'King of beers' vs. 'Queen of carbs'

Battle between A-B, SABMiller heats up, and includes flag waving

May 21, 2004 - The advertising wars between beer giants Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller are heating up right along with longer summer days. A-B has rolled out ads is reinforcing the image of its flagship brand, Budweiser, as "the king of beers" by describing Miller Lite in new store displays and newspaper advertising as "the queen of carbs" - and "South African owned," in contrast to Budweiser's being "American brewed since 1876."


SABMiller, formerly South African Breweries and now based in London, quickly countered with advertisements in major newspapers in which Miller Lite is surrounded in red, white and blue and described as "American born since 1855" in "Milwaukee, Wis., U.S.A." and as "American brewed since 1855."

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that Anheuser-Busch's swipe at SABMiller and Miller is part of a companywide campaign. Anheuser-Busch wholesalers were invited by the company's vice president for sales, Michael Owens, to watch a broadcast on the Busch Satellite Network outlining what he said in a memo would be "our strategic response" to "some of the desperate tactics Miller Lite is using." The response will include, in addition to the store and newspaper ads, radio commercials and promotions through the summer for four Anheuser-Busch beers.

The reference to "desperate tactics" was to a campaign from SABMiller by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., tweaking Budweiser's self-designation as "the king of beers" by proclaiming that Miller Lite and another brand, Miller Genuine Draft, want to be "president of beers" - because, as one Miller magazine ad puts it: "This is America! We don't kowtow to a bunch of tiara-wearing crumpet eaters."

Miller has recently turned around a decade-long decline in sales of Miller Lite by focusing on its having fewer carbohydrates the light version of Budweiser, Bud Light. According to scanner data from A. C. Nielsen, for the 26 weeks ended May 8, Miller Lite case volume rose 13.2% in supermarkets while Bud Light volume fell 0.8%.

Reports indicate that Anheuser-Busch is just beginning its "Unleash the Dawgs" program to "provide further support to our sales force," said Bill Etling, a spokesman for A-B.

"This is getting dirty, into the gutter," said Michael Watrous, president and chief executive at Straightline International in New York, a brand identity consultant. The counterattack "could harm Anheuser-Busch," Watrous said, "because it could be looked upon as a bully, a giant brewery that can't take any competition."

Robert Mikulay, executive vice president for marketing at Miller, sent a note to distributors in which he described the "queen of carbs" remarks as meant to "denigrate consumer concern about carbs" and "position Miller Lite as being simply a carb-centric brand."

The ad also struck a sour note elsewhere. "This to me says only women or 'girly men' have to watch their carbs because they have to be thin," said Terry O'Neill, a vice president at the National Organization for Women in Washington. "It's a little homophobic, and sexist, but for the alcohol industry, that ain't nothing new."

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