Did brand positioning contribute to the decline of Bud Light?

There’s a fascinating article in last week’s Ad Age about the decline of Bud Light and Bud.

In a nutshell, the article says that A-B brought in Cambridge Group to help shape the marketing and advertising for Bud Light.  As a result, they adopted an attribute driven model which is directly connected to declining sales for the brand.  The article then goes on to point the finger at Cambridge Group — which I believe is unfair as I will discuss in a moment.  But first some quotes from the article.

But Cambridge’s exhaustive findings led directly to dramatic shifts in how Budweiser and Bud Light were marketed. Each brand largely abandoned the emotional appeals that had helped them become the two largest beer brands in the U.S. for straightforward pitches about process and product attributes that coincided with worsening sales for both labels.

Emphasis added.

“Drinkability” had been in fine print on Budweiser’s label since the 1960s and often raised in creative briefings to communicate Bud Light’s appeal: You could drink a lot of it, and it was less watery than Coors Light and less bitter than Miller Lite. Cambridge’s process strongly endorsed it as the ideal rational benefit.

So what went wrong and why do I believe that the Cambridge Group is not the fundamental problem?

My analysis — both Cambridge and A-B were using an out-dated model for marketing.  They were using the traditional brand positioning model.  It is a “Think-Feel-Do” model that says you need to have a point of differentiation — drinkability in this case — and that is the one thing you stand for.

What Cambridge Group did, brand positioning, is still the dominant practice in marketing.  So they are not to be faulted for doing what everyone else does.

The problem is really that the methodology has lost effectiveness in today’s world.  It was built for a world of 30 second tv spots and 3 networks.

The irony is that all of this could have been easily avoided.   The ARF published a study called “On the Road to Advertising Effectiveness” in 2007 that specifically examined beer advertising.  The study and 3 year taskforce demonstrated that attribute-driven advertising is less effective than story-driven advertising.  They advocate a new model of engagement, recognizing the importance of co-creation, metaphor and narrative.

Full disclosure, I worked on the taskforce and contributed to the report’s implications.

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