Big Beer has lost the Craft War. What’s Next?

By Bart Taylor | Mar 08, 2015

No doubt the executives at Anheuser-Busch Inc. who greenlighted the now-infamous craft-beer-bashing ad hope they've heard the last of it. But if history is a guide, the ad was only the start of what may become a very public retreat for Big Beer's most influential brands.

Successful companies reach a point where high-profile, public attacks seem a good approach to redress competitive shifts the market appears to be making. Many choose, wisely, to abandon the idea. Others can't help themselves, and in many cases we can look back on the decision as beginning of the end an era of success, a brand or corporation.

I witnessed it firsthand in the technology space. Executives at both IBM and Sun Microsystems decided to deal with Microsoft's upstart business operating system, Windows NT, by publicly trashing it. Sun's CEO at the time, Scott McNealy, was especially vitriolic, taking shots at NT but also disparaging Bill Gates personally. It became an ugly, recurring spectacle. McNealy's protests only emboldened a generation of IT professionals to embrace Microsoft. Sun didn't see it yet, but the game was over.

Amazingly, the lessons were lost on Microsoft executives. A few years later Steve Ballmer could be heard throwing water on a list of Apple innovations from Macintosh to iPod and -- most famously -- the iPhone. Ballmer raged at Jobs and Apple publicly. We look back and realize the war had already been lost.

ABI's antics are similar, and its public cheap shots directed at the upstart craft sector seem a sure sign that Big Beer has already lost the Craft War.

The question for beer's big brands is how to regain momentum in the market, incorporating lessons from the craft boom. ABI makes a lot of beer in Colorado, but -- given the historic connection to the state -- it's perhaps more interesting to speculate about the future of Coors. (Plus, I'm a Banquet guy.)

Coors certainly values the attributes of the craft sector. Its namesake, Adolph, was the first crafter in Colorado. But the company seems miles away from any meaningful connection to the crafting ethos. Foremost, Coors values profits. It's lost a meaningful connection to place. And the company's public pronouncements can leave an aloof, big-company impression that's actually at odds with the affable, approachable nature of Peter Coors, who's often quoted.

Coors said the following last month in announcing the retirement of the company's CEO, Tom Long, while also acknowledging falling sales for its flagship Coors and Miller brands. "Under Tom's leadership, the company consistently delivered profit growth, pricing growth and cost savings, while dramatically improving capabilities in key areas like innovation, chain sales, revenue management, learning and development, and beer knowledge and appreciation." Whatever that is.

To be fair, Coors would probably argue that, while the craft sector is nice, it's entirely separate from the brand strategies driving Miller, Molson, and Coors products.

But should it be? Selling 25 million barrels of Coors Light every year (and falling) makes it easy to say no, that in the foreseeable future the modern Coors mission remains with mass-produced beer.

Consider the possibilities of a complementary plan that seeks to rediscover the brand's historic connection to people and place, as a way of recapturing its craft heritage. Establish an annual award that funds a craft startup. Reconnect Coors executives with the local beer scene. Generally, reconnect with local industry. Make the Coors brand relevant again as a force for change that supports local makers.

The great people at Coors will remind me all this being done in some fashion. The market disagrees.

While Anheuser-Busch is busy with its own messaging, consider an alternative. A resurgent Coors would be a win for everyone.