Drinkers want fizz, low carbs, and Super Bowl ads reflect it

Posted at 4:09 PM, Jan 30, 2020

DETROIT (AP) -- When Americans crack open a cold one during Sunday's Super Bowl, it might not be a traditional domestic beer.

Sales of classic beers like Bud Light have been dropping for nearly a decade as new choices hit the shelves. First, it was a host of craft beers. Now, there are fizzy, fruit-flavored hard seltzers like Truly, canned margaritas and vodka tonics and wine spritzers.

Baby Boomers are also drinking less, while younger, more health-conscious consumers want drinks with fewer carbs and calories, analysts say. Some think the legalization of marijuana is also cutting alcohol consumption.

It's a reality reflected in this year's Super Bowl ads. Michelob Ultra stresses its low calories and low carbs in an ad that shows talk show host Jimmy Fallon and wrestler John Cena working out. Its organic sibling, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, promises to create more organic farmland for every six-pack sold. Anheuser-Busch is having fans choose between two ads that feature singer Post Malone sipping a fruity new Bud Light Seltzer.

While it can't advertise nationally during the Super Bowl because of Anheuser-Busch's sponsorship rights, Molson Coors will air ads regionally for its new Saint Archer Gold beer, a competitor to Michelob Ultra.

"You can count carbs. You can count calories. But it only counts if the beer tastes good," says one Saint Archer ad which ran during the pro football playoff games.

It's a different tone than 2010, when drinkers partied in three separate Bud Light Super Bowl ads, or even 2018, when small band of villagers fought to get to a stack of Bud Light in the the goofy "Dilly, Dilly" ads.

"People are just getting bored with the regular beer," said Aga Jarzabek, research analyst with the consulting firm Euromonitor International. "There are not that many new consumers to seduce when there's so many more interesting things on the sidelines."

U.S. sales of domestic premium beer brands like Budweiser, Miller and Coors dropped 4% in 2019 to $12.4 billion, according to Nielsen, which tracks retail sales in groceries and other stores. That's nearly $2 billion less than in 2015.

The last time sales rose in the category was 2012, said IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, a data firm.

At the same time, sales of hard seltzers like White Claw jumped more than 200% to $1.5 billion. Sales of spirits like whiskey and tequila were up 5% to $15.4 billion.

There are still bright spots in the beer market. Imports, like Corona and Modelo, grew 3% last year, while U.S. craft beer consumption rose 4%, according to IWSR.

Low- and no-alcohol beer consumption also grew 7% last year as young buyers sought healthier alternatives. Heineken and Pabst introduced non-alcoholic beers last year. Some craft brewers, like Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co., are exclusively making non-alcoholic beers.

Legal marijuana and CBD-infused drinks may also be stealing some customers. Vivien Azer, an analyst with Cowen & Co., noted that Canadian beer sales tumbled 3% last year after marijuana was legalized. Domestic beers saw the steepest declines, indicating those drinkers were more likely to cross over to cannabis, she said.

Big beer companies are introducing new products to keep consumers in the fold. Bud Light Seltzer matches market leader White Claw with 100 calories and 2 grams of carbohydrates. By comparison, Bud Light has 110 calories and 6.6 grams of carbs.

Pabst introduced a low-alcohol version of Pabst Blue Ribbon in 2018, followed last year by a hard seltzer and a spiked coffee.

Miller parent Molson Coors Brewing Co. recently changed its name to Molson Coors Beverage Co. to better reflect new drinks like Movo wine spritzers and La Colombe hard coffee. Next week it releases Blue Moon Light Sky, a 95-calorie beer brewed with tangerine peels.

"I do believe that alcohol companies are trying to adapt," said Joanne Encarnacion, a women's life coach and wellness blogger. "People are becoming more aware of the effects of alcohol in our bodies long term."

Encarnacion doesn't drink beer and looks for clean ingredients and little added sugar when she's choosing a drink. Lately, she likes light cocktails, red wine and hard kombucha.

Classic beer's attempts to focus on health have flopped before, though. During last year's Super Bowl, Bud Light ran ads mocking its rivals -- Miller Lite and Coors Light -- for using corn syrup in their brewing process, suggesting that made Bud Light healthier.

But sales of Bud Light fell even faster than sales of Miller Lite or Coors Light last year, just as they had the year before, according to data from Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry publication. Molson Coors sued Anheuser-Busch over the ads and the two companies scrapped plans to work together on a campaign to promote beer.