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Lead Balloon Ep. 38 - The Bud Light CoRntroversy, Revisited: Miller Lite Strikes Back

A classic episode re-mastered, with new insights from the CCO of Molson Coors. Now with 50% new footage!


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.

We've remastered this classic Lead Balloon episode to add the perspective of new key players, including:

  • MillerCoors (now called Molson Coors) Chief Communications Officer Adam Collins

  • NCGA CEO Jon Doggett

  • NCGA past president Kevin Ross

Additionally, we've refined the original storytelling with NCGA VP of communications Neil Caskey, Brewers Association spokesman Paul Gatza, and friend-of-the-show Kyle Brown.


Together, we'll break down the ultimate failures of "the Corn Syrup Wars," untwist the misleading claims made in Bud Light's ads, and detail the long-term ramifications for all the brands involved.


Subscribe to the Podcamp Media e-newsletter for regular updates on what we've got cooking.


Listen to the NCGA Podcast episode from which our new footage was sourced.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

You knew it was only a matter of time before we had to revisit this one.


Bud Light is known for two things: cheap beer, mass-produced, and eye-popping ad spends. In terms of beer distribution, they're number one in the 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? And so needless to say, none of us we're ready to do battle with a multinational big beer behemoth.


Dusty Weis:

We first told Neil's story in episode three of this podcast, and it's a good one. But since that initial three-episode launch of this show, a few things have happened. One, we've gotten significantly better at making podcasts. Two, we've learned a whole lot more about this story, and added the perspective of Miller Lite's Chief Communications Officer, Adam Collins, to the already impressive list of expert voices in this episode.


Adam Collins:

It wasn't just they attacked us. They attacked corn farmers, they attacked an American ingredient. I mean, who attacks American farmers?


Dusty Weis:

And three, a whole lot more of you have started listening to Lead Balloon since this episode came out, but you might not have made it all the way back into our archive to catch this one. So don't call it a rerun. This is a remastered version of one of my favorite Lead Balloon episodes, The Bud Light Corntroversy Revisited, or Part II: Miller Lite Strikes Back.


I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media, and this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about compelling tales from the world of PR, marketing and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who live them.


Thanks for tuning in. If you're new to the show, just think about the last PR or marketing happy hour that you went to. You know how we've got all those old war stories that we love to tell at those kind of things? Well, think about Lead Balloon as a portable, virtual version of that with communications leaders from global brands across all different industries. And if that's the sort of thing that you're into, make sure to follow Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app and check out Podcamp Media on social.


So I know we opened this episode with a whole lot of Star Wars allegory, and I just want to make it clear that yes, this story blows up on Bud Light just as spectacularly. In fact, in the trade pubs, this fiasco would come to be known, not at all sarcastically, as The Corn Syrup Wars of 2019. The ensuing battle between Bud Light and Miller Lite 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 Caskey and his plucky band of underdog heroes, the National Corn Growers Association. NCGA's VP of Communications, Neil has more than 25 years of comms experience spanning the agency world and Capitol Hill, but he had been in his VP 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 had planned on spending the evening having 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 you 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 fair.


Commercial Character 1:

My king, this Corn Syrup was just delivered.


Commercial Character 2:

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


Commercial Character 1:

Miller Lite uses corn syrup.


Commercial Character 2:

Let us take it 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 over-large barrel of corn syrup, first to a Miller Lite castle, and then to a Coors Light castle.


Commercial Character 3:

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


Dusty Weis:

The point in all of this is to highlight that corn syrup is listed as an ingredient in their rival's 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 by phone and some of my colleagues just started peppering me and others with questions about what are we going to do?


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.


Dusty Weis:

Now, fate has a funny way of manifesting in situations like this, and Bud Light didn't realize it yet, but they were about to feel the blowback from this Super Bowl ad and the campaign that it inspired. However, lest I be accused of conflict of interest as the storyteller here, here's my disclosure:


When this episode was originally produced, Neil Caskey was just a source I reached out to for comment. My opinion of Bud Light has always been low. I'm a Wisconsin boy, for Pete's sake. Milwaukee-based Miller is just a better beer. But in the months that followed the original release of this episode, the National Corn Growers Association actually became our client here at Podcamp Media. In fact, our longest tenured clients currently, and we love working with them. They've become leading storytellers in the agriculture world over the last three years.


