Miller Lite and Coors Light were upset that Bud Light called out their ingredients during the Super Bowl.
Credit: Courtesy of AB InBev

Most people have forgotten about the Super Bowl (there was a lot of defense!) but in the beer world, a campaign launched by Bud Light is still resonating. In those ads, America’s best-selling beer brand called out its two top competitors, Coors Light and Miller Lite, for using corn syrup — an ingredient that is actually pretty innocuous. The corn industry was upset, and needless to say, the other beer brands were upset — to the point where MillerCoors pulled out of a beer alliance formed by America’s largest brewers to work together to boost the beer industry as a whole.

The campaign clearly ruffled some feathers, and obviously, that was part of the point. But one of the issues with these ads wasn’t that they were attack ads, but that they were vague attack ads, leaving plenty of ambiguity as to why corn syrup was being villainized at all.

So what's the “dilly” with corn syrup? And did Anheuser-Busch InBev — the maker of Bud Light — anticipate such negative fallout? Bud Light’s VP of Marketing Andy Goeler spoke with me at length about these and other issues. I’ve presented the majority of our discussion below (with only small edits for length and clarity).

Mike Pomranz: What is wrong with corn syrup?

Andy Goeler: Let me give a little background. Before the Super Bowl ad, we started with an announcement that we were going to put an ingredient label on all our packaging, and it was based solely on wanting to be very transparent about what we put into Bud Light. And it was really all based on lots of consumer learning. It's pretty clear: You can walk around a grocery store and every product category is providing not only nutritional labels, but most of them call out certain components… They put it on the front of their packaging. So in our learning, what was just as powerful when we started to talk to consumers about what we put into Bud Light, was what we don't put in the Bud light…. People started to react to corn syrup, they started to react to no preservatives, and they started to react to no artificial flavors. These are things that consumers on their own had perceptions — for whatever reason — that these were ingredients they preferred not to consume if they didn't have to. So it was pretty clear to us what to highlight. If you look at our packaging, we highlight all three of those. No corn syrup. No artificial flavors. No preservatives. It was purely driven by consumer desire.

MP: But for these ads, you decided to focus on corn syrup instead of no preservatives or things like that. Why do you think consumers see corn syrup as something they don't want?

AG: I think it's probably an ingredient that some prefer not to consume is the simple answer... So consumers are the ones that are saying, “Wow, I prefer not putting preservatives [in my beer].”… Some people don't care. They're fine with it, but some consumers — for their own personal reasons — have concluded that they prefer not putting something like corn syrup, if they had a choice, into their body.

MP: But how much of this hatred towards corn syrup do you think are misconceptions about corn syrup. For instance, let’s specifically latch onto high-fructose corn syrup. You and I know there's a difference between these two ingredients, but a lot of customers don't. Did you mean to kind of tacitly imply that these two products have similarities when you focused on corn syrup?

AG: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And I disagree with your point about consumers not knowing. I think you're underestimating the young consumer base out there. These people are very tuned in to ingredients. Very, very tuned into it. They know what they are. They know what they want to consume and what they don't want to consume. Not all of them, but a large percentage of them. We're not trying to confuse anybody. These are things that the consumer said they prefer not having if they had a choice.

MP: So along those lines, assuming the consumer is educated, another implication of corn syrup is the GMO concern. I don't want to get into the debate over whether GMO is good or bad, but did Bud Light intentionally mean to tacitly highlight this GMO concern in these corn syrup ads?

AG: No.

MP: So GMO was never part of the discussion in choosing to focus on corn syrup?

AG: No, not at all. Not at all. It’s simply about transparency. It's simply about providing information to consumers so they have the ability to choose products based on what is in and what’s out of the product. And it all originated from talking to lots of consumers. They told us that. And listen, [Anheuser-Busch InBev] uses corn syrup in our value brands.

MP: That's my next question actually. Isn't there a sort of double-standard in highlighting corn syrup in your competitors, but then using it in some of your other products?

AG: I don't think so. Two things. Number one, [corn syrup] is a less expensive ingredient, and we charge a lot less for our value brands. Number two, we've provided that information. We have a site — — which, I think it's been out there for about five years, that lists every one of our products and what ingredients are in there. So this is focused on Bud Light.

