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Lead Balloon Ep. 3 - Bud Light's Corn Syrup-Fueled Ad War, with Neil Caskey and Paul Gatza

Updated: Mar 3


During Super Bowl LIII in 2019, Bud Light launched a new advertising strategy that was... unconventional, even for them.


Instead of frogs or "wazzap" guys or silly superstitions, this campaign focused on attacking Bud Light's rivals for using corn syrup to brew their beers. Stranger still, outside observers noted that the beer giant borrowed other conventions from the world of political mudslinging, twisting facts, doubling down on vague talking points and attempting to build a consensus against Miller Lite and Coors Light.


But the brewing barons at Anheuser-Busch didn't count on the little guys... specifically, members of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) who took exception to the attacks and rallied to the defense of MillerCoors.


In this episode, Neil Caskey from the NCGA recounts the tale of their beer war with Bud Light, Paul Gatza from the Brewers Association explains why big brewers are feeling the pinch and might resort to such infighting, and Kyle Brown helps break down the ultimate failures of "the Corn Syrup Offensive."





Transcript:


Dusty Weis:


Bud Light is known for two things, cheap beer, mass produced, and eye-popping ad spend. In terms of beer distribution, they're number one in their industry and it's not even close. In the course of Anheuser-Busch's history there's very few competitors that they haven't been able to buy up or plow under. If brewing beer was Star Wars, they would be the galactic empire. And on Super Bowl Sunday 2019, Neil Caskey found himself staring up at the Bud Light Death Star.


Neil Caskey:


The first thing that crossed my mind was, "Is there a hole that I can crawl in, and hide, and hope this thing will go away?" Needless to say none of us were ready to do battle with a multinational big beer behemoth.


Dusty Weis:


Bud Light had just launched its corn syrup attack ad against rival Miller Lite. This fired the opening salvo in what would come to be known, not at all sarcastically, as the Corn Syrup Wars of 2019. The ensuing battle between these brewing behemoths would cost tens of millions in advertising, uncounted treasure in legal fees and resulted in an unprecedented ruling in a defamation court case. And in the middle of it all were Neil and his plucky band of underdog heroes, in this case The National Corn Growers Association. And they proved, conclusively, that with one well placed shot an alliance born of necessity and a little luck, you can destroy a Death Star and bring an empire to its knees. In this episode, Neil shares his story and we pick apart the ill advised strategy of the corn syrup offensive. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon. A podcast about PR, marketing, and branding nightmares, and the well meaning communications professionals who lived them.


When you get a gang of professional communicators together for a drink, you can usually count on swapping some good stories. PR, strategic communications, marketing, these are fields that draw creative people in and sometimes chew them up and spit them out. Rehashing those old stories, well, that's as much a past-time as it is a coping mechanism. And that's what I want for this podcast, to be a portable, digital version of that because let's face it, sometimes schedules just don't line up for a beer after work, so please take a moment and subscribe to the Lead Balloon feed in your favorite podcasting app. You can also follow Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for more updates on what we're up to here. And I'm always scouting for great stories for the show, so if you know someone with whom I should be in touch, email me at dusty@podcampmedia.com.


Returning to the hero of our story, Neil Caskey is a comms professional with 20 years of experience and deep roots in the field of agriculture. A good chunk of that time he spent at the firm Osborn and Barr. He also did some time on Capitol Hill and a little more than a year ago he accepted the role of vice president of communications at the National Corn Growers Association in his home state of Missouri. He'd been on the job less than four months when the Corn Syrup Wars touched off. Neil, I want to take you back to February of 2019 here. It was Super Bowl Sunday, that one wound up being a particularly dull affair between an unlovable New England Patriots team and the Rams who had just moved their team to the unlovable city of Los Angeles. Did you watch this game?


Neil Caskey:


Yeah, I did, obviously and I had planned on spending the evening have a few Bud Lights and rooting against Stan Kroenke who had just took my Rams away from my city, so that was my plan that night.


Dusty Weis:


Of course, everyone who's worked in this field can tell me about a time when their plans for a quiet evening in were disrupted by something that they saw on TV. It's just in this case the disruptors were dressed like refugees from a bad Renaissance Faire.