What that means for you in this remastered version of the podcast is some new perspectives on what went on that night that we recorded for the National Corn Growers Association Podcast. They've given us permission to use it here, and we'll link to their podcast in the episode notes if you want to check out more.


But that's where Neil and I got to speak with Adam Collins, the Chief Communication Officer at Molson Coors, which used to be called Miller Coors and is the parent company of Miller Lite in Coors Light. We wanted to hear his recollections of that week.


Adam Collins:

The night of the Super Bowl, I was supposed to be at a neighbor's house watching the game and enjoying a couple beers. That's not how my night went. We sort of had an idea that something might be coming. During the week ahead of the Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch released their ads for every single brand with the sole exception of Bud Light. Stella, Budweiser, Bon & Viv, everything except for Bud Light, which I thought was notable. There was a reason, right?


And then Friday night before the Super Bowl, we saw a single piece of point of sale that had each of the three brands and their ingredients. It didn't say... It didn't have red arrows or anything like that. It didn't have any. Just, "Here are the brands and here's the ingredients."


So Saturday morning, I have two little boys, I was at indoor baseball. For anyone who's got kids, you try to find a way to burn off energy in the winter. And I sort of put this together. It's like, "Something's up here," right? So I got on the phone with our leadership and said, "We need to be ready. We need to figure out what we're going to do because I think that these two things are connected."


So we started of putting together a plan for how we might react in that moment, sort of scale up, scale down. But what would we do if they inferred or if they went really hard at us, what would that look like? How would we think about how we're going to respond?

We put out an image that tried to reframe the conversation back towards something that was positive as opposed to negative. I think there's a whole conversation around that kind of advertising, but something that was positive and we knew worked for us. So fewer calories, fewer carbs, more taste for Miller Lite, trying to reframe the conversation that we thought, if they're going to attack us, this is a good place to be.


But boy, I'll tell you, when that ad hit, and I was sitting on my bed in my bedroom while everyone else in my family was enjoying the Super Bowl and having fun at the party, sort of shaking my head because we were as shocked as anybody that Anheuser-Busch would take that path, not just attack us and attack our beers, but attack the ingredients and great farmers all across the country who grow them and make our great beers possible.


Dusty Weis:

And it just so happened that about 150 of those farmers were gathered in Denver for a National Corn Growers Association event. And Neil, who had only started his job with the Corn Growers just a few months earlier, found himself at a bar with them watching a comms crisis blossom in hi-def.


In that moment, Neil realized that NCGA needed to issue a statement before halftime.


Neil Caskey:

I think the biggest thing, aside from my boss looking at me and his son sitting right across the table and wondering what we're going to do, the biggest thing that was crossing my mind is what happens if we don't and we wake up tomorrow with a room full of 150 farmers, what are we going to say to them when they realize that they were blindsided by that ad, and realize that someone should have done something, and then realized that someone should have been us?


So the biggest thing that was probably driving me was just fear of not having a job come Monday.


Dusty Weis:

And always an effective motivator as well.


Neil Caskey:

For sure. For the most part, we wanted to express our disappointment. And if nothing else, we wanted Bud Light to know that, Hey, you crossed the line.


We are in the St. Louis agribusiness community together. I mean, we actually sit in meetings together at luncheons and just break bread and try to figure out how we can make the St. Louis agribusiness community better. And so that was surprising.


And then obviously, just the fact that they were kind of tearing down corn products, and by extension, corn farmers. We had to do something. And I think we didn't want to go over the top. We didn't think that was necessary, but we wanted to make sure that they knew we were disappointed with them. And then we threw a Hail Mary and figured we would say, "Hey, thanks Miller Lite. Thanks, Coors Light for standing with us."


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 farmers 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...


Kevin Ross:

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.


Kevin Ross:

They just attacked my product. They just attacked corn directly. And farmers were upset, farmers were pissed.


Dusty Weis:

Kevin Ross is an active member of the National Corn Grows Association from Iowa, and not long after his Bud Light protest went viral, would go on to serve as the organization's Member President.


Kevin Ross:

I was watching the Super Bowl at my seed dealer's shop, I hadn't even had a beer yet, watching the game and that commercial comes on. And then immediately, my phone started blowing up with text messages from farmers from all over the country.


