Why Aren’t Other Big Beer Corps Vilified Like AB-InBev?
When I worked for an AB-InBev wholesaler, it often felt like I couldn’t catch a break. Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of demands coming down from Budweiser and an educated market resistant to any brand that Budweiser touched was a battle that my colleagues and I fought daily. Between begging accounts to pick up kegs and cases of whatever ABI had demanded we sell and balancing the encroachment of craft brands onto our taps, it consistently raised the question for me: Why do people hate Budweiser so much?
After all, Molson-Coors produces ostensibly similar products, and uses the same playbook as ABI. Constellation Brands has its tentacles in every facet of the alcohol industry, and hungrily snatches up wine producers. Even Boston Beer is consistently accused of the same pay-for-play tactics that craft drinkers rail against from macros. Microbreweries continually produce products more misogynistic than even the most egregious Bud Light commercial. In short- nothing Budweiser does is something unique to them.
ABI is, however, the biggest and de-facto face of macro beer. In 2016 ABI brought in over 45.5 Billion dollars in revenue, and generated 4.85 Billion in profit. Their biggest rival, Molson-Coors, reported 3.8 Billion dollars in revenue the year before. Budweiser occupies roughly 45% of the market, whereas Molson-Coors takes up 28%. Craft Beer takes up a bit over 12% of the market in comparison, and accounts for 20% of the dollar share. In short- ABI dominates the market both domestically and internationally in a way that makes them the first brand most consumers think about when the think of a beer.
In the same way that McDonalds has become synonymous with fast food, ABI is equated with macro beer. While others in their industry do the exact same thing, InBev is first in the firing line. Burger King and Yum! Brands serve identical (or worse) food and engage in the same practices, but critics of fast food will consistently criticize McDonalds first.
The InBev-McDonalds comparison is more apt when you consider their market strategy. ABI, and McDonalds, are rarely the first to market with a product, instead introducing products to compete with already established rivals. Southern Style Chicken to combat Chick-Fil-A, artisanal bistro sandwiches to go after Panera, and sugary coffee drinks to target Starbucks mirror Budweiser’s development of brands to compete with other products that were taking their market share. While Bud Light is the omnipresent domestic beer, it was by no means the first. Miller Lite was introduced nigh a decade before Bud, and Budweiser was so convinced that light beer was a fad that would go away they hesitated to brew a light version of Budweiser, instead creating the Natural Light brand to compete in that space. Budweiser has continued this trend for decades, introducing ultra-light beers, wheat beers, ciders, and recently even alcoholic sodas in their continual quest for market share.
It’s also worth noting that since 2009 ABI has bought out some of its biggest international rivals. SAB Miller and Grupo Modelo are both controlled by ABI internationally, while in the United States they’re owned by Molson-Coors and Constellation Brands. The only reason we’re not living under a Budweiser-based hegemony is because of reasonable anti-monopoly regulations.
ABI’s massive size compared to their US rivals makes it easy for Molson-Coors and others to slip under the radar. In the wake of the Wicked Weed buyout, Heineken was able to secure total ownership of Lagunitas without incident. If you read lists of “imposter brands”, it’s worth noting that it only lists brands owned by ABI, leaving out other brands that easily qualify like Terrapin or Leinenkugel. Ballast Point is owned by Constellation but comes under significantly less scrutiny.
It’s the brazenness of ABI constantly adding craft breweries to their portfolio while simultaneous stymieing the growth of the industry by throwing blank checks in any direction they can is at the core of this disdain. ABI own advertising campaigns proudly self-identifying as Macro Beer positions them as the enemy of craft, taking on a position as the grand antagonist to the small brewers that have fought tooth and nail to find purchase in their communities. ABI has declared itself as the opposition, and in doing so represents the unabashed greed of the megacorporation draining the life out of small businesses through crooked legislation and nigh-infinite wealth in the pursuit of a slightly increased market share and an increase in their stock value.
Molson-Coors and others have opted to stay out of the spotlight, allowing ABI to take the brunt of anti-macro sentiment. They also don’t purchase shares in beer websites or buy out massive hop farms to prevent craft brewers from getting access. Through their aggression and need to have fingers in every pot ABI has claimed the title of Macro and defined itself as the enemy, and by doing so given other companies the ability to distance themselves from the title of big beer and take a position as the alternative option. Just like the person going through the Wendy’s drive through reasoning that “It isn’t McDonalds” , craft drinkers will find themselves at barbecues and beaches this summer and reach into coolers for cold Miller Lites or Coronas, and they’ll resign to themselves “At least it’s not Budweiser.”