Commercial:


My king, this corn syrup was just delivered.


That's not ours, we don't brew Bud Light with corn syrup.


Miller Lite uses corn syrup.


Then let's take it to them at once.


Dusty Weis:


In case you've been living under a rock, the commercials feature the medieval cast of characters Bud Light has been using for some time, playing off the popularity of Game of Thrones.


They travel throughout the land trying to deliver a comically overlarge barrel of corn syrup first to a Miller Lite castle, and then to a Coors Light castle.


Commercial:


To be clear, we brew Coors Light with corn syrup.


Dusty Weis:


The point in all of this is to highlight that corn syrup is listed as an ingredient in their rivals' beers, and to imply that there's something wrong with that, which when you're Neil Caskey from the National Corn Growers, it's going to ruin any plans you had for enjoying a quiet evening of football.


Neil Caskey:


The first thing that crossed my mind was, "Is there a hole that I can crawl in, and hide, and hope this thing will go away?" Because it didn't take long, my phone and some of my colleagues just started peppering me and others with questions about, "What are we going to do?" Right? So once the shock wore off I realized that I don't know sometimes whether it's better to be lucky or good. The funny thing about that night, as an organization, we had about 150 farmers and staff that were gathered together in downtown Denver that Sunday afternoon getting ready for a week full of meetings. So needless to say, none of us were ready to do battle with a multinational, big beer behemoth that evening, but it didn't take too long for me to realize that that was my responsibility. And if I'm being honest, it was just the thought, the fear of waking up the next morning and having to look some of those farmers in the eye and explain to them why we didn't do something that night is the thing that really kind of compelled me to want to take action as soon as we did.


Dusty Weis:


So from the National Corn Growers Association Twitter account, Neil fired back at Bud Light. The statement read, "Bud Light, America's corn farms are disappointed in you. Our office is right down the road, we would love to discuss with you the many benefits of corn. Thanks Miller Lite and Coors Light for supporting our industry." With that tweet right there, the proverbial gauntlet was thrown, the battle was joined. And for a brand that professes to bleed red, white, and blue, crapping on corn farmers is a bad look. Before either team in the football game had even scored a point, the internet was lighting up over this new fight, which if I'm being honest, was kind of where the action was on that night. And it really erupted when fellas like this guy-


Corn Farmer: Bud Light, if you're not standing with corn farmers, we're not standing with you.


Dusty Weis:


... started publicly pouring their cans of Bud Light into the bathroom sink on Twitter. But from Neil and the Corn Growers in a second, first, I want to get into the question at the heart of this dispute, corn syrup in beer. Just how disingenuous is Bud's syrupy smear campaign? Do Miller Lite and Coors Light really use it? And so what if they do? And to help me out with these questions, I'm bringing in a ringer.


Paul Gatza:


I'm Paul Gatza, I'm a senior vice president of the professional brewing division for the Brewers Association. I started making my own beer at the turn of 1989 to 1990 and started working in a professional brewery, the Boulder Beer, back in 1993. Bought into the ownership of a home brewer supply shop, opened a second one, and then came over to the Brewers Association back in 1998.


Dusty Weis:


If there's two things to note about Paul Gatza, it's that he knows beer and he's been that way since before it was a trendy way to be. In fact, during his 22 year tenure at the Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries in the U.S. has ballooned from 1,500 to more than 7,500. Macro brewers like Bud and Miller continue to lose market share to this band of little guys, which might explain the punchier marketing lately. But to get to what really bugs me about Bud Light's corn syrup campaign, you've got to go back a lot farther than 1998.


Paul Gatza:


Going back through brewing heritage, the German beer purity law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot, established that beer should be made with barely, water, and hops. Yeast was being used at the time, but until Pasteur really got a look under a microscope at what was going on with yeast, it really wasn't understood as well even though it was added as an ingredient throughout history.