And immediately, Neil calls me up and says, "Hey, I think we want to respond to this." And my reaction was, I said, "You want to respond to Bud Light? I mean, are you kidding me?" And he's like, "No, I'm serious. I think we need to make a statement here." And I said, "Well, what are you thinking?" And Neil said, "Well, maybe pour out some beer or something, I don't know." And so I knew my seed dealer had some beer in the fridge because he'd offered it to me, Bud Light, he only had four of them and we did four takes.


But I got home that night and crawling into bed and my wife says, "You know your video's got like 2,000 some views already." And I said, "Really?" I said, "Is that a lot?" Because honestly, I was like, "I don't know." I've never posted a lot of videos before. And she's like, "Well, that's pretty fast." And by the time I'd gone to the bathroom and brushed my teeth and crawled back and actually got in bed, she goes, "There's another thousand on there." And I was like, "Wow."


Dusty Weis:

Just in the time of took to brush your teeth.


Kevin Ross:

Yeah. But I didn't think much of it.


And then I woke up the next morning. I was catching a 6:00 AM flight, I think, to Denver. And by the time I landed in Denver though, I mean there was text messages coming in like crazy from buddies of mine all over that are saying, "I saw your video." And I knew as soon as I turned my phone on there that holy cow, we hit a home run or this thing went viral or something. I didn't really know what all the effect was going to be, but at that point, you knew it was pretty big.


Dusty Weis:

From the moment those tweets were sent, the social media blowback against Bud Light became more entertaining than the game itself. I mean, it was a pretty awful Super Bowl, but Jon Doggett, the Corn Grower's CEO and Neil's boss says it quickly became apparent that their protest was being heard right in the Anheuser-Busch suite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.


Jon Doggett:

It was maybe five, 10 minutes after we sent the first tweet, I got an email from a fairly senior person at AB wondering what was going on and could we talk? And at that point, I made the decision that it was probably not good for me to talk to him at that time, and we would wait until the next morning because I wasn't happy and I didn't see anything that was going to get done that night that was going to be beneficial to anybody.


And I found out that he was at the game with his boss's boss, and that had to have been a very, very uncomfortable situation in that suite because they're patting themselves on the back about this great ad, and now they're finding out that they've got thousands and thousands of corn farmers around the country who are just mad as they can be.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, a little negative social media buzz is inconvenient if you're Anheuser-Busch, but you're also still the world's largest brewing conglomerate.


However, even as the football game wound down, the night wasn't over. They say that the biggest mistake that Hitler made in World War II, other than being Hitler, was attacking Russia on the Eastern front. This, of course, drove Russia from its neutral stance into an unlikely partnership with the allies, and that cooperation precipitated Germany's downfall.


In a few hours after Super Bowl LII 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 Molson Coors, parent company of both Miller Lite and Coors Light.


Neil Caskey:

We were both kind of blindsided by what we saw on TV and both looking for some help. Clearly, when you're in a situation like that and looking for friends, the answer was yes.


Adam Collins:

Neil and I got connected at, I think it was about two o'clock in the morning, Sunday night into Monday. We got connected up through somebody inside my company who knew somebody inside the Corn Growers. We didn't sleep a lot that night.


Neil Caskey:

We didn't.


Adam Collins:

No.


Dusty Weis:

Or for the next couple of weeks, as I understand it.


Adam Collins:

No.


Dusty Weis:

Thrust into an unexpected partnership of necessity by a surprise high-profile attack, Adam Collins from Molson Coors, Neil Caskey from the National Corn Growers Association, and the respective teams worked until the early hours of the morning scheming up a PR and marketing clap back for the ages. The resulting fallout would jump from the trades right to the mainstream media and prompt new high-budget ad spends, and even wind up in court on multiple different occasions. And it would elevate Molson Coors into the saddle as a white knight riding into a high profile battle in defense of America's farmers against a sticky, misleading smear campaign.


How that all played out coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Bud Light, corn, syrup. Okay. Did you watch these live when it was on the Super Bowl?


Kyle Brown:

I did, yes.


Dusty Weis:

Or did you see them after the fact?


Kyle Brown:

I did.


Dusty Weis:

Okay.


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, and 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. It's set in the same medieval world with the same characters.


Commercial Character 1:

Look, it's the Bud Knight! Dilly dilly!


Dusty Weis:

And features the Bud Knight. 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.


