New ad campaign polishes beer’s image

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SALMON and Dortmunder lager, Parmiggiano Reggiano and pale ale, lobster and porter – fine dining and beer, how positively exquisite!

And it’s all brought to you by the same folks who gave us farting horses and Spuds MacKenzie, party animal.

That’s right, Anheuser-Busch – the company whose fortune was built on mass, occasionally crass consumption of its inexpensive, easy-to-drink lager – is taking its cues from snooty, high-priced wine.

It’s part of the company’s well-tuned “Here’s to Beer” advertising and promotional campaign that seeks nothing less than to enhance the image of beer and reposition it as America’s leading “social” beverage.

You’ve already seen those gauzy Budweiser ads featuring the likes of movie director Spike Lee rhapsodizing on who he’d like to share a beer with.

Those ads, along with a national print campaign, point you to an A-B Web site that talks up the role of beer in American history, the use of proper glassware and, yes, those fine beer-and-food combos above.

Here we learn “… the trick to great beer and food combinations is letting your palate guide you.” Oysters are paired with dry stout, cod with pilsner, beef stew with Scottish ale. There’s even a recipe for Bock Truffle Tart from celebrity chef Todd English.

According to Tom Shipley, A-B’s director of global industry development, the campaign was inspired by some bad news back in 2005 over flattened beer sales. One trade magazine declared, “Beer is dead,” while a Gallup poll reported more consumers were choosing wine over beer.

“We saw an opportunity to get in front and set things straight,” Shipley said. Like, ignore all that talk about California red: Beer still accounts for about 60 percent of all booze sales.

The way A-B sees it, wine has co-opted some of the turf that once was exclusively beer’s, from shelf space at the grocery store to the dining table at home. Now it’s time to grab it back, using the same tricks wine exploited to enhance its own image.

A separate Web site for distributors and retailers, with downloadable advertisements, point-of-sale brochures and even letter-to-the-editor templates, stresses the social aspects of beer.

Much of it is the same propaganda American brewers have spouted since the 19th century: the proposition that beer is a “less concentrated” and “more appropriate” form of alcohol than wine or spirits. Adolphus Busch was making the same argument when Carrie Nation was busting up saloons in the name of temperance.

The food-and-beer tack, though, is a new one, and it might just work.

An A-B exec notes in a message to distributors that, as Boomers age, “they go out to eat, and wine owns that position, that area of food… There’s no reason in the world that beer shouldn’t try to get into that space as well.”

So, Shipley said, the company is encouraging its distributors to suggest beer-and-food pairings to restaurants, both high-end bistros and mainstream ones like Applebee’s. “We have to remind consumers that it’s not just wine that pairs with food, but there are so many varieties of beer that pair well, too,” he said.

“Twenty years ago, when the average consumer thought of wine, they thought of either red wine or white wine,” Shipley said. “Over the years, the wine industry did a good job of making other terms familiar – chardonnay, Chablis and so on… Getting people to understand there are a lot of different varieties of wine made people more aware of wine.

“If you make people understand that there’s more variety of beer available, that tends to ratchet up their overall image of beer.”

That’s ironic (and maybe even hypocritical) coming from a company that has spent billions squashing all those other varieties while promoting its bland, industrial, light lager as the so-called “King of Beers.” True, the St. Louis brewery now produces a handful of all-malt and flavored styles. But skeptics in the craft beer sector charge that the behemoth is only trying to glom onto a fast-growing trend that was ignited as a backlash to the lowest-common-denominator marketing engineered by A-B itself.

Indeed, 10 years ago microbrewers were already talking about the joys of, say, beef carbonade and Belgian brown ale, even as Budweiser was still asking, “Whazzzup?”

“Here’s to Beer” finally answers that question, with a refined, image-changing nod to beer lovers who increasingly understand that beer goes so well with food because beer is food.

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