The world's biggest beer-maker is placing a big bet on a new brew.
Anheuser-Busch InBev this week is rolling out Bud Light Platinum, an upscale version of its best-selling label. It's the brewer's latest bid to pump up flagging sales of its flagship brand, and to counter liquor sales that are taking a bite out of beer industry-wide.
Platinum, which hit the shelves in St. Louis on Monday, has been in the works for four years, said Mike Sundet, A-B's senior director for Bud Light marketing. Geared to be a higher-end version of its namesake, it is still a clear light lager, though one with considerably more punch than Bud Light - 6 percent alcohol by volume compared to 4.2. It's a bit sweeter, and a bit smoother. And it's designed for drinking not so much around the backyard grill but in the club, or at least a classy bar.
"It's higher-end. It's sophisticated," Sundet said. "There's a time and a place where consumers are looking for drinks that make them feel like they're stepping up."
The beer comes in a distinctive, cobalt blue bottle. Its tag line is "top-shelf taste." It is being launched with two 30-second ads early in Sunday's Super Bowl, one which features a roomful of diverse, attractive young professionals sipping Platinum at an after-hours office party, complete with a DJ playing a track by Kanye West.
Platinum is a clear play for a demographic that has been bypassing beer in favor of the hard stuff more and more lately, said Ben Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights.
"They're going after the spirits drinker, there's no question about that," he said. "It's a very interesting play."
For the past decade or so, spirits have been eating into the market for beer, especially so-called "premium" lagers such as Budweiser and Bud Light. Liquor sales now make up more than one-third of the U.S. alcohol market, up from 28 percent in 2000, according to research firm Discus. Beer's share has fallen below 50 percent. Add in the fast growth of craft beers, and it's no surprise that sales of A-B's big brands have been slipping.
Platinum is "definitely not a craft beer," Sundet said. A-B has been trying to tap that market with its new Shock Top line and with deals like last year's acquisition of craft label Goose Island.
The new brew, Sundet says, is targeted more at people who have shifted to drinking spirits.
That could prove to be a good strategy, said David "Bump" Williams, a longtime industry analyst.
"If it's their intention to try and get some spirit shoppers back into beer, I think this could be it," he said. "Bud Light Platinum has a pretty good shot."
The track record for these Bud Light brand extensions is rather mixed.
A-B InBev launched Bud Light Lime in 2008, and it sells well, particularly in the summer months. It notched 1.77 million barrels in sales in 2010, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, good for 1 percent of the U.S. market.
A year later, out came Bud Light Golden Wheat, a more direct challenge to successful beers such as Miller Coors' Blue Moon. It never caught on with drinkers, selling at its peak just a few hundred thousand barrels. It's now nearly absent from shelves, and will be discontinued as Platinum ramps up, Sundet said.
"We're going to continue to try new things," he said. "Some are going to succeed. Some aren't."
NO CHEAP ENDEAVOR
Launching these beers isn't cheap. Sundet wouldn't say how much A-B InBev will spend to market Platinum, but the official kickoff comes with two ads during the Super Bowl, where a 30-second spot averages $3.5 million. And that's just for starters. There will be billboards and big events - like last week's St. Louis launch party at the Chase Park Plaza's Starlight Room and a happy hour for Wall Street traders on Wednesday - buzz on the internet and a barrage of TV and radio ads to come. Steinman estimates A-B InBev shelled out at least $30 million apiece marketing Bud Light Lime and Golden Wheat in their launch years, and a similar plan for Platinum is likely.
"Platinum will be out there. ‘Ubiquitous' could be just a slight exaggeration," he said. "The A-B distribution network still absolutely has the capability to push it. Retailers are interested in it. It's going to get TV advertising and support."
But however much A-B InBev may push Platinum in the next few months, the true test will come later. Will people buy that second six-pack once the novelty wears off? Will they actually order it instead of a gin and tonic?
It's far too soon to know. While Platinum started to hit shelves in Texas and a few other markets last week, its national rollout began Monday.
Here in St. Louis Platinum displays started popping up at grocery stories by Tuesday and there 12-packs stacked seven-high at Randall's Wine and Spirits in south St. Louis. But several bars along Washington Avenue downtown said they weren't carrying the new beer just yet.
At The Over/Under Bar and Grill, general manager Brian McAfee was taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding how much space he would give to the blue bottles in the refrigerator behind the bar.
"We'll definitely try some out," he said. "But we may wait until people start asking for it."
A-B InBev hopes a lot of people do, said Williams, for it has much riding on Platinum. It's their shot to bite back at spirits, to woo drinkers who have turned away from beer, to show they can produce a new product just as well as their rivals at MillerCoors. And it's obvious the brewery is putting a lot into its new brand, from the beer to the ads to the stuff consumers don't see.
"The wholesalers are doing their job. The packaging folks have done a phenomenal job developing a beautiful package. Everything's good," he said.
"Now, is it what the consumer wants?"