Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors ad campaign a casualty of Corn Syrup War

Robert Channick
Chicago Tribune
Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light Super Bowl commercial sparked some bad blood by slamming rivals over corn syrup usage.

The Corn Syrup War, launched with a snarky ad during this month’s Super Bowl, may have destroyed an uneasy alliance between Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to reverse sliding beer sales with a broader industry campaign.

The commercial for Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light, which employed the brand’s now-familiar medieval theme, fired a catapult over the castle walls at Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup in the brewing process.

MillerCoors was not amused, pulling out of a long-planned collaboration with Anheuser-Busch and other beer makers to win back drinkers, many of whom have drifted to wine and spirits.

“Obviously since Anheuser-Busch used the largest marketing platform in the United States to demonize the beer category, we’ve decided to put that work on pause,” Pete Marino, chief communications officer for Chicago-based MillerCoors, said Monday.

In the works for more than 18 months, the campaign was still in the planning stages, with Anheuser-Busch, Miller Coors, Heineken and Constellation Brands among the beer makers at the table, along with industry organizations such as the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

An ad agency had not yet been selected, but the campaign was likely to be in the “Got Milk?” mode of the dairy industry, trying to boost the broader beer category. Marino said he expected a test campaign to launch as early as this summer.

Cesar Vargas, vice president of legal and corporate affairs for Anheuser-Busch, said in an emailed statement Monday the beer industry ad campaign is still on.

“We, along with other members of our industry, remain fully committed to strengthening the beer category and our joint efforts to highlight the very positive impact that beer has on our economy and in our communities will continue as planned,” Vargas said.

Bjorn Trowery, director of communications for Heineken USA, said Monday that “it’s too early to tell” what the impact of the feud between Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors will mean to the campaign, but the beer maker remains “committed to growing the category.”

Constellation Brands’ beer division, based in Chicago, makes and imports Mexican beers like Corona and Modelo. The company did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Both Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors may have something to gain by working together, as the beer category loses ground.

Beer sales, which peaked at 214.7 million barrels in 2008, have fallen 4 percent since then to about 206 million barrels last year. The growth of wine and spirits has drained some of beer’s market share, but demographic issues are in play as well.

“Younger drinkers drink less…and less beer,” said Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a beer industry trade publication. “So that’s a problem.”

Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are the three largest-selling beer brands in the U.S., and all are losing market share faster than the industry.

Steinman said Bud Light sales dropped 6.7 percent last year, while Coors Light fell 6.2 percent and Miller Lite dropped 3.8 percent.

Beer drinkers are shifting to craft beers, imported beers and hard seltzers, Steinman said.

“To a large extent, they are trading up,” he said.

MillerCoors has been on the defensive since the Bud Light Super Bowl spot aired on Feb. 3. The beer maker has run full page newspaper ads, social media campaigns and even went to Iowa to buy beers for farmers in support of corn and other crops that contribute to making beer, Marino said.

Marino said many beers use corn syrup as a fermenting sugar in the brewing process and it has no effect on the final product. MillerCoors does not add high fructose corn syrup, which some consumers avoid as a potential health risk, to its beer, he said.

He considers the Bud Light campaign misleading, but Anheuser-Busch has no intention of backing off.

“Consumers are demanding more transparency around the food and drink they consume and Bud Light is leading the transparency movement for beer,” Vargas said. “We will continue to lead the effort toward increased transparency as it benefits the entire beer industry.”

MillerCoors, meanwhile, did not rule out returning to the fold before the beer industry campaign rolls out – but only if Anheuser-Busch ceases its own campaign and calls an immediate truce in the Corn Syrup War.

“We’re keeping the door open to coming back,” Marino said. “We think the work on category health should be paused until there are concrete actions that correct AB’s aberrant and reckless behavior.”