Budweiser pulled out all the stops in its Super Bowl ad on Sunday, pitching its famous lager with a tear-jerker of a spot on the company’s disaster-relief work for last year’s hurricanes.
But neither Budweiser’s good deeds, nor its slick marketing, can camouflage what’s happened to the once-ubiquitous brand: Budweiser is in the midst of a long, steady decline, the victim of drinkers’ shifting preferences.
Two weeks before its Super Bowl ad aired, Bud slipped out of America’s top three beers, according to year-end sales figures. It has ceded ground not only to craft and light beers — such as Miller Light, which took over the No. 3 spot — but also to wine and spirits.
“Back in ’88, one of every four beers sold in the U.S. was a Budweiser,” said Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s Insights, which compiled the sales numbers. “But the market has changed, and consumers now want a more premium product.”
Bud’s prolonged fall from grace was not exactly unexpected. The 142-year-old beer, concocted in St. Louis by two German immigrants in the 1870s, has been losing market share since 1990.
In 2001, little brother Bud Light — also produced by the global mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev — passed it as America’s top-selling beer. In 2011, Bud was again surpassed by Coors Light, which is made by Molson Coors.
None of the three brands is growing, however: It's more a question of which are contracting the slowest. Between 2007 and 2017, even industry leader Bud Light saw sales fall by 9 million bottles.
As Steinman and others explain it, America's top beer brands have been buffeted by a series of inconvenient trends. As a category, beer is shrinking year over year, the unwitting victim of the cocktail craze and the recent boom in liquors and spirits. To make matters worse, a growing slice of that shrinking pie goes to craft brewers. And even among the big beer brands, many consumers would rather drink a light beer or a Mexican import than a heavy, old-timey lager.
“None of these trends are monocausal,” Steinman said. “But I think many consumers are looking for something new and different.”
To that point, AB InBev has been looking to diversify in the United States. In May, the company announced a four-year, $2 billion capital investment plan that will add capacity at the 12 craft breweries it has snapped up here in recent years and expand its production of nonalcoholic beverages.
AB InBev has also aggressively promoted several of its other core, mainstream beers. In addition to the Budweiser ad, the company purchased Super Bowl spots for Bud Light, Stella Artois, Busch and Michelob Ultra. That last beer, an American lager marketed as “low-cal/carb,” saw a 21 percent jump in sales last year — at the same time Budweiser fell by 6.8 percent.
For Bud, Steinman said, the writing may be on the wall.
“It's been in decline for 30 years now,” he said. “And that’s not an easy thing to fix.”