The corn syrup war created more questions than answers

At the beginning of Bud Light’s “Special Delivery” ad—the opening salvo in the corn syrup war—the Bud Light King is annoyed by the giant barrel of corn syrup delivered to his castle, declaring his beermakers never use it. Standing in front of the cask, an armor-clad woman says, “Miller Lite uses corn syrup.”

The Bud Light King and his entourage undertake a perilous journey to deliver the corn syrup to its rightful owner. When it turns out that the Miller Lite castle has already received its shipment of corn syrup, they head to the Coors Light castle. Bookending the commercial, a man on the Coors Light castle’s rampart declares “To be clear, we brew Coors Light with corn syrup.”

The commercial is smart, funny and very memorable. It first aired during Super Bowl LIII, to nearly 100 million viewers. But not everyone was happy with the ad, and it soon sparked the corn syrup war between Anheuser-Busch InBev, the maker of Bud Light, and MillerCoors, the producers of both Miller Lite and Coors Light.

Judging by media coverage, this has been one of the highest-profile brand wars in recent years.

The war erupts

Within days, MillerCoors began its counteroffensive, which included a full-page ad in the New York Times addressing the “beer drinkers of America.” The ad explained that using corn syrup is just a regular step in the brewing process and that it doesn’t end up in the final product.

The National Corn Growers Association also reacted to the aspersions the ad seemed to cast on a key product made with its members’ corn. MillerCoors quickly took up the organization’s grievance, opening another front in the corn syrup war, declaring its ingredients were from “America’s heartland.” Gavin Hattersley, the CEO of MillerCoors, also went on a #ToastToFarmers tour through Iowa to promote the company’s brands and show support for farmers.

By the time March Madness rolled around, MillerCoors had its own retaliatory ads, which further escalated the corn syrup war. In both of these ads, “Aftermath” and “Snow,” viewers find themselves on the set of Bud Light commercials. When the actors take a break, they have a choice of Bud Light or Miller Lite. Without hesitation, they choose the Miller Lite. The ads conclude with the tagline “In the real world, more taste is what matters.”

 

Not wanting MillerCoors to get the last word, Bud Light followed up with another ad. Part of the reason for the “Special Delivery” ad in the first place was because Anheuser-Busch InBev had launched a marketing initiative that included putting Bud Light’s ingredients on its labels. In this ad, titled “Imitation,” the Bud Light King reproaches MillerCoors for imitating Bud Light’s medieval-themed commercials, and he suggests that a more effective way for Miller Lite to imitate Bud Light would be by putting its ingredients on its label.

Meanwhile, MillerCoors approached the corn syrup war another way with its Coors Light brand. For Coors Light, MillerCoors introduced a sophisticated tap at selected bars around the U.S. during March Madness, and every time an Anheuser-Busch InBev ad aired, the Coors Light taps would dispense free beer.

The corn syrup war lands in court

The advertising back and forth wasn’t all that happened in March: MillerCoors initiated a lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch InBev for conducting what MillerCoors’ labeled a “false and misleading claim” campaign against its brands, which escalated the corn syrup war to a new level.

The false and misleading claim rested on two important points. First, corn syrup is a normal part of the brewing process. Brewers use it to feed the yeast. Once the yeast consumes the corn syrup, all that remains is alcohol and carbon dioxide. As a result, there is no corn syrup in the final product. Second, MillerCoors argued that Anheuser-Busch InBev was purposely conflating corn syrup with high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has been controversial because of its alleged link to the obesity epidemic and diseases such as diabetes. From MillerCoors’ perspective, the possibility of the public confusing corn syrup with high-fructose corn syrup was central to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s corn syrup war marketing strategy. But Anheuser-Busch InBev maintains that its ads merely promote transparency by advocating for sharing ingredients with consumers.

When the corn syrup war case finally came to trial in June, the verdict was mixed. In a preliminary injunction, U.S. Judge William Conley, ended up barring Bud Light from running any advertisements that fail to give context to its ad claims about MillerCoors’ use of corn syrup in brewing its beers. Specifically, Anheuser-Busch InBev couldn’t make statements about MillerCoors’ use of corn syrup without including language such as “brewed with,” “made with” or “uses.” They also had to drop the claim that Bud Light “contains 100% less corn syrup” from its ads.

However, because the “Special Delivery” ad uses the required phrases, Anheuser-Busch InBev could continue to run it. Conley also dismissed the argument that intent—as expressed in comments made by Anheuser-Busch InBev officials in trade publications—was evidence that Anheuser-Busch InBev had launched the corn syrup war to mislead the public.

Is there a victor?

Since the judge’s ruling, the corn syrup war has been relatively quiet with the exception of an announcement from Anheuser-Busch InBev in July that it’s planning to offer a new, limited-time-offer beer in the heart of the Corn Belt; the company will sell Harvest Reserve Deep Golden Lager in Omaha, Des Moines and surrounding regions. The new beer may well be an attempt to mend fences with farmers and beer drinkers in the Midwest who took offense at the company’s targeting of corn syrup.

This war between Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors may yet have additional twists and turns. But enough has already transpired to make it unclear if there is going to be a clear winner in this contest. At this point, the corn syrup war seems to raise more questions than answers.

The Wall Street Journal reported shortly after the “Special Delivery” commercial aired that the feud between the two beermakers had derailed a plan for a brand-neutral ad campaign promoting beer, which was to be sponsored by the biggest U.S. beer producers, including MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev. This development further complicates the question about the corn syrup war’s possible winner.

Also, beer sales peaked in 2008. Beer’s share of the alcoholic drinks market has been eroding due to less demand among younger consumers and the rise in popularity of wines and spirits.

Could this sustained decline in beer sales have been the trigger for the corn syrup war? While all the figures aren’t available, according to the MillerCoors’ lawsuit, Anheuser-Busch InBev had spent as much as $30 million on its campaign in the corn syrup war. Add to that Anheuser-Busch InBev’s unknown but likely large legal expenses, and the cost goes even higher. On the other hand, despite a decline in its market share, Bud Light’s sales in 2018 were about $5.3 billion, according to retail data provider IRI. Maybe Anheuser-Busch InBev sees its marketing and legal expenses as part of a long-term winning strategy? Or could a cooperative approach have been a better, more cost-effective solution? Could Bud Light have potentially improved sales for less money using a “rising tide lifts all the boats” approach rather than launching this war? There is no way to know the answer since the brand-neutral campaign never happened.

Another point to consider is that Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have produced a lot of very entertaining creative as a result of this brand war. And for some beer-drinking partisans who already have a favorite brand, the squabble might be a lot like watching their favorite sports team in a tight game with its archrival. Perhaps creative ads that feature a strong dose of one-upmanship can serve as a way to further strengthen existing brand loyalty? It’s a tantalizing idea, but whether any beer drinkers are likely to switch brands as a result of the corn syrup war seems uncertain.

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