April 15th, 2008

A-B Finds New Venue to Hawk Michelob

By Jeremiah McWilliams
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Before dawn on a bitingly cold February morning, a television crew with tall tripod lights and shoulder-mounted cameras set up shop in the lobby of Anheuser-Busch Cos. headquarters. Doug Muhleman, the company’s top brewer, rehearsed his lines and tried a few dry runs — take one, take two, take three — before ditching his note cards.

Long dogged by a reputation as also-rans compared to Bud Light and Budweiser, Michelob beers were about to get a starring role, and not just in 30-second commercials.

On cue at 5:05 a.m., Robert ­Irvine, star of the Food Network show “Dinner: Impossible,” pushed through the door.

Muhleman shook hands and issued the show’s raison d’etre: a “challenge” from Anheuser-Busch. Irvine and his team were to cook lunch for about 100 selected employees and their specially trained palates. The twist: Lunch had to incorporate Michelob brews as either ingredients or paired beverages.

T-minus, seven hours.

For Anheuser-Busch, participating in a reality-style cooking show — part advertisement, part entertainment — was one piece of a strategy to carve out a more prominent perch for the Michelob family, revitalizing it by touting the brews’ heritage, craftsmanship and variety.

Overall, the Michelob family has struggled, despite the growth of Michelob Ultra aimed at fitness aficionados. The family’s overall dollar sales grew only half a percentage point and case volume was flat last year, according to supermarket data from Information Resources Inc. of Chicago. Those results came although the brand family got $41.9 million in measured advertising support, up 7.3 percent from 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.To get Michelob moving again, A-B plans new marketing material and more spending this year, including commercials highlighting ingredients and brewery staff, similar to Samuel Adams spots. It has formed Michelob Brewing Co., a home for Michelob’s craft-style beers designed to give A-B brewers more official leeway to experiment with new varieties.

The idea is to wrap Michelob beers like Porter, AmberBock and Pale Ale in the aura of fast-growing niche styles.

A NEW APPROACH

A few months ago, A-B marketers got the idea of leveraging Michelob’s position as a regular Food Network advertiser into a new, more prominent role: as a featured ingredient on a reality-style show. Call it heavy-duty product placement.

Anheuser-Busch has to “look for different ways to connect with consumers,” said Keith Levy, vice president of brand management at Anheuser-Busch’s U.S. beer subsidiary. “How do you find a fun and unique way to bring a story to life beyond a 30-second spot?”

Traditional media such as TV and radio have become less effective at reaching young adults — a big chunk of A-B’s target market. Many media-saturated people tune out commercials, multitask during ads or inoculate themselves with heaping doses of skepticism.

“Advertisers have realized that 30-second commercials are only part of the game,” said Ambar Rao, professor of marketing at Washington University. They don’t “capture people’s attention most of the time.”

In response, marketers are increasingly turning to product placement. The paid variety of product placement, a staple of James Bond movies, was a $2.9 billion industry last year and is expected to grow to $3.5 billion this year, according to research firm PQ Media.

Product placement can be an effective way to attract young adults beginning to form their brand loyalties, said Ken Bernhardt, professor of marketing at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business.

One reason: “These things don’t come across as blatant claims of someone trying to sell you something,” said Ratti ­Ratneshwar, chair of the marketing department at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Trulaske College of Business. “It’s much more subtle.”

In drafting plans for “Dinner: Impossible,” A-B’s idea was to display the “huge variety” in Michelob’s lineup and showcase the intensity of flavors for the benefit of folks in the “culinary culture” receptive to full-flavored beers, said A-B brew­master Nathaniel Davis.

The show featuring Michelob brews would be what A-B calls a “value-add” — basically, free exposure for a major advertiser. A-B would get input into editing and production.

But the arrangement comes with its own risks. Just days after the filming — where the Post-Dispatch was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access — “Dinner: Impossible” suffered a fiasco. It came to light that ­Irvine had exaggerated parts of his résumé and had not, in fact, cooked for a U.S. president and the British royal family. The Food Network said it would not renew his contract.

Anheuser-Busch said it was disappointed with the revelations but satisfied that the situation had been resolved.

Despite the controversy, the St. Louis brewer still believes the show is a good venue to show Michelob. The Michelob episode will air on April 23.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION

At 6:20 a.m. on filming day, ­Irvine burst into a kitchen on the eighth floor of A-B’s headquarters building. “All right,” Irvine said in his thick English accent. “It’s my time now!”

He explored the walk-in fridge, checking out peppers and bread, and popped out to craft the day’s game plan on a whiteboard.

“What vegetables do we have in there?” he yelled to an assistant chef. “Don’t want spinach — gimme something else! Apples are good.”

The plan took shape: The lunch would include a broccoli and cheddar soup with Michelob Bavarian Style Wheat, seared salmon garnished with hops and a sauce doused with Marzen beer and a raspberry “trifle” dessert spiced with Porter.

Davis, the brewmaster, was quickly put to work separating hundreds of eggs for a custard. Irvine started carving the fat off a piece of beef the size of a bed pillow.

Wired with an ear bud to get a producer’s suggestions, Irvine popped caps on Porter bottles with the dull edge of a butcher knife.

“That’s the fun part of the whole day — I didn’t know when I was coming here what I was going to do,” he said. He had only been at the brewery for a few hours, but he was starting to sound like an A-B marketer. “The whole name of the game is adaptation.”

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