Monday's post on Anheuser-Busch's latest effort to undermine the craft beer movement struck a chord with many readers, and also a few nerves. The story was shared on reddit.com and wound up getting hammered to the tune of more than 20K page views. Uncharted waters.
Anheuser-Busch has really nothing to lose with the $56 keg pricing in Washington and Oregon. Both are low share states for AB products. Plus, most of the volume sold as part of this promo is going through AB-owned distributors, which means they can spread the costs broadly. Very few independents are involved, as predicted.
With respect to brand equity damage, it may not happen. Many retailers will simply keep prices where they are and pocket the extra profit. If there's no discounting at the tap, consumers who don't read blogs like this one won't know what's going on and the brands involved (Shock Top and Goose Island) won't suffer any equity damage at all...beyond their affiliation with Anheuser-Busch.
As expected, the strategy is getting very little traction in craft-centric bars and pubs. These places aren't interested in offering marked down, marginal craft brands. Their customers would balk and walk. So most of the action is in mainstream accounts, which can make a few extra bucks selling stuff they already sell.
Risk for Craft
There are those in the industry, some quoted in BBD, who believe AB is testing the discounting strategy to see how many tap handles can be acquired. If successful, the strategy may be expanded. The way it becomes a problem for craft brewers is if AB is able to undercut pricing to the extent that retailers start demanding similar pricing from craft brewers.
Anheuser-Busch, if it wanted to, could broaden the effort by producing quality beer, which it could do at a fraction of what it costs craft brewers. That seems unlikely. Keep in mind that AB is not particularly good at brand building. Most of their strategic edge is wrapped up in efficiency. They are ruthless cost-cutters, not brand builders.
What they would likely do to expand the discounting campaign is acquire more craft brands. Once they have a controlling interest, they would dump that beer on the market at discounted prices as a means of pushing prices downward and sucking some of the profit out of craft beer. That's what they're doing with Goose Island and the strategy could be repeated.
In the end, any effort to undercut price will require time and coordination. Winning a few tap handles with cheap beer isn't going to do much, except maybe produce some local or regional price wars. For the strategy to work, AB will have to make a concerted longterm effort to undermine the profitability of craft beer. That's the risk for craft brewers, but you have to wonder if AB is up to it.
Some readers didn't like me lumping Goose Island with Shock Top. Oh well. The problem for Goose Island is that it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch. The once respected, independent brand is now nothing more than a pawn in AB's efforts to address declining market share. Right alongside the dreadful Shock Top.
Honestly, I've never had a Goose Island beer that was above average. The bulk of the Goose Island beer we see in Oregon is surely mass produced by AB. The highly sought-after Bourbon County Stout is rare and I haven't had it. However, I had their Illinois Imperial IPA last night a Belmont Station. This is not a standard issue Goose Island beer. It was okay, nothing more.