MP: So let's focus on Bud Light, because the other thing that's been brought up is that Bud Light uses rice. So is there any sort of qualitative difference between using rice versus using corn syrup?

AG: First of all, again, we're very transparent, obviously. That's our whole mission here, is to be transparent about all the ingredients in Bud Light. Rice is a critical component of this recipe. It's an agricultural product. It’s whole grain rice. It's very expensive, and it's what gives Bud Light its crispness…. Corn syrup, I think, is a processed ingredient. It’s a less costly ingredient. So again, we use it in brands where we charge less money. But it's important, as we deliver transparency to the consumer, to let them know, again, what the differences are in some of the beer choices that they're making — because they haven't had access to the information.

MP: But if you're worried about transparency, though, aren't you worried that the consumer might be conflating information when it comes to corn syrup versus high-fructose corn syrup, for instance?

AG: Not at all. There’s been more searches on Google for corn syrup than ever before. So anyone that might be confused as to what it is, these days, people, if there is anything they don’t understand, they Google it.

MP: Doesn't the fact that there's more Google searches for it now prove that people didn't quite know what it was and that they need to look it up after the fact?

AG: Yeah, and I think that’s awesome. The whole intent was to start a conversation about ingredients in beer. Beer is going through a challenging time right now as an industry. It's critical for us, as the lead brand, to make sure that we're providing the right things to consumers. Things that they expect. Things that are important to them. And, again, we've learned that one thing that's very critical to consumers is ingredients transparency, and it's not only what’s in products, but it's also what's not in products. The beer industry, we're behind. We're way behind. Other categories have been doing this for quite a while. So we've taken the big move of communicating it. And as the lead brand, some of these conversations are tough. There's no question about it. But, we wanted to start the conversation so people are aware — people have the opportunity to search — and make decisions based on information. And mission accomplished. It's happening beautifully.

MP: Well, let's talk about beer being a tough space because the other big story that's broken recently is Molson Coors has pulled out of this beer alliance. Did you guys anticipate them not being happy with this campaign?

AG: We anticipated this would be a tough conversation — because it's new information that we're putting out here for the first time. So we anticipated it would be tough. But it’s something that we had to do as an industry. We're behind. We're so far behind. Beer must evolve to be able to keep up with all these other options that these consumers have today. So this is a big move. It's a leadership move. It's good for the beer category. So it’s all great.

MP: What, specifically, are you talking about as far as what sort of evolution you are looking for?

AG: When I talk about evolving it as a category, it's very similar to what many other categories have already done. You walk up and down, you look at cereals, cookies, candies, they all are providing very clear ingredients so consumers can make an educated choice as to whether they want to choose this or that. So as a beer category, we need to provide that level of transparency so they can make that choice. And we will — as a company, as a beer brand — drive this thing because it's best for the beer category. So if MillerCoors pulls out of the alliance, we will proceed and move forward. It's too important to the beer category to not accomplish this and get this done.

MP: What would you say to someone who saw the corn syrup ads and would call it “fearmongering”?

AG: I would say it absolutely is not fearmongering. It’s transparency. We're being so honest, and so open, and so transparent. This is not about fearmongering at all. This is about honesty, openness, transparency. This is what's in our beer. This is what's not in our beer. We're not trying to put any fear in there. There's people that could care less about no preservatives and that's fine... It's about really giving information and choice. So this is as honest and as transparent as you can get. There's no hidden thing going on here at all.

MP: This story has made some of the biggest waves I can remember in the beer industry in a long time. Bud Light is the biggest brand of a big company called Anheuser-Busch InBev. Are the higher-ups happy with how this whole thing has played out?

AG: Yes. The answer is absolutely, we are very happy. I think, as a leader, if we're truly leading— And we need to lead. We are the biggest beer company in the U.S. We have the biggest beer brand in the U.S. Bud Light. We need to lead, and to do that, we need to get into areas that might make people uncomfortable. But we need to be pushing this thing forward. So we're in that area. We're in that area where we're up against a lot of tough conversations going on. But in the end, it's the right thing for the consumer. And we see that. So everyone here is extremely onboard and pleased with where we are today, and we're going with this because it's all based on what consumers want from us. And so, yes we're very happy.