Light Beer Sales are Down – I’m Shocked!


Light beer - your days are numbered.

The big news out recently is that beer sales are down about 4% and sales of  so-called “premium” light beers are down as well, some by as much as 7%. To paraphrase the famous Captain Renault scene from Casablanca: Captain Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that light beer sales are falling. Waiter: “Here’s your Sam Adams Captain.” 

This isn’t news to actual drinkers of beer, many of whom are unwilling viewers of beer ads by the big three light beers – Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light.  These three brands, and the brain trusts that create their marketing, are behind such recent inane marketing campaigns like: “drinkability”, “Man-Laws” or the silly focus on the packaging  with campaigns about temperature sensitive labels or gimmicky bottle designs.

 All of these campaigns ignore the most important aspect of the product, beer is meant to be consumed as a beverage – and eventually all the marketing in the world can’t overcome the basic fact that these three light beers are swill with no appreciable difference between them in taste.

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Compare those declining sales numbers for light beer with these key stats about craft beer from the Brewers Association website:

  • Overall, US beer sales were down 2.2% in 2009 and imported beer sales were down even further, by 9.8%
  • But craft brewing sales saw continued year-over-year growth – growing 7.2% by volume and 10.3% by dollars in 2009 compared to growth in 2008 of 5.9% by volume and 10.1% by dollars. 

To recap – watery tasteless beer sales are down while rich, flavorful beer sales are up. And yet the solution to this problem for many prognosticators is a new marketing campaign – I would argue that the campaigns, even the best ones, have always been essentially lipstick on a pig and pretty poor lipstick at that. The massive beer conglomerates, INBev (Budlight) and SABMiller (Miller Lite), primary advantages lie in scale, logistics and marketing budgets. Taste however is their achilles’ heel.  Other beverage conglomerates like Diageo also have the same advantages, but Diageo has brands like Guinness that actually have taste and body, plus they are diversified into wines and liquors and so aren’t as vulnerable to the taste issue.

Witness the unimaginitive efforts at this year’s Superbowl – advertising’s biggest day of the year.  A lame auto-tune parody, Miller’s waste a few million dollars, and yet another example of beating a dead horse with Bud’s Clydesdale commercial. What all of their millions of dollars can’t do is keep customer’s from finally figuring out that light beer tastes bad and craft beer tastes good. 

While the big three market inanity and humor, Sam Adams' marketing efforts focus on beer and helping it taste even better.

Craft brewers like Sam Adams – the original and now biggest craft brewer, Dogfish Head – makers of off-centered stuff for off-centered people (they truly are darn tasty beers), and many, many other small local micro-brewers are increasing their visibility utilizing a variety of marketing tactics – some using old media like TV (Sam Adams is the best known), but also using new media venues like Twitter and niche beer-focused blogs. But given their meager marketing budgets the reason their sales keep increasing year-over-year is simple – customers buy those brands of beer because they taste better, not because of slick TV commercials. Domestically craft brewing is where all the growth in beer sales is happening – both in volume and revenue – even if the overall share is small. Craft brewers have only 4.3% of the sales by volume and but 6.9% of the overall $101 Billion sales market by dollars. 

What’s this have to do with technology? Well not that much but the growth of craft beer creation and consumption does mirror the growth in personal computers and the internet. In fact the sharing of information that the internet has enabled means that it is easier than ever for consumers to find interesting brands of beer to purchase, it’s easier than ever for retailers and distributors to find new breweries to represent all of which means that it is easier than ever for interesting beers to find willing buyers.

Before the internet there was essentially only one book available, Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Home Brewing, to help a person who wanted to drink something other mass-market beer and that required the person brew their own beer at home and took 3-6 weeks to make a decent ale. Now if someone wants interesting beer there are too many resources to list – in fact a few minutes with your internet search engine of choice (I’d recommend Bing), will return millions of results in less than a second – and you can buy a craft beer in pretty much every bar or store that sells beer. There are Brew Pubs and restaurants like one of my personal favorites Flat Branch Pub and Brewing, whose existence depends on brewing and serving craft beer. If you find yourself in Columbia, Missouri – do yourself, and your taste buds, a favor and stop by Flat Branch – the food is good, the service is great but the beers are the best reason of all to visit (get the Chili beer if they have it).  Of course web sites and publications like the Beer Advocate function as clearinghouses of information and gathering places for those converted to craft beer’s allure.

