The Budweiser theory

Budweiser got to be the biggest-selling beer in the USA by being everyone’s second choice.

How it worked was like this. I’d take the station-wagon to the supermarket on Saturday. Being a bloke, I need to stock up on beer for the week ahead. My favourite beer is Pabst, so I get a case of that.

But Pabst is a bit too malty for some people. So I’d better get a case of Budweiser as well, in case any guests come
round. Budweiser is quite bland, it’s no one’s favourite, but nobody objects.

At the same time, across town, you go to the supermarket. You’re stocking up for the game on TV, so you get a case of your
favourite beer: Rheingold. But Rheingold is a bit too gassy for some people. So you’d better get a case of Budweiser as well, for guests.

Now the net result of that? Your favourite beer sold one case. My favourite beer sold one case. Everyone’s second choice sold two cases.

The cake manufacturer, Sara Lee, also built a huge brand using the Budweiser Principle. Sara Lee are perfectly pleasant, slightly bland, pastries that no one would object to.

So they made that their campaign. “Everybody doesn’t like something. But nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee”. The commercials would feature people missing a bus, or getting caught in the rain, or stuck in traffic.

But cheering up when they got some Sara Lee. It makes a clear positive out of being the thing that no one objects to.

That was how John Major ended up as Prime Minister. Michael Heseltine had managed to get rid of Maggie Thatcher, thinking
he would be the next PM. Thatcher and her followers would die before they’d let him have the job.

They had to find someone, anyone, else. All that was available was a seemingly pleasant nonentity, who had nothing much going for him, but nothing against him either.

He wasn’t anyone’s first choice. But he had one very attractive feature: he wasn’t Michael Heseltine. Unsurprisingly this is how a lot of things in life work.

Take awards for instance. Truly powerful ads may turn off as many people as they turn on. You and I may disagree violently.
I hate the ads you love and I won’t vote for that, ever.

You feel the same about the stuff I love. But there’s another campaign that neither of us mind. We don’t love it, but we don’t hate it. And we each prefer it to the other’s favourite campaign. It’s a compromise we can both live with. And so, sometimes, that’s what wins the award.

  • Andy Knell

    Dave don’t you think if we apply this to creative work it advocates mediocrity? Works fine as a comms proposition for low value / FMCG products and services but wouldnt want to set out purposefully to produce tepid work.

  • Dave Trott

    Absolutely Andy.
    I think that’s an okay strategy if you’ve got something bland you have to sell.
    You might as well turn being bland into a positive.
    Choosing to be bland in the first place is a much riskier proposition.
    As with John major, it depends too much on chance.
    Bland is usually just wallpaper.

  • gotnoteef

    is this the 89% creative work, the sort of stuff that makes no impact, offends nobody and has sod all effect as a net result?

    better to get a response, good or bad, than to just get a blank expression.


    It’s like shagging her ugly sister is it ?

  • gotnoteef

    what, not so much fun but more appreciation?

  • John W.

    Pabsst, pass it on.

  • Kevin Gordon

    There is also a darker reverse strategy at play.If everyone else gets the crappy beer, you can keep all the good stuff for yourself. Like it.

  • Andy Knell

    I think the onous is on the agency to take a stand and pitch itself to clients as an ‘O’, to clearly state they won’t accept clients on any other basis. Rather than paying lip-service to differentiation as a new biz gimmick, let it be written into each and every client contract – the client MUST accept the agency’s creative work without basterdisation or dilution. Sure you’ll scare off 89% of clients, but the 11% left will be repaid with award winning, highly effective advertising. That’s the kind of agency I want to work with.

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