Dusty Weis:


According to the Germans, inarguably a foremost authority on beer, true beer should only have four ingredients, barley, water, hops, and yeast. So that puts Miller Lite's corn syrup in clear violation of the Reinheitsgebot, point to Bud Light, right? Well, not so much. You see, Bud Light also pumps an impurity into its beer using rice as an ingredient, meaning that its attack on Miller Lite is hypocritical at best, but it gets sillier. In the weeks that followed the ad's launch, Budweiser tried to spin its campaign as a public service announcement of sorts. They touted it as beverage transparency and in doing so they were playing on consumer's fears of another substance, high fructose corn syrup, which is a more refined, higher octane version used to sweeten sodas and snacks. But in fact, the dextrose sugars extracted from corn from Miller Lite's beers are chemically identical to the dextrose sugars that Bud Light extracts from rice and uses in its beer. So finally, that leaves the question of whether it comes from corn or rice, why are all these big macro brewers adding sugar to their beers? For that answer, I had to ask Paul to go all Bill Rye the Beer Science Guy.


Paul Gatza:


Really beer is the process of fermenting sugars and turning that into carbon dioxide and alcohol. You mash the grains, usually around 150, 158 degrees, somewhere in that range, and that converts the starches to fermentable sugars. Then you boil it, add some bittering hops, then later in the process you add hops for aroma and flavor. Then you chill it quickly, and then you add your yeast. Fermentation usually takes anywhere from one week for ales, up to if you do a lager, it's a slower, colder ferment, but then the process of lagering can last months and months.


Dusty Weis:


And so, why then would anybody want to add corn syrup or any other additives to beer?


Paul Gatza:


Well, corn syrup would help provide food for the yeast, provide those fermentable sugars without adding much in the way of flavor and without adding much in the way of body, so it wouldn't add much in un-fermentable sugars, so you can get a drier beer that way by using corn syrup.


Dusty Weis:


You know, listening to you talk about this process, it's like listening to Willy Wonka describe making chocolate, it's pure magic. But essentially what you're saying is these little yeast critters eat up all the sugar in this mass of hops, and water, and grain, and then they poop it out as booze and CO2?


Paul Gatza:


Yeah, pretty much.


Dusty Weis:


So whether these sugar additives are derived from corn syrup, as in the case with Miller Lite, or derived from rice as is the case with Bud Light, whatever additive is used in the brewing process isn't even in the finished product, right?


Paul Gatza:


Not in its original form, like to say that corn syrup is in the final beer is not true to my understanding.


Dusty Weis:


There you go, a corn syrup smear campaign fueled by hypocrisy, ambiguity, and a level of inaccuracy worthy of PolitiFact. And in fact, in the days that followed, the National Corn Growers Association found themselves embroiled in what was essentially a strategic political offensive. Here's Neil Caskey again.


Neil Caskey:


Clearly, and of course this kind of reinforced it as well, but it was misleading and I don't think anyone that saw it, they may have laughed, but once you kind of really think about what they were trying to convey was that corn syrup is something that it's not. So I think we were all kind of shocked because of how misleading it was, and we felt obligated to call them out on that. One of the biggest factors that contributed to, if you want to say that we had some success here, and in some areas we did, was just that the trust that my boss and our board, they gave to us.


So when I picked up the phone and I called my boss, Jon Doggett, and said, "Hey, this thing happened and I think we need to have something to say about it, and publish that quickly." He said, "Go." It wasn't, "Go and let's figure out what our goals need to be." Or, "Go, and before we do that, let's make sure that all our states, and our board, and everyone else is aligned with what we want to do." He just said, "Go." And that was very empowering to me as a fairly new employee. Like I just mentioned, at the time I had only been on the job a few months and was still kind of learning the proverbial ropes. And so to know that my boss had my back and that the board had my back, freed me and my team up to do a lot of good work, I think.


Dusty Weis:


You very, I think, humbly categorize your campaign as successful. I will go a step further and say that it was resoundingly successful because your statement touched off a degree of backlash that, I think you're right, I don't think that Anheuser-Busch had any idea what they were getting into. Maybe the most damaging ramifications of their campaign were some of the reactions from corn farmers themselves. I mean, here you have these salt of the Earth, hardworking, tractor driving, prototypes of everything American and they're jumping on social media to pour cans of Bud Light down the toilet. That was, essentially, all from what you guys at the National Corn Growers Association did. How did that feel for you to see that as a direct consequence of your actions on that night?


