Innovative Packaging Put On Ice

HERE’S A GREAT PIECE OF guerilla marketing: beer company takes advantage of a strong rooting interest in a local college football team’s starting 11 by dressing up its cans in team colors. Then it unrolls that program across the country, utilizing a strong production network and packaging efficiencies to take a national product and build local interest.

Hey, that sounds like the kind of thing that might move some product, right?

It did more than that. It caused a full-on outrage, and the FTC and college licensing organizations started raining heckfire down on that company – Anheuser-Busch InBev, for the record – for encouraging underage drinking. The idea behind the FTC’s outrage was that alcoholic beverage ads must target an audience that is more than 70 percent above legal drinking age, while the colleges were just plain mad that Bud had thought up such a great way to sell beer.

Under pressure, Bud quickly folded up plans to put its cans into local colors, but I wish they hadn’t. The fact is, the campaign was a simple, low-hanging-fruit kind of innovation that only attracted trouble because it would have worked so well. In fact, other beer companies were bummed that Bud had found a way around their exclusive pouring rights at local stadiums, and colleges were bummed because it’s hard to put a trade protection on something like a color scheme, rather than a licensed school symbol or emblem. (The “Fan Cans,” as they were called, only had team colors, not logos or other identifiers. Understated and cool, right?)

I still believe it’s the kind of intelligently sneaky play that we saw from Shiner Bock last year when its marketing agency handed out wraparound beer cozies outside a concert venue sponsored by Heineken. Sure, Heineken was fuming – who wouldn’t be? – but it had to be chalked up as a win for cleverness over expenditure.

And here, Bud, despite its own ability to crank up the war machine of advertising and product saturation, did something pretty similar. On game day, what are you going to buy? How about beer in the team colors? But Bud got a black eye, instead, because it acted so nimbly that everyone else went into contortions. And no one out there seemed capable of explaining why a smartly-dressed package of beer was any more likely to encourage underage drinking than a poorly-dressed one.

Is it a shame? It’s hard to say that, except to the extent that we believe innovation should be rewarded and this might be the kind of episode that discourages such elegant trickery. But regardless, this is one time that we’d have preferred to cheer on team Bud, rather than see it forced to make an end run back to the locker room.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of innovation to be seen around here this month, from a look at how “calorie burner” Celsius survived a close encounter with Coke to a look at the latest info on premium juices and energy shots. So sit back, grab a non-controversial can of whatever beverage is handy, and enjoy.