Vaporware, but make it hard seltzer
Plus: cold-cut cocktails, SNL's FMB breakthrough, wedding drinks + more!
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Last week, Bud Light’s official Twitter handle posted an image of a new Bud Light Seltzer flavor:
I wrote briefly about this in Friday’s newsletter, noting that while this seltzer wasn’t real, it was nevertheless part of “a long line of liquified marketing gimmicks hustled down our willing gullets by The Brands™.” Sometimes those gimmicks are just designed to be shared online, rather thank drank IRL, and candy corn Bud Light Seltzer appears to be the former. Basically vaporware, but make it hard seltzer.
But at some point since Friday, Bud Light deleted the tweet, which piqued my interest. I asked Anheuser-Busch’s comms department why they took it down, and received no solid answer before deadline; I’ll update this post if/when I do.
[Update 10/12/21: Via email, Anheuser-Busch spokesman declined to offer a reason the brand’s Twitter handle had deleted the candy corn hard seltzer post, and confirmed the flavor would “not be hitting shelves soon.” Full statement below.1]
Editor’s note: If you work at ABI and want to anonymously tip me about this little episode