Weak beer, mighty brand
The positive associations of an otherwise flavourless swill are enough for patriots to cry, ‘we must fight to keep the Eagle flying’ when Budweiser is threatened
More than a decade ago, I walked into a bar in Brussels and found it festooned with star-spangled Budweiser banners. The “King of Beers” was here and Belgians could have a taste of America. For a premium price, naturally.
Bear in mind that beer cogniscenti agree on two things. One, Belgium produces many of the world’s finest beers. Two, Budweiser is not the “King of Beers.” It is not even among the better beers.
Budweiser is flavourless swill. And that day in Brussels, the citizens of a country that makes magnificent beer were paying a premium to drink it.
But globalization cuts both ways. The Belgian/Brazilian brewing giant InBev announced Wednesday that it is making a $46-billion U.S. attempt to buy Anheuser-Busch, the leading brewery in America and the maker of Budweiser.
American politicians rushed to denounce the threat to an American icon. A petition opposing the takeover has already garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
Budweiser “is a symbol to the world of the best in the brewer’s art, a pride that goes back centuries, born in Europe and refined in America. It is the Clydesdales, the Dalmatians and the fire wagon, all hailing the arrival of the King of Beers,” quoth John Hopkins in the Alton, Ill.,
Telegraph. “We commit violence to history if it can later be said that the legacy passed down to us was not conquered, was not stolen, but sold. We must fight to keep the Eagle flying.”
Is John Hopkins delusional? How about the tens of thousands of other Americans appalled at the thought of Bud passing into foreign hands? Have they been hypnotized by corporate marketers? Are they victims of Madison Avenue?
In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes a simple experiment in which he — an MIT behavioural economist —and some colleagues offered university students free coffee if they would answer some questions. Students were handed coffee and directed to the condiment table. On the table were the usual items — cream, milk, sugar — along with cloves, nutmeg, anise and paprika. They could use any condiments they wished.
After drinking their coffee, students were asked to fill in a survey that asked them how much they liked it, whether they wanted it served in the cafeteria, and the maximum price they would pay for it.
In the first version of the experiment, the cloves and the other unusual condiments were displayed in “beautiful glass-and-metal containers, set on a brushed metal tray with small silver spoons and nicely printed labels.” In a second version, the same condiments were displayed in misshapen, white Styrofoam cups with handwritten labels.
In both experiments, no one chose to use the strange condiments. “But the interesting thing was that when the odd condiments were offered in the fancy containers, the coffee drinkers were much more likely to tell us that they liked the coffee a lot, that they would be willing to pay well for it, and that they would recommend that we should start serving this new blend in the cafeteria,” Ariely writes. “When the coffee ambience looked upscale, in other words, the coffee tasted upscale as well.”
Expectation is potent. “When we believe beforehand that something will be good,” Ariely writes, “it generally will be good.”
Corporate marketers have known this forever. It’s the basis of brand images: When people have positive feel- ings or associations with a brand, they are likely to judge it to be a better product.
The more interesting question is how this process works. Is it simply that people perceive something objectively but then drag their judgment into line with their prior beliefs? Or do their prior beliefs actually shape their perceptions? It seems the latter is true. Researchers who conducted the famous “Pepsi Challenge” while scanning the brains of participants discovered something quite startling. “It turned out that the brain activation of the participants was different depending on whether the name of the drink (Coke or Pepsi) was revealed or not,” Ariely writes. When people drank the liquid without knowing its name, one sector of the brain lit up. When they were told that it was Coke or Pepsi and then drank it, that first sector lit up — along with a second sector linked to “working memory, associations, and higher-order cognitions and ideas.”
Budweiser may be weak beer but it is a mighty brand. And it is the brand, not the beer, that explains the passion of so many Americans for the “King of Beers” and why Belgians were prepared to pay a premium price for the taste of America.
Of course brands, like globalization, cut both ways. Some may be put off by Bud’s red-white-and-blue image. Or by its class associations. Or by the sense that it is a mass-market product churned out a giant corporation with an unlimited advertising budget.
So how much of the scorn heaped on Budweiser by beer cogniscenti is inspired not by the beer but the brand? Would Budweiser be loathed to such an extent if it were served up in a Belgian beer bottle?
If Anheuser-Busch is bought, we may get the answer.