The 2019 Beer Wars: No Winners in a Syrupy War of Attrition
"In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers."
It certainly rivals the shot heard 'round the world, the Super Bowl ad blitz that kicked off what many have taken to calling the Beer Wars of 2019.
And in the weeks since then, the escalating conflict between Bud Light and Miller Lite has generated no small amount of noise and consternation.
However, I would argue that, not only is it beneath these two brand titans to clash over an issue as trivial as corn syrup, but that they have embarked on a path to Mutually Assured Destruction at a time when either brand can scarcely afford it.
Let's parse this madness, step by sticky step.
I scarcely need to link to the video. You've seen the ads that launched this "controversy." Yet I keep coming back to the board room discussions that launched this doomed line-of-attack. Who at Bud Light thought this was a good idea?
Half a millennium ago (let that sink in), the German Purity Laws established barley, hops and water (and later, yeast) as the only acceptable ingredients in beer. The best brewers today adhere to this standard with almost religious fervor.
So yes, for a brewer in compliance with the Purity Laws, attacking a foe for using corn syrup as an additive could be construed as a legitimate line-of-attack.
It suffices to say, however, that Bud Light has no credibility in this area. They brew their beer with rice, an unheard-of abomination to our Bavarian standard-bearers. Which brings me to my next point.
Nobody Likes Mudslinging
Predictably, this conflict has escalated in recent weeks. Miller Lite hit back with a social media blitz, and then Bud Light's sister brands got in on the brawl.
For the record, a swill beer famous for being guzzled by underagers via plastic tubing and funnels brings little credibility to your cause, regardless of the fight.
If this entire back-and-forth has provoked in you an eerie sense of deja vu, you're not alone. We are, after all, still living in the aftermath of a 2016 presidential campaign that was uglier than any in history.
That Bud Light and Miller Lite seem to be emulating the worst aspects of modern American politics verges on lunacy, however.
After all, study after study has found that, given a choice between two mud-slinging political candidates, more voters will simply elect to abstain from voting.
It's worth noting that these same studies find that negative political campaigning DOES energize a party's base. However, the affect on non-partisan, moderate voters is decreased interest and decreased participation.
So, sure, it can work as a political strategy under certain circumstances.
But if your objective is to sell more beer? You're shooting yourself in the foot.
Which brings me to my final point.
It's Not the 1980's Any More
Bud Light and Miller Lite are fighting like this is a zero sum game--like every consumer they wrest away from their opponent becomes their new customer.
Apparently no one has informed these titans of industry that American beer drinkers have more "third party" options than ever before.
For ten years now, I've been telling people that we live in the craft beer renaissance. I hope it's a bubble that never bursts, because I love the variety that it's created and the scrappiness of its proprietors.
Each year, Bud Light and Miller Lite lose a little more market share to the craft beer industry. And if they think that this very public and very embarrassing spat over corn syrup is going to win them back consumers, they would do well to heed a lesson that, itself, hearkens back to the golden age of big beer dominance.
In today's beer wars, the only winning move is not to play.
And in case there was any doubt, forced at gunpoint to choose between the two, I'll take Miller Lite any day of the week. It is by far superior to Bud Light.