I have no doubt that the big three will continue selling vast quantities of their product to people who buy it out of habit, but the proliferation of beer styles and the resurrection of classic niche styles of beer – Biere de Champagne, American Wild Ales, Roggenbier, and many others – means that increasingly people will choose a beer style and brand to suit the moment and not treat a single brand of beer as a generic libation for all occasions.

So where do you fall on the Light Beer vs. Craft Beer debate? What beers to do you drink on a regular basis? Do you have a favorite unsung beer? Comments and questions are always welcome. -t

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  1. #1 by Chase on 2010/06/05 - 23:52

    I personally love the new Guinness “fortune favors the bold” ads. They’re very clever. More ads should be like them.
    You should check them out.

    • #2 by Thom on 2010/06/06 - 08:52

      Chase, thanks for checking out my blog. I’ve seen the “fortune favors the bold” ads part of a campaign that at it’s core is an effort to capture a new demographic and they are mildly amusing, but then maybe I’m probably not in the target demographic. Personally I think the incessant advertising clutter is making beer ads less effective in general – especially ones that rely on humor. Witness Bud Light’s sales decline – something that had never happened in the brand’s history.
      As to Guiness, it is in a different place today than it was 20 years ago due to the strength of the Diageo distribution network – in fact in some places it’s the only non AB product on tap giving people a viable option compared to Bud or Michelob. Beyond that one of the areas I didn’t touch upon, but is there nonetheless, is the increase in locavores eating and drinking local foods. This is driving many people to try local microbrews – this has the added benefit of keeping money in the local economy loop but also further broadening support for interesting beers.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. #3 by Brian Trivitt on 2010/10/11 - 23:40

    Although I normally drink craft beer because I enjoy the diverse flavors, I do occasionally find myself wanting a simple, inexpensive beer. As I believe that all beer styles have their right time and place, I have never liked light beer, as not only does it taste bad, but it’s really nothing more than a trick to get people to drink more beer. That said, I think one of the only good ads going right now from the big brads is Miller’s use of the beer delivery guy for High Life. Unlike InBev, who tries to convince you that Budweiser is something special, Miller is very honest in stating on their website that High Life is a American Lager, nothing more, but “certainly” nothing less. The beer delivery guy’s line of an “honest beer at a tasty price,” is also very straight forward, without sounding too goofy, and most importantly, focuses on the beer, rather than trying to distract people from the actual product itself (Light beer campaigns have no choice but to do this, as people who only drink light beer really don’t even like the taste of beer to begin with.)

  3. #4 by ohiodale on 2013/12/11 - 10:01

    I know many younger (millenium) aged people. Many of them brew their own beer and drink beer for the taste. I honestly think it has nothing to do with beer advertising as much as it does with trends. All my young friends think its crazy that I drank Bud Light because it tastes so watered down. They would never think fo drinking a light beer and no amount of advertising will change their minds. Altough, light beers will always sell well because people who drink large volumes of beer drink less filling beers. The decline in sales will level off and eventually sales will start to increase again for the light beers. Personally, I do not think any beer tastes that good.

    • #5 by Thom on 2014/03/06 - 12:56

      For people who are definite beer drinkers and drink beer for the flavor what’s interesting to me is how tone-deaf the ads are by the major multi-nationals. It’s the exact same themes – the notable exception by a large brewer is Sam Adams. They are too big to be craft but far to small to be a mentioned alongside Bud and Coors. The newer trend that is interesting is the purchase by the majors of the regional craft brewers – Goose Island is one example. Where the regional leader is bought and is still “imaged” as a craft brewer but now has access to national distribution. We’ll see what happens – the hot new category, for now, is brown liquor in all forms – rum and whiskies.

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