Neil Caskey:


I mean, I guess our job is to represent their interests, and so, I mean, I think like the ones that you saw pouring beer out, or taking to social media to express their frustrations, most of us, present company included, would have preferred to have spent that evening watching a lousy football game and even having a Bud Light or two, but obviously Bud Light kind of changed everyone's plans. And yeah, I mean, I think we're pleased that some of the farmers perhaps saw their association standing up for them, but it was the right thing to do.


Neil Caskey:


I mean, that's like it would have been really easy, Dusty, you've worked with non-profits and you know how sometimes they can be slow to move and act, but when you're dealing in an event that is unlike any other, and that's the Super Bowl, where you have a window of time that, unless I guess it goes into overtime and double overtime, but you have four quarters. So we didn't really have a lot of time to kind of focus group anything, or see kind of attitudinally what people thought, we just felt like this was the right thing to do. Our farmers were already starting to speak out in their own way on social media, and we just kind of... in many ways we were just following their lead, to be honest.


Dusty Weis:


What did you hear from the folks that are members of the Corn Growers Association in the weeks and months that followed this campaign. Not just the folks that jumped out on social media and poured out their beers in the toilet, but everybody else, were they sitting up and taking notice of this whole affair on a grassroots level, or was this just playing itself out in the media?


Neil Caskey:


Hard to say. I mean, it's interesting as the days and weeks past the Super Bowl went by, we kind of found ourselves in a planting season that didn't go the way we wanted, and a trade war that's still kind of unended, and-


Dusty Weis:


Oh, this has been a terrible year for farmers, yeah.


Neil Caskey:


So yeah, at the end of the day, beer wasn't top of mind with too many of the farmers that I deal with. I will say this, and I'm at a agricultural event today, and I've been to many seminars and things in the agricultural space since that Super Bowl, and I'll tell you, I haven't seen anyone brave enough to put a Bug Light to their mouth since then. So that's anecdotal evidence of something, but I think most farmers, when it was all said and done, just kind of turned back to their, hey, they've got a business to run, and problems to solve, and beer's probably not one of them.


Dusty Weis:


That brings up, actually, a really compelling point and the counterpoint that I've heard from people that I've argued about this with is that, "Well, it may have been damaging in the short term for Bud Light, but it got people talking about Bud Light." So from Bud Light's perspective, would you say, is it worth it? Are they going to see a long-term stench that lingers on the brand after this?


Neil Caskey:


Hard for me to say. I mean, I will say this, my wife was a pretty devoted Bud Light drinker up until that point, and we haven't purchased one bottle of that beer since February 3rd, so we're one household, I can't speak any others, but I would like to think that if AB could do it over again they would pick a different path, I hope.


Dusty Weis:


What's crazy to me about it is just how much the whole argument really came to resemble like a really dysfunctional political campaign. You've got these two huge personalities slugging it out in this very public forum. There were full page ads in The New York Times, there were interest groups getting involved, millions spent on TV advertisements, a heavy spin, and almost like an unwillingness to even find common ground on what the facts are. And I think for a lot of Americans there was also a sense of deja vu there, is that just the way that we communicate with each other these days, or do you think that political mudslinging is an effective communication strategy in 2019?


Neil Caskey:


Boy I sure hope not. As a father of two daughters, that makes me sick in my stomach. I will say this, what was interesting is how that AB elected, and how they interacted with us in the days that followed to kind of frame this in somewhat of a political context. I mean, our interactions with them were through their government affairs office. Completely, I mean, wonderful people, well intended people that had absolutely nothing to do with this ad, unfortunately they were just assigned to clean up on aisle seven. But I mean, that's kind of where it started, and interestingly at our Commodity Classic event, just a few weeks later, we even had a secretary of ag studying at Purdue kind of make a subtle, or actually it wasn't a very subtle, swipe at Bud Light for their attack on corn farmers. And as you can imagine, that got a really strong reaction from the audience as well.


Dusty Weis:


Now, it's real political.


Neil Caskey:


Yeah.