The Bud Knight:

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 joist 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 throne 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 Throne 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 cam. 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 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 a Game of Thrones. And I was so pumped up and I even had good feelings toward Bud Light after that commercial, which is not typical of me.


And then this corn syrup thing 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, but 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 in our late thirties and we're men. We are the target demographic for Bud Light's ads, and in my non-scientific poll anyway, the corn syrup campaign did not land. I suspect a big part of that is because it's so shamelessly a smear campaign to the point where it almost feels political.


And it turns out, like so many political ads, the corn syrup campaign was completely disingenuous. But I mean, it sounds bad. Right?


So I wanted to get to the bottom of this and quick. Why would a brewing company put corn syrup in their beer? And so what if they do? And to help me out with those questions, I brought in a ringer.


Paul Gatza:

I'm Paul Gatza. I'm 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 brew 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. 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 barley, 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, I mean, it really wasn't understood as well, even though it was added as an ingredient throughout history.


Dusty Weis:

So 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 ads 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 for 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?


Paul Gatza:

Really, beer is the process of fermenting sugars and turning that into carbon dioxide and alcohol. You mash the grains, usually around a 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 lagar, 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:

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 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 mess of hops and water and grain, and then they poop it out as booze and CO2.


Paul Gatza:

Yeah, pretty much.


Dusty Weis:

And 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:

So 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 the courts have reinforced this as well, but it was misleading. And I don't think anyone that saw it, they may have laughed, but once you 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. And it would've been really easy.


Dusty, you've worked with nonprofits 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 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. And so we didn't really have a lot of time to focus group anything or see, 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 in many ways, we were just following their lead, to be honest.


Dusty Weis:

So while Neil and his corn farmer's team were calibrating their response on the night of the Super Bowl ad gathered together in Denver for an unrelated meeting the next day, Molson Coors's Chief Communications Officer Adam Collins and his team were coordinating their own clap back on behalf of their brands Miller Lite and Coors Light. And when the opportunity to partner with the Corn Growers arose, it was too good to pass up.


Adam Collins:

It wasn't just that they attacked us. They attacked corn farmers, they attacked an American ingredient. I mean, who attacks American farmers? It boggles the mind.


Dusty Weis:

It seems counterproductive to me.


Adam Collins:

Well, yes, that's a nice way to put it. I would say it was as bizarre as it was brutal. So we had a corporate tweet, much like the Corn Growers did, that we fired off really quickly. We didn't actually think they were going to go to the full extent as aggressive as they possibly could, but that's what they did. And we were trying to plan over the course of night, what are we going to do tomorrow? How do we think about this? And that's when got connected up with Neil.


And it turns out, as I found out from Neil, that the Corn Growers are in Denver, which as Jon alluded to earlier, is is a few minutes away from Golden, Colorado, which is the largest brewery in the United States where they brew Coors Light and Coors Banquet and a lot of other really wonderful beers.


So I went into the office. Neil had been there for three months. I'd been on my job for six weeks, very new. I don't really know what the boundaries are of what you should and shouldn't ask for. So I went into my office and asked my boss, I said, "Hey, the Corn Growers are in Denver. Do you think we could get Pete Coors to drive over to their meeting in a giant beer truck and hand-deliver a whole bunch of beer?"


Kevin Ross:

And that was awesome.


Jon Doggett:

Yeah, it was. It was.


Adam Collins:

The answer was, "Yes, we can definitely do that." And so we did. And it was the start of a really great partnership. There's that old adage that beer brings people together, and in this case, Neil and I were talking, I said, "Well, do you guys want to go visit the brewery in Golden? It's right up the road, so we can do that."


So we set them up with a brewery tour. I think y'all had some beers in the-


Neil Caskey:

Bill's Bar.


Adam Collins:

In Bill's, yeah.


Neil Caskey:

Got a cool t-shirt.


Adam Collins:

Yeah, Neil's got the T-shirt on there and it really blossomed pretty quickly from there.

If you look at what took place over the following weeks, every day we were on the phone trying to figure out what we would do next. I mean, because you can look back now and like I said, chuckle about it, but the reality is in that moment, it's an existential crisis for our brands, and I know the Corn Growers felt similarly for their organization and for their members.


Dusty Weis:

As Bud Light bungled further into its attack on the blue collar working roots of its base in corn country, launching multiple new primetime ads in the weeks that followed, Adam and Molson Coors capitalized on the mistake, throwing themselves into an all out charm offensive on behalf of Coors Light and Miller Lite.


