It’s only going to be temporary. But still, it’s a dramatic and unprecedented branding move for such a high-profile global brand. Starting May 23, every 12-ounce bottle and can of the beer formerly known as Budweiser will be re-named “America.” All traces of its familiar name, logo, and tag-line will disappear from bottles and cans for a full seven months, and return only after its namesake country has elected a new President in November 2016.

That’s not all. According to Mark Wilson:

“The alterations don’t stop with the beer’s name. Almost every bit of type on the Budweiser label has been scrubbed away by Easter Egg patriotism, with new text citing the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, and America the Beautiful—all rendered in newly developed hand lettering, inspired by Budweiser’s archives…

To name just a few of the updates: "King of Beers" has been changed to "E Pluribus Unum," "The World Renowned" changed to "Land of the Free," and "Anheuser-Busch, Inc." updated to read "Liberty & Justice For All." Even legalese like "Trademark" was changed to "Indivisible," and "Registered" changed to "Since 1776".

Claiming the Patriotism Value

Patriotism by Dee Ashley Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Patriotism by Dee Ashley Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

On one level, the goal of these changes is obvious. Budweiser wants to claim the “patriotism” value in consumers’ minds and gain the loyalty of every American beer drinker who sees himself or herself as patriotic. Drink Budweiser/America = Be a patriot. Decades of research by consumer psychologists has shown that consumers routinely use the country of a product’s origin as a short-cut when deciding what to buy, preferring domestically made products over foreign ones.

I should note that Budweiser is not the only brand to claim the patriotism value. Nor is it the most successful. One 2013 survey covering American consumers’ perceptions of brands found that Budweiser was the tenth-most patriotic brand. Jeep, Levi Strauss, Disney, Coca-Cola, and even Ralph Lauren were all seen as more patriotic. But fortunately for Budweiser, none of them sell beer.

Summer is Peak Sales Time for Beer

The timing of the name change is also significant. Studies have found that patriotic feelings of Americans peak over the summer with the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays and this affects their behaviors. Even better for Budweiser, beer sales peak at the same time. Come summer, consumers are not only feeling patriotic, they are also feeling thirsty, a happy conjunction. This year, the Rio Olympic Games will provide even more opportunities to raise patriotic fervor and increase beer sales.

Consistent With Previous Branding

Finally, it is worth noting that the name change is consistent with Budweiser’s branding approach of emphasizing patriotism every summer. For example, last summer, Budweiser ran commercials themed around American Freedom (see below), introduced special-edition aluminum bottles with Statue of Liberty illustrations, and sponsored the “Made in America Monument Series” of concerts at prominent landmarks.

So why has this brand name change produced so much consternation and criticism, with marketing experts calling it “shameless” and “a joke”? Here are three reasons.

1. Too extreme (and therefore counter-productive)?

It is one thing to use patriotic illustrations and motifs like flags and fireworks on product packaging or in commercials. It is another thing entirely to change one’s brand name for months on end. None of the brands that are seen as more patriotic than Budweiser, whether it is Jeep, Levi’s, or Harley Davidson, have changed their names entirely. There is good reason for this. Using research conducted by cognitive psychologists on how people categorize information in their memories and subsequently recall it, marketers have argued that the strongest asset of a brand is its name.

Consumers use brand names as short-cuts in decision making. Branding seeks to associate (or link) desirable concepts to the brand to make it stand out from its competitors. Deleting one’s name entirely and replacing it with something so generic as a country’s name goes against this “building brand-associations” thinking of marketers.

2. Inauthentic?

In the current era of cynical, powerful consumers who see right through marketing hyperbole, authenticity is a big deal. For a brand, authenticity means that it should be honest and genuine about who it is and what it stands for to its consumers. One example of an authentic brand is Ben & Jerry’s Ice-crea. Since its inception, it has remained quirky, environmentally-conscious, socially focused, and consistent in representing the personalities and values of its namesake founders.  Against this backdrop, re-naming a brand owned by a Dutch company (InBev) “America” smacks of deception. As author Tom Acitelli put it:

“Peel back the label a bit, though, and one discovers the whole thing tastes a bit thin. Why? Because Budweiser is about as American these days as a successful Green Party or ample paid maternity leave. So many other, smaller — and when it comes to flavor, better — beers scream “America” so much more loudly.”

3. Smacks of desperation?

As Douglas Holt noted recently in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Branding in the Age of Social Media,” many mega-brands have fallen behind in using social media effectively. They have failed to engage their consumers and build relationships with them on a consistent basis. To illustrate this point, Holt provides the example of an amateur Swedish video game player named PewDiePie, who runs a Youtube video channel with 44 million subscribers. In contrast, Budweiser has just 127,000 subscribers to its Youtube channel.

In such a hyper-competitive environment where global brands are competing with individuals for exposure and attention to social media users, and failing miserably, taking drastic actions to gain attention seems a logical thing to do. And at one level, a complete name change of an iconic brand, even if it is temporary, certainly qualifies as drastic.

For Budweiser, the good news is that its announcement did garner social media attention. The bad news is that most of the attention was in the form of ridicule with users seeing right through the persuasion attempt. Some consumers were so incredulous that even Snopes had to put up a confirmation page that the brand change news was indeed true.

Let’s give Twitter user Kale Bogdanovs the final word on this topic:

“A little America is fine but too much makes me wanna hurl. #Budweiser”

Acknowledgment

Thanks to Rice MBA alum Eduardo Zavala for asking the question.

About Me

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.