Dusty Weis:


And as they say, "Politics make strange bedfellows." So while Neil and the corn growers raged their war against the Bud Knight, a new combatant was rushing to their aid, and it's not anyone they had ever expected to be teaming up with. And that's coming up on Lead Balloon in a moment.


Bud Light, corn syrup, okay. Did you watch these live when it was on the Super Bowl or did you see them after the fact?


Kyle Brown:


I did, yes. I did.


Dusty Weis:


I'm sitting at my basement bar with my old buddy Kyle Brown. We're having a couple of brews as two guys will on a Thursday night, watching Bud Light ads on an iPad. I brought Kyle in because not only are his credentials as a marketer legit, he's worked for global brands like Harley Davidson and Kohl's Corp, but he's also an award winning home brewer. And like me, he takes his beer very seriously. Kyle and I are watching a Bud Light spot that aired on Super Bowl Sunday only like 15 minutes before the spot that touched off the Corn Syrup War. [crosstalk 00:21:55]. It's set in the same medieval world with the same characters-


Commercial:


Look, it's the Bud Knight!


Commercial:


Dilly Dilly.


Dusty Weis:


... and features the Bud Knight [crosstalk 00:22:04], he's the mysterious deep voiced hero hidden in blue medieval armor who I guess is supposed to be the herald of all things Bud Light, or something.


Commercial:


All right, let's tap this keg.


Dusty Weis:


I don't know, it's complicated. Anyway, in this Super Bowl Spot, the Bud Knight is riding in a joust against an unseen combatant. The mood is lighthearted and silly as all these commercials are until the Bud Knight gets knocked off his horse in a violent clash and thrown to the ground. Suddenly the music changes, the mood shifts, and into the frame strides the Mountain. A grotesque giant of a villain from the Game of Thrones series. It's a completely unexpected twist and hands down one of the best commercial crossovers of all time.


And just to drive the point home, the Mountain straddles the incapacitated Bud Knight and crushes his helmet like it's an aluminum can. If you're a Game of Thrones fan, you know that that's the Mountain's signature move. Pandemonium breaks out, a dragon swoops in breathing fire, and the Game of Thrones music plays. Surprise twist, it wasn't just a Bud Light commercial, but a promo for the final season of the iconic HBO show, fade to black. You know what I hate? You know what I absolutely hate about it?


Kyle Brown:


Other than the ending of Game of Thrones?


Dusty Weis:


Other than that, I hate that the Bud Light corn syrup campaigns came so close on the heels, literally like two commercial breaks, on the heels of that which I thought was a brilliant commercial. That was an incredible crossover, and it had me laughing, and it got me stoked for Game of Thrones, and I was so pumped up, and I even had good feelings towards Bud Light after that commercial, which is not typical of me. Then this corn syrup came so close on the heels of that and just erased any good vibes that I had about that.


Kyle Brown:


Yeah, I've actually always loved Bud commercials, more than probably any other beer. I've always thought they've been the best from the Budweiser frogs all the way up through, I think they've always done a fantastic job. So agreed, I was super excited about that. I thought it was really well done, they tapped into a very cultural relevant thing, then the corn syrup ad came out, and that really just dropped me in the completely other direction. Not that it changed my Bud consumption, which wasn't anything at the time, but just steered me probably in the complete other direction even more so against the brand itself.


Dusty Weis:


Kyle and I are both about 35, young professionals, and men, we're the target demographic for Bud Light's ads, and in my non-scientific poll anyway, the corn syrup campaign is not landing. But in February of 2019 when it first aired, the effectiveness of the campaign was about to become the least of Anheuser-Busch's concerns. They say that the biggest mistake that Hitler made in World War II, other than, you know, being Hitler, was attacking Russia on the Eastern front. This drove Russia from its neutral stance into an unlikely partnership with the Allies and that cooperation precipitated Germany's downfall. And many hours after Super Bowl LIV had ended, just past midnight, as videos of farmers pouring out their Bud Light were circulating on Twitter, Neil Caskey's phone pinged and another unlikely partnership was born, this one between the National Corn Growers Association and MillerCoors.