Adam Collins:

We put up billboards, literally, billboards across the country that said, "Coors Light..." It had the famous Coors Light Rocky Mountains over a cornfield and said, "We're proud of our ingredients and the farmers who grow them."


We wanted to take this as a moment and figure out how do we sort of turn it on its head? I mean, beer is supposed to be fun, it's supposed to be positive. Like I said, it's supposed to be something that brings people together. And so how do we take the ugliness of that moment and find a way to try to turn something and do something good with it?


Neil Caskey:

We didn't know whether we should accelerate or decelerate this thing. And then you guys came up with this awesome idea. You launched it in an incredible way. If I'm being honest, as a fan of pop culture, as a marketer, that was pretty awesome, Adam.


Adam Collins:

Yeah, the Toast of Farmers was really a huge moment for us and one of my favorite moments, I mean, really in this whole thing. We actually had the Brothers Osborne announce that we were doing this during the Grammys, which was pretty cool.


Neil Caskey:

It's crazy.


Adam Collins:

It is crazy.


Neil Caskey:

Seven days after the Super Bowl, yeah.


Adam Collins:

Very cool. Yeah, seven days after the Super Bowl. And it was so amazing to me.

So Neil and I worked together and we had these big ideas, you know how these things go. I said, "Well, we're going to try to do this, set it up in as many communities as we possibly can and we'll get our local distributor and maybe we'll get someone from the NCGA. We'll try to have people from the company out in as many markets and many places as we can."


But going in into these things, you don't actually know how many people are going to show up, how many people will talk about it on social media, which was really the idea. The idea was there was a day, go out, buy a Coors Light, have a Coors Light, literally raise your glass to Farmers across America. That was the concept. And we pushed it and the response was absolutely amazing.


So Gavin, who's our CEO, and I went to Des Moines, Iowa where we met up with our distributor, who's Mike Brewington, appropriately named, and Craig, who heads up the Iowa Corn Growers. And we went to three bars, I think, out there. We had Coors Lights. There were farmers. There was literally farmers who drove three hours to come be there with us.


And it was fantastic. I mean, I remember we went into a place, the first place we went to, which was my personal favorite of the stop was the Hitchin Post, and it was jammed with people in there to literally raise a Coors Light to farmers. And then getting in the car to go home, and you look online, you look on Twitter, and there are pictures of people doing this in Nebraska and in Kansas and in Wisconsin and in Illinois, in Ohio, and in Indiana.


My favorite picture, there was about 60 people in a bar in Baltimore, Maryland, toasting farmers, in an urban center raising a glass of beer, toasting farmers. And to me, that said we're onto something here. People want to be brought together. People want something positive. They don't want ugliness, they don't want this fight.


Dusty Weis:

Working together in the weeks that followed, the National Corn Growers and Miller Coor's 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 facts behind macro beer brewing.


Neil Caskey:

Miller Coors found a better way and 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. And I think you could talk to anyone at Miller Coors and they'll tell you that that was a strategy that worked for them.


You know what's kind of cool? I mentioned Commodity Classic, and there were those of us that were in the trenches fighting that battle, but those of us that were in the middle of that wrestled with, at times, whether it was a good or bad thing. So it kind of entered into the fray of what 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. This is when we celebrate our members, we celebrate our state, we celebrate the people that are doing great things on behalf of corn farmers.


And 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, Keith'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. And 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 Character 1:

Okay, got it. Got it. Cut, cut, cut!


Dusty Weis:

About a month after the Super Bowl, Miller hit back with its own high production value-add, 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 timeframe. And 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 Miller Coors and Bud Light. Now the company is now suing Anheuser-Busch over-


Dusty Weis:

Miller Coors sued Bud Light for defamation, and I quote, "Under the guise of transparency, Anheuser-Busch singled out Miller Coor's 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 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 backed by supporters including the Corn Growers. Miller Coors took home an early win in May and then notched a bigger victory in September.


Adam Collins:

You'd hope that a company of that size wouldn't strike out to intentionally mislead consumers across America, which is what I believe and what we believe they did. We're proud that the courts have ruled in our favor, I think four times now, not that I'm counting, but they were forced to take down some of the billboards.


