Note: A version of this article appeared on Research Industry Voices here.
You can’t think of American beer without thinking of Budweiser. While in many ways it’s just another massed produced, non-offensive, kinda bland domestic beer, it seems to have a stronghold on being the most American beer there is. Even with now being owned by AB InBev, the massive beer conglomerate based out of Belgium and Brazil, it still manages to feel quintessentially, iconically, American. It has authentic, hard working, blue collar roots that fit right at home at a frat party, 4th of July BBQ, next to a burger, and at the Super Bowl. Add in the majestic Clydesdales horses featured in many of its ads and it just seems as star spangled American as you can get.
Clearly, the marketers at Budweiser know this is their strength. Over the past few years, they’ve been playing up their American equity more and more. It wants to be (and arguably already is) the iconic American beer. Since 2011 they’ve released special edition cans that featured the American flag’s stars and stripes, and even the Statue of Liberty. But you probably didn’t hear about those. They didn’t stir up quite the buzz that we’re now seeing with their latest idea - to actually change the name on the can to “America” until the presidential election in November.
Despite the backlash, I like this idea for a few reasons. First of all, the overall brand strategy of becoming known as the iconic American beer seems to be a good choice. Of course, all of Bud’s domestic beer competition can also claim to be American (maybe even more so), but none have the depth of equity in it that Bud has. Budweiser is uniquely positioned to own that space, and clearly consumers like things that are “made in America” and that can proudly represent their patriotism. This is especially true for the Budweiser target - think middle America, pickup trucks, and country music. They are proudly American, and so is Budweiser.
Secondly, changing the name of such a well known brand is a bold move. It’s going to get a lot of free press and attention, which is already happening. It’s remarkable, and worth talking about, so people are. Sure, a lot of people hate it and are taking to social media to say so, but even that helps solidify Budweiser’s Americanness in people’s minds.
But the real reason I think this name change is genius is more subtle. Most brands of course are not in a position to change their name. They don’t have the recognition and familiarity to do it. But Bud clearly does. You can see a can of Bud from a mile away and know it’s a can of Bud. You don’t need to read the label. Any beer drinker has seen so many bottles and cans of Budweiser around - at parties, on shelves, in ads, even on the side of the road - that it’s easily recognizable...without actually reading the name. So I’d argue that many people who go to pick up one of the new “America” cans, won’t even notice the name has changed. It’ll just be there - a subliminal reminder that Bud is America’s beer.
In psychology this is referred to as implicit learning. It’s the idea that your mind is learning about things in your environment all the time, mostly without you realizing it. So even if you barely notice the name change on a can of bud in your hand, your brain may have noticed, and in doing so it strengthens the idea that Budweiser is the All-American Beer. Of course, if you also hear about this name change in the news or on social media, that brand association further gets strengthened in your mind, both consciously and unconsciously.
Coca-Cola tried something similar in 2011 when it changed the color of its iconic red cans to white in an effort to grow awareness for a save-the-polar bears campaign. It seemed like a nice idea that would also get a lot of free publicity for being a bold move, but it backfired. It strayed too far from the iconic look and feel of that brand. The red color is core to that brand, and cannot be messed with. Consumers even reported that the soda inside tasted different in the white can, and there is research to support that that would be true. Our perceptions, including taste, are strongly guided by our expectations, and the color of the can is a powerful cue for what we’re about to drink. It just doesn’t taste the same coming from a white can. Many were also confused and thought they were buying Diet Coke.
Budweiser’s can change is much more subtle. It keeps all of the important graphic elements that cue the brand - and all of the equity that comes along with it. Interestingly, it would seem like changing the name - such a core piece of any brand - would be a bigger change, but really, most consumers are so familiar with it that they’re not reading the actual name anymore, they’re just recognizing the whole thing. The “gestalt” as psychologists say - the brand’s whole impression - has stayed the same. In the Coke example, the gestalt, or overall image, became far too different.
So it’s really the combination that is powerful - the bold move Budweiser has taken in changing their name will get them a lot of publicity and buzz in a conscious way. But because the change of the look of the can is so subtle, they’re barely changing anything, so there is no risk of consumer confusion and the mental association of Budweiser as “America’s Beer” can also be built unconsciously. It’s a one-two punch that I think will serve the brand well in the long term, despite what the critics are saying.
Cheers to that, Budweiser.