Team-Color Bud Cans Leave Colleges Flat
Originally Posted in The Wall Street Journal
By JOHN HECHINGER
Dozens of colleges are up in arms over a new Anheuser-Busch marketing campaign that features Bud Light beer cans emblazoned with local schools’ team colors.
Many college administrators contend that the promotions near college campuses will contribute to underage and binge drinking and give the impression that the colleges are endorsing the brew. Though some schools aren’t interfering with the promotion, others are demanding that the sales be stopped. With students returning to campuses and the fall football season approaching, the “Fan Cans” are also renewing the debate over the role of beer makers in encouraging college drinking.
Anheuser-Busch responds that the campaign is aimed only at fans who can drink legally and that it has long supported efforts to fight alcohol abuse. It notes that the cans don’t bear any school’s name or logo. And it says it will drop the campaign near any college that makes a formal complaint.
The Bud Light promotion, which involves 27 different color combinations, started rolling out this month. Purple-and-gold cans are being sold near the campus of Louisiana State University, and red-and-gold containers near Iowa State University.
“Show your true colors with Bud Light,” the company says, according to copies of internal marketing materials obtained by colleges. “This year, only Bud Light is delivering superior drinkability in 12-ounce cans that were made for gameday.”
The Fan Cans campaign comes amid efforts by Anheuser-Busch, a unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev NV of Leuven, Belgium, to revive the sales of Bud Light, the top-selling beer in the U.S. The brand’s U.S. volume sales are on track to register the first annual decline in its 27-year history.
As part of a broader marketing effort, the Bud Light school-colors campaign, also called “Team Pride” in the marketing materials, aims to use “color schemes to connect with fans of legal drinking age in fun ways in select markets across a variety of sports,” says Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of corporate social responsibility. She also says that the program is voluntary and that roughly half the brand’s wholesalers have chosen to participate.
Bruce Siegal, general counsel of the Collegiate Licensing Co., which represents about 200 colleges, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and other school-sports organizations, says his company complained to Anheuser-Busch about potential trademark violations after being notified about the campaign.
At least 25 schools have formally asked Anheuser-Busch to drop the campaign near their campuses, Mr. Siegal says. In recent letters, the University of Michigan’s lawyers threatened legal action for alleged trademark infringement, demanding that Anheuser-Busch not sell the “maize and blue” cans in the “entire state.” The University of Colorado, Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M University and Boston College have also told the company to stop distribution near their campuses, citing trademark issues and concern about student alcohol use.
Samuel L. Stanley, president of New York’s Stony Brook University and a medical doctor, also objected. In a letter to Anheuser-Busch, he called the campaign “categorically unacceptable.” Stony Brook recently launched a national program called Red Watch Band, which seeks to harness school pride and “positive peer pressure” to discourage heavy drinking. The school says it was motivated by the death of a professor’s son from alcohol poisoning in 2008, when he was a freshman at Northwestern University.
Ms. Clark says Anheuser-Busch values its relationships with college administrators and has “a longstanding commitment to promoting responsible drinking.” Since 1982, the company and its U.S. wholesalers have spent more than $750 million to fight alcohol abuse, including underage drinking and drunk driving, she says.
Alcohol-related deaths among college students hit 1,825 in 2005, up from 1,440 in 1998, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The federal agency says 45% of college students report engaging in binge drinking, which is defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting. Nearly 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are injured annually because of alcohol, it says, and 97,000 are the victims of alcohol-related sexual assault.
The relationship between alcohol companies and colleges has shifted since 1984, when Congress imposed a stiff penalty on any state that set its drinking age under 21. Before the change, brewers often sponsored college happy hours and wet T-shirt contests, says Drew Hunter, president of the Bacchus Network, a nonprofit group that works to reduce unsafe drinking. Since then, colleges and the industry agreed to adhere to a code designed to prohibit marketing that encourages heavy drinking.
But campuses are still debating the proper way to approach alcohol use. At LSU and the University of Texas, school health officials say they oppose the Bud Light campaign, but administrators have allowed it.
Brian Hommel, LSU’s director of trademark licensing, says he had seen purple-and-gold cans reflecting the team colors near the campus and is “keeping a close eye” on how they are marketed. “It needs to be quite clear that it’s not an LSU product,” he says.
At LSU, the Bud Light campaign has received mixed reviews from students. The campus newspaper, the Daily Reveille, ran an editorial calling the approach “a slick profiting scheme” that could tarnish the school’s reputation if students misbehave “when they hold a LSU colored beer in their hands.”
Mark Caraway, a member of the Delta Chi fraternity who will be a senior this year, says he’s sure the campaign will be a success. “If you put purple and gold on anything, especially for game day, it will sell like crazy,” says Mr. Caraway, 21 years old.
Chris Plonsky, who directs women’s athletics at the University of Texas and also oversees licensing there, says Anheuser-Busch works with the school on promoting safe drinking and is also a sponsor. After some initial concern about the Bud Light campaign, she says, she is no longer worried because the customized can colors don’t match the signature burnt-orange-and-white hues of the Texas Longhorns that closely. “You wouldn’t have thought it had anything to do with us,” she says.
Write to John Hechinger at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A1