Neil Caskey:


Clearly we were both kind of blindsided by what we saw on TV and both looking for some help, and it was an email that received at about 12:00 Mountain Time, from someone associated with MillerCoors that understood that we were down the road and wanted to see if we could talk about doing something. So clearly when you're in a situation like that and looking for friends the answer was yes. Less than 48 hours later we had Pete Coors, the namesake, that was delivering a truck full of Coors, Coors Light, Miller Lite to our meeting. And we just had a heck of a party that night.


Dusty Weis:


Working together in the weeks that followed, the National Corn Growers and MillerCoors hit back strategically. There was a flurry of media appearances, they swapped talking points, and teamed up for a social media beat down on Bud Light's family of brands. And working together, they tried to set the record straight on the fact behind macro beer brewing.


Neil Caskey:


MillerCoors found a better way and that's instead of just trashing some of the products of the farm, like AB did, I mean, they lifted up the farmer, took the proverbial high road. I think you can talk to anyone at MillerCoors and they'll tell you that that was a strategy that worked for them. It was kind of cool, I mentioned to my Classic and [inaudible 00:27:15] those of us that were in the trenches kind of fighting that battle, but those of us that were in the middle of that kind of wrestled with at times whether it was a good or bad thing to have kind of entered into the fray the way we did, believe it or not.


And a lot of that I'll tell you was put to rest during our banquet at Commodity Classic, so this is when we kind of celebrate our members, we celebrate our state, we celebrate the people that are doing great things on behalf of corn farmers. So we elected to give the first ever Friend of the Corn Farmer award to the Coors family for boldly standing up with us when we needed a friend. And David Coors, Pete's son was there to accept that award, and he got not one, but two standing ovations from the 1,500 members that were in attendance for that banquet. That, for someone that was kind of wrestling with whether this was a good or bad thing, that was a clear indication to me that, yeah, we were probably on the right path.


Commercial:


Okay. Got it. Got it. Cut. Cut. Cut. [crosstalk 00:28:23]-


Dusty Weis:


About a month after the Super Bowl, Miller hit back with its own high production value ad. Imagining the actor who works inside the Bud Knight suit of armor going back to his tent and enjoying a Miller. It was a snappy comeback, and it must have been pulled together on a moment's notice given the time frame. Of course, Bud Light hit back doubling down on the strategy. But at the same time, the real fireworks moved out of the limelight and into the courtroom.


News Anchor: A brewing battle between MillerCoors and Bud Light. Now the company is now sewing Anheuser-Busch over the [crosstalk 00:28:56]-


Dusty Weis:


MillerCoors sued Bud Light for defamation and the court filing reads like something Lionel Hutz would write, and I quote, "Under the guise of transparency, Anheuser-Busch singled out MillerCoors use of a common fermentation aid for a deliberate and nefarious purpose." The suit goes on to note that AB uses that same corn syrup in a number of its brews including such college hangover staples as Busch, Natty Light, and Bud Ice, and that Bud even uses high fructose corn syrup, that's devil's juice itself, in some beverage called Natty Rush Mountain Madness. Can I just pause for a moment? What is going on in AB's marketing department? Good lord. Anyway, the lawsuit was a success, back by supporters including the corn growers, MillerCoors took home an early win in May and then notched a bigger victory in September.


A judge ruled that some of the TV spots, some billboards, and Bud Light's new anti corn syrup packaging were misleading and defamatory. The judge granted an injunction to stop Bud Light from using them anymore, though MillerCoors was not awarded any damages. Bud Light is appealing, of course, and the legal battle rages on. And as of this recording, Bud Light is still using the catch-phrase, "Brewed without corn syrup." In TV ads, though they no longer specifically call out their competitors. It led me to wonder why, after getting their noses swatted by a judge, would they continue with this strategy? What's got them so riled up, and aggressive, and some might even say desperate? And might it have something to do with the fact that the big guys, the macro brewers, had been losing market share year in and year out to the little guys, the micro brewers. I asked that question to Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association.


Paul Gatza:


You know beer, back in say the 1970s in this country was exclusively standard lager and then light lager started taking a share from that, but as the world got smaller and people traveled more, maybe they were in military families, they tasted all these wonderful beer styles from around the world. So I think that had a lot to do with the explosion in the whole craft brewing scene that we've seen over the last 35, 40 years.


