following, not for everyone and not backing down. Again, defining the brand for what it’s not rather than what it is, and with a very defensive tone.

And speaking of those Trump voters, it seemed as if they were directly identifying with and appealing to those older, white, blue collar men. Guys who once lived the American dream (or imagine they did) trying desperately to hang on to the good old days. This does not seem to be the target you want to embrace in order to rejuvenate a brand. Moreover, those days are just gone.

However, in sharp contrast to McDonald’s, Budweiser has completely revamped its communications for the better. It started with this year’s Super Bowl Ad, an idealized, elegant and engaging retelling of the Founder’s story, which I wrote about just after it aired. The spot stayed true to the brand’s decade-old celebration of Americana, but it did so in a human, down-to-earth way, to which anyone, or almost anyone, regardless of political affiliation, could surely relate. (While not conceived as a rebuke to President Trump’s anti-immigration policies, some of his supporters did take issue with the spot, launching a #boycottbudweiser movement that promptly backfired.

Budweiser recently released “A Dream Delivered,” a video promoting the company’s ongoing partnership with Folds of Honor, a non-profit dedicated to the noble cause of providing “educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service-members.”

Again, rather than the over-the-top demonstrations of patriotism and machismo of past work, “Dream” takes the time to tell the touching, highly personal story of a young woman receiving a scholarship which is delivered, in the flesh, by none other than Adam Driver.

This was a brilliant casting choice that an All-American brand like Budweiser might have completely rejected. After all, Driver plays the evil arch-villain Kylo Ren in the final trilogy of the Star Wars series. If casting from the Dark Side wasn’t bad enough, Driver is now part of the reviled Hollywood elite. He’s had on-screen sex with the bête-noire of conservatives, Leah Dunham!

Still, Driver is popular, seemingly down-to-earth, and in fact, a military veteran himself. And in addition to his ability to appeal to people across the political and social spectra, you can see that he clearly relates, in a genuine way, to the young scholarship winner and her family. Even more important, they relate to him.

This effort is so much more than an “Honor our Vets” or “Support our Troops” bumper sticker. It’s nuanced storytelling that evokes shared values of patriotism and human decency.

Bud Bluster is gone, hopefully for good. In its place are highly personal human stories with universal appeal. Budweiser is an aging brand that will be difficult to turn around. First and foremost, it’s a style of beer that’s been falling out of favor for quite a while. And it’s been a long time since its brand image matched up with its self-titled “King of Beers” mantra.

But the brand has found its voice, dramatically changing its tone in a way that anticipates a shift in our culture and that leads the way in cultural communications aimed at truly uniting, not dividing. And doing it while staying true to its brand heritage and values.

It’s a really good start.


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