I mean, Anheuser-Busch had, Bud Light had billboards that married up with their campaign. They had "No corn syrup" printed on their packaging, so if you went to the store to buy it, was on their Bud Light packaging. So they were forced by the courts to change their packaging. They were forced by the courts to take down some of their billboards. They were forced by the courts to remove some of the TV ads that they had been running.


Dusty Weis:

Now, by way of update, Anheuser-Busch did go on to win an appeal in one of its court cases, but after being forced to comply with earlier rulings and continuing for some time to publicly tout its corn-free ingredients list, it's worth noting that they quietly backed away from the strategy throughout the year 2020.


And while they likely sunk millions of dollars in legal fees into waging their corn syrup war in court, those cynics among us could point to the PR blowback and say, "Hey, it got people talking about Bud Light, at least."


But Neil Caskey? He agrees with me that this one probably still smarts seeing the Anheuser-Busch C-suite.


Neil Caskey:

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. Is that just the way that we communicate with each other these days or do you think that political mud-slinging is an effective communication strategy in 2019?


Neil Caskey:

Boy, I sure hope not. As a father of two daughters, that makes me sick to my stomach.

I will say this. What was interesting is how AB interacted with us in the days that followed to frame this in somewhat of a political context. I mean, our interactions with them were through their government affairs office. 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. They said, "Hey, never once did we think about how corn farmers would react to this, and please don't think that we set out to offend you." And I believe that.


I'm betting that the folks that 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 the 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 mean, 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 every step along the way. We were lucky that our meeting took place in Denver. And so I would just say when you got something 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:

Jon Doggett, the Corn Growers CEO, actually just retired from the post this month and we're certainly going to miss working with him. But he says that Neil's willingness to step into the fray and his ability to think on his feet were early signs that they would enjoy working together.


Jon Doggett:

What could have been a really bad deal became a really pretty good deal. You know, the board had a discussion a couple weeks before the Super Bowl and one of our board members said, "You know, it'd just be great if we could have an ad at the Super Bowl." And of course, the finance committee chairman jumped up and said, "Well, we can't do that." But you know what? We had an ad at the Super Bowl and it wasn't our ad, but it became our ad.


Dusty Weis:

And Kevin Ross, NCGA member and past President says that from a PR perspective, Anheuser-Busch still has to contend with some ruffled feathers in farm country, even three years later.


Kevin Ross:

And farmers understand who stood up for them and certainly who stood against them. And I think that's not going anywhere anytime soon.


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 blowback from the farmers, the months-long legal battle, 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 scoreboard. 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 says, "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. 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 something negative.


Kyle Brown:

With something negative against Miller, but it's really all the same thing. Biased as someone who has historically drunken 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 lasts 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 blowbacks and risk assessment and one of those immaterial but impactful notches against Budweiser.


Dusty Weis:

I think you're right 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 or, "We're trying to tell people what's in their beer and its 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 like... 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 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. They didn't just come out swinging, they punched down. And if there's a lesson that we've learned from the world of politics, it's that that's a bad look because, and I keep coming back to this on the show, 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 his insights. I'll raise my glasses well to Adam Collins from Molson Coors, retiring Corn Grower CEO, Jon Doggett, And NCGA past President Kevin Ross. And thanks of course to Kyle Brown for sharing a beer and some stories with me at my basement bar.


I'm certainly obligated here to point out that I did invite Anheuser-Busch to share their perspective on the show, and they still have not gotten back to me.


Kyle Brown:

Oh, they were busy?


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, weird.


Kyle Brown:

Oh.


Dusty Weis:

On Lead Balloon, we are typically putting out new shows at least once a month. So if you haven't yet, please follow us in your favorite podcast app. We'll be back with new episodes in 2023, but if there's another episode from the archive that you want to hear updated and remastered, let me know which one that is in the comments.


And by the way, if you have never gone back and revisited a piece of work that you did years before, let me just say this: it is a humbling but rewarding process to see how far you've come in that time. This version is truly the episode that I wanted to make three years ago. I just didn't have the chops or the connections yet to do it.


So for those of you who have been with us since the start, thanks for sticking with me through that. For those of you just joining us, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed making it.


Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, PodCampMedia.com or find us on social where I share video snippets, behind the scenes footage, and cute pictures of my kids. You know, it's hilarious. When this episode dropped, I only had one of those. Nowadays, we've got three. It's been a busy three years.


Anyway, until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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