Dusty Weis:


I make no bones about this, I am completely biased in my reporting on this story. I am an avid craft beer drinker everything Abita to Zombie Dust, and I am regularly grateful that we get to live in a golden age of craft beer production.


Paul Gatza:


Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:


That much said, can you... is there a way to quantify how much market share the macros have lost to craft brewers in the past couple decades?


Paul Gatza:


Yeah, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million barrels a year. A barrel being 31 gallons, or two 15 1/2 gallon kegs in equivalent size and that's pretty significant.


Dusty Weis:


Given then the rise in popularity of craft beer, do you think that a public feud between the macros helps or hurts them?


Paul Gatza:


I don't know. I haven't really studied any kind of surveys related to it. In one way, I guess it does put them in the news, in another way though it may not reflect the best food forward of beer as something social, interesting, and fun it presents another side of it.


Dusty Weis:


Whatever the reason for the unconventional attack ad tactics, the folks at Bud Light clearly felt the blow back. Neil Caskey at the National Corn Growers says, "Behind the scenes Anheuser-Busch's public affairs team was even apologetic."


Neil Caskey:


When we visited with the folks at AB in the weeks that passed, one of the things, and I believed them, is they said, "Hey, never once did we think about how corn farmers would react to this. Please don't think that we set out to offend you." And I believed them.


Dusty Weis:


I am fascinated to hear that the folks from AB actually said to you, "We never thought to consider what corn farmers might think of this." But at the same time they were doubling down and doubling down on this strategy, do you think that given the chance to go back and do it all over they would take a different tack, or did they still think that this was worth it in the end?


Neil Caskey:


I would like to think so, and I'm betting that the we met with would love to get a mulligan on that one, but they're different than the ones that are in the marketing department.


Dusty Weis:


From a broad communications industry perspective here, what's the moral to this story? Is there a moral or is communications really just a free-for-all in this day and age and anyone can fling whatever they want at the wall and just see what sticks?


Neil Caskey:


Yeah, I guess in the broad sense it's just be honest. I understand the need to differentiate, but when you do that in a very dishonest and misleading way, it's going to come back to bite you.


Dusty Weis:


What about for you, Neil, what's the moral of this story here as a young communicator just settling into your VP role with an organization like this? You came out on top here and you noted it was because you had the support of the executive team to go out and do what had to be done.


Neil Caskey:


Yeah. I think there are two factors that I can't underscore enough, Dusty, and one is just the uncommonly high tolerance for risk that my boss Jon Doggett and our board had, and the trust that they placed in us to represent them well and do it in a timely manner. And to have that kind of support and backing is incredible, I think that that's one part of it. I would say that the biggest part is just how lucky we were at every step along the way. We were lucky that our meeting took place in Denver.


Perhaps the luckiest thing that happened this entire journey was that our meeting planner selected Denver, Colorado as the place where we were going to gather 150 some odd corn farmers and staff together. That happened before we even knew who was going to be in the playoffs. So a lot of other lucky factors kind of kicked in along way, and so I would just say when you've got something like incredibly good luck and just uncommonly high tolerance for risk, you can do a lot of good. You can take something sticky like corn syrup and make something sweet like beer out of it.


Dusty Weis:


Okay, Kyle, we've reached the point in the episode where we have to adjudicate. The Bud Light corn syrup campaign, success or failure? We've been over why it's such a disingenuous campaign, we've covered the blow back from the farmers, the month's long legal battle, of which at the time of this recording Bud Light is still on the losing end I should add. But at the end of the day this campaign did get a lot of attention. Bud Light got a lot of airtime over this, so let's go to the score board. Was this a win for Bud Light or a loss? Your thoughts.


Kyle Brown:


Yeah, I think on the whole, they've done the research. They're very good at doing market research. They got to know something. When I was looking at their website, even on the ingredients, when I looked at it, it said, "Only ingredients that come from the Earth." Corn also comes from the Earth. I think they're hinting at that it's processed. Well, all beer is processed. It's kind of one of those where they're playing and dancing around some semantics of words and I think they're trying to just still capture and separate themselves in some sort of way, they got to have a reason to do it. But when you look through their claims of what their ingredients are, they're talking about rice, it's a cereal grain, corn is also a grain. It's gluten free, and so is corn. They're kind of calling out one half of the truth and letting this gap, my guess is they're trying to hope that people fill in that gap maybe with-


Dusty Weis:


With some negative.


