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A-B Sees Web as Fertile Ground for Advertising Efforts


St. Louis Post Dispatch
December, 20 2007
 

 

A big meeting with Wall Street analysts, and August A. Busch IV, chief executive of Anheuser-Busch Cos., wanted to show off a commercial. Specifically, one that portrays an effort to clean up office language by fining staffers 25 cents per profanity. The twist: the cash goes toward buying Bud Light-and the wholesome plan backfires spectacularly.

"Hope it doesn't offend anybody," Busch said in the Sept. 6 meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel before playing a new ad called "Swear Jar." One minute and 20 bleeped-out expletives later.

"Well, it's bad," Busch acknowledged sheepishly as the audience guffawed. "But it's Internet-only. And it sells beer."

The Web has become a key marketing tool-part refuge, part launch site, part test lab-for the folks at One Busch Place. The country's biggest brewer is planning to plunge more cash into digital advertising to attract young, Web-savvy "contemporary adults"-people whose drinking habits will largely determine how fast the company grows in the United States.

A-B is increasingly using the Web to spread and fine-tune its advertising. The Web allows it to test-drive edgy material that, in years past, would never have seen the light of day for fear of causing offense on TV.

Witness the strange life of "Swear Jar." Not too long ago, the spiked Super Bowl spot from a few years back was gathering dust. But after Anheuser-Busch posted it on its struggling Bud.TV online entertainment site in June, someone sent it to YouTube.

It got more than 2.5 million hits, despite never appearing on television.

"The digital space and some of the stuff we're doing internally can be an incubator for ideas," said Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing at the company's US beer subsidiary. "Four years ago, (Swear Jar) would probably still be in a drawer."

Using the Web to gauge fervor for offbeat ads promises broader and quicker insight than the traditional way-peeking through a one-way window as a test group watches new TV commercials. The Web gives "instant credibility or thumbs-down," Ponturo said in a recent interview.

Using the Web as a test tube is "an intelligent strategy," said Lisa Bradner, a Chicago-based senior analyst with Forrester Research. On the Web-and unlike on TV-marketers such as Anheuser-Busch, coffee-maker Folgers and shampoo brand Herbal Essences know that viewers chose to watch their spots. That gives the companies more leeway to try unusual content.

A new Bud Light spot is apparently getting a thumbs-up. It follows a man who uses only the word "dude" in response to a range of experiences-finding a late-night jar of peanut butter, calling for the basketball, admonishing his buddy not to order pretentious cocktails.

"Dude" appeared first on the Web during the Major League Baseball playoffs, and Anheuser-Busch later rolled it out on national TV broadcasts. The spot has been viewed more than 1.7 million times on YouTube.

It's unclear whether it will spark a call-sign on par with "Wassup?" or "I love you, man." But here's one sign: a recent Goldman Sachs research note on Anheuser-Busch was partially titled "Dude."

Stirring up buzz on the Web could help Anheuser-Busch attract elusive "Millenial" drinkers aged roughly 21 to 30. In recent years, big swatches of those drinkers moved to high-dollar distilled spirits and wine. Ten years ago, beer claimed 59 percent of their spending on alcohol. It's now down to 47 percent, according to ACNielsen.

Anheuser-Busch wants to turn that trend around. The "cool factor" of online advertising could be a key tool-especially because about two-thirds of men ages 25-34 watch online videos at least once a week.

"I don't see this thing slowing down a lot," said Mike Vorhaus, managing director at consulting and research shop Frank N. Magid Associates, who compiled the statistics. "If anything, it's increasing, because it's spreading across all the demographics."

With those kinds of trends in mind, Anheuser-Busch is planning a bigger investment in digital advertising. The company spent $8.9 million on Internet advertising in the first nine months of 2007, more than double the sum in the same period of 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

The brewer plans to boost its spending on ads and video for sites such as style.com and askmen.com by 50 percent next year. The company does not provide specific dollar amounts.

Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch has changed its approach to filming and editing TV commercials to accommodate the Web's growing influence. Before going on a commercial shoot, teams plan to capture material for online videos-say, behind-the-scenes interviews or alternate endings.

"We're always looking for those ways where we can start it on TV and migrate it to the Web" or vice versa, said Keith Levy, vice president of brand management for A-B's US beer division, in a phone call from a Los Angeles filming session.

Miller Brewing Co., a unit of London-based SABMiller PLC, doesn't use the Web as much as A-B to test future TV campaigns. But Miller is trying to broaden the reach of its "More Taste League" TV campaign by advertising on sites such as ESPN.com and driving traffic to moretasteleague.com. The site allows Web-surfers to draft friends into the league or link back to the Miller Lite homepage to view current Lite advertising.

"These online activities allow us to reach consumers in sharper and faster ways beyond the traditional advertising," Miller spokesman Julian Green said in an e-mail.

Coors Brewing Co., meanwhile, launched an online campaign called "Catch the 4:53 to Happy Hour." The campaign, advertised on sites such as Yahoo and featuring a "Happy Hour countdown clock," was designed to reach adult males at work and encourage them to reward themselves with a Coors brew.

Anheuser-Busch has learned from the rocky life of Bud.TV as it plans to ramp up a new wave of digital marketing.

The company launched the much-hyped site in February with several hours of humorous videos. But executives worried that consumers would dismiss Bud.TV as propaganda if it was too obviously sponsored by Anheuser-Busch or contained too many commercials. So the site used a more a subtle approach. In several shows, it was difficult to discern any connection to beer, much less Bud Light.

Bud.TV opened with 253,000 unique visitors in February. But burdened by what Busch called a "Fort Knox" registration system, Bud.TV struggled to draw viewers. Visits tailed off and haven't hit 100,000 since June, according to comScore Media Metrix.

One moral of the story: far from being turned off by blatant brand promotion, people actually did want to see A-B's commercials online. But they wanted ones with different twists or off-kilter endings-edgier stuff that wouldn't run on TV but would make them laugh, Ponturo said.

Now, Anheuser-Busch-particularly the Bud Light brand-is bringing its online strategy back to its traditional marketing wheelhouse: churning out memorable commercials. The new approach is also more open-rather than cloistering its content inside Bud.TV, the company hopes to spread its material as widely as possible on sites such as YouTube.

"We thought you had to be exclusive, but you really want to share," Ponturo said. "As long as people see it, you need to say, 'I don't care where they see it.'"

The game is changing. Super Bowl commercials used to get about 700,000 views on the company's sites. With the rise of video sites and blogs, A-B's new Super Bowl commercials have gotten 57 million views over the last two years, said Levy.

"That tells you," he said of the Web, "how powerful this thing is."
 

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