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When you think of Budweiser, what comes to mind first? The Clydesdales? The potent smell of malt and hops wafting from the brewery in Soulard? Drinking five cans of Bud just before losing your virginity in the back of a Camaro with Eddie Money playing on the cassette deck? All of the above?
How ‘bout that iconic label? The Bud label, with its distinctive “certificate” look, is instantly recognizable the world over. And yet, in the 75-year history of Budweiser, the look of the can has changed a dozen times. If that seems improbable, it’s because these rebrandings have been amazingly conservative -- the last substantive change to the look of label was arguably in 1950.
That was the case (beer pun!) until last Wednesday, when AB InBev unveiled the newest Bud can (far right image), retooled for this modern world, with the trademark red bow tie-shape enlarged to dominate the packaging and the various slogans and promises made a bit less prominent, by contrast.
Why now? What for? And will old-timers and stubborn hillbillies who’ve pledged their troth to Bud become confused at the Quik Trip when they see that new label, with a lot more red and a lot less white than the old one?
Lori Shambro is the Director of Budweiser for the U.S. “There’s no doubt that any time we make any changes we’re trying to appeal to a new generation of beer drinkers and better connect to current drinkers, and to contemporize the brand,” she explained. “We tested this design with thousands of beer drinkers for 18 months, talking to our existing and potential customers. This is the design that surfaced, with a fresh new look that resonated with our consumers.”
Budweiser, despite slipping in popularity by some measures in recent years, is still hugely popular. It’s the world’s number two beer, right behind Bud Light, which is number one.
But the recession has curtailed discretionary spending amongst Bud’s young-dude demographic in particular, and competitors are nipping at Budweiser’s heels.
Even here in the Lou, where Anheuser-Busch has been “The King” for so long, there are rebels continually trying to storm the gates of the palace on Pestalozzi Street. The craft beer/microbrew revolution, spearheaded locally by Schlafly, has finally become more than trifling. When the famously bombastic leadership at San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. finally penetrated the St. Louis market last spring, they celebrated with a spate of parties at some of the metro area’s top beer pubs that felt a bit like the bash you threw when your parents left town -- or, in the case of AB, they’re still in town, but is it really still their town?
The Bud label change may seem like an unremarkable rearranging of the same graphic elements, but “It really is a big change,” says Shambro. “Our last update was in 2001. This is our twelfth can design since 1936. If you look at them next to each other, you’ll notice it’s really different from the last thirty years.”
She’s right. The Bud label changes have been so incrementally negligible that a splash of extra red color in a bow-tie shape does tend to shake up the moribund progression.
But Shambro is correct in another sense, too. It’s the first redesign of the Bud can since InBev’s hostile takeover of AB in ‘08. So even the little changes that happen during Part Two of the brewing giant’s existence become part of the denouement of the AB story. Of course it’s a big change. Everything’s a big change, even a relatively predictable tweaking of the Bud label, if it’s happening now. With craft brews turning the beer industry upside-down, and bereft feelings in beertown, everything is a big, big change.
I asked Shambro about the aforementioned hillbilly who bleeds Budweiser and may bridle at the change to the can. How would she mollify him?
“I would reinforce that it’s the same great beer he’s accustomed to,” she said, “and I would point out that the brand hallmarks are all still there on the label, they’ve just moved a little… because we want to make sure we do not alienate anyone.”