Kyle Brown:


... with something negative against Miller, but it's really all the same thing. Biased as someone who has historically dranken Miller, I would say overall I think it's a loss because I think the people who it angered, or bothered, or even just the negative news and then people picked up on it, I think that last's longer. I also think this is going to be one of those kind of case studies kids learn about, so in five years kids sitting down in marketing 101 in college, they're going to learn about how not to go about a campaign, and the financial and legal blow backs, and the risk assessment, and one of those immaterial but impactful notches against Budweiser.


Dusty Weis:


I think you're right. I think that they're still committed to this campaign, they actually just came out with a new series of ads. They're shorter but they still, even though they lost the legal battle, they still say, "Budweiser, it's not brewed with corn syrup." Like that is a bad thing. And they've doubled down on this point to the point where I have to wonder what's going on in that boardroom that they want to continue to wage this war? Because at the end of the day, they've alienated one of their core constituencies. Let's face it, farmers driving on tractors probably drink a few Budweisers here and there, and they ticked those people off, got themselves slapped with a lawsuit along the way, and caught a fair amount of bad press. But more than anything I'm left scratching my head as to why Budweiser is pushing this notion of beer transparency, of, "We're trying to tell people what's in the beer, and it's corn syrup, and by the way corn syrup is a bad thing." Because I believe that Bud Light drinkers don't care about corn syrup, and I believe that people that have worries about corn syrup are not Bud Light drinkers.


Kyle Brown:


To your point, if you're health conscious just don't drink beer. That's probably not... if your question is, "How many Miller Lites can I drink to stay on my diet?" No. Just know what you're about to go do, you're going to go just drink a bunch of alcohol, which is carbs. And that's fine, just enjoy it.


Dusty Weis:


"If you're going to drink beer, just enjoy it." In a lot of ways Kyle's words that harken back to a simpler time in beer advertising. A time when you didn't tout your calorie count or scrutinize your opponent's ingredients label. A time when the ads just showed beautiful people having fun. They didn't borrow all the worst tactics from the world of political attack ads. Bud Light is the face of the world's largest beer empire, and a face with growing pressure in a crowded market. They didn't just come out swinging, they punched down. If there's a lesson that we've learned from the world of politics, it's that that's a bad look. Because whether it's the National Corn Growers, or the micro brewers, people love to root for an underdog when it's the big guy who picks the fight.


Thanks to Neil Caskey from the National Corn Growers Association for sharing his story. And Paul Gatza from the Brewers Association for sharing his insights. And thanks to Kyle Brown for sharing a beer and some stories with me at my basement bar. By the way, I guess I could point out that I invited Budweiser and Miller to be represented on this show and they both declined.


Kyle Brown:


Oh, they were busy?


Dusty Weis:


Yeah, weird.


Kyle Brown:


Aw.


Dusty Weis:


It's also worth noting here that this should not be mistaken for an impartial, unbiased show. I have opinions, and you're going to hear them. But in the name of transparency note this, when I set out to tell this story, the only ax I had to grind was that I did not like Bud Light or their ad campaign. I didn't know Neil until I reached out to him for comment. However, in the time since I've finalized production of this episode, the National Corn Growers Association has actually signed on as a client of mine at Podcamp Media and I am darn pleased to have them. I guess what I'm saying is, I was on their side anyway, but now they're also paying me to oversee a project for them so take my word with a grain of salt in all this, or a kernel of corn, whatever.


If you haven't yet, please subscribe to the Lead Balloon podcast feed. I'm still trying to figure how often I have time to make this show so subscribing is really the best way to stay on top of new episodes. Leave me a comment, share it with your friends, and if you've heard a story over drinks that you think would be good for the show, let me know about it. Email dusty@podcampmedia.com, I'll buy the first round. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website podcampmedia.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as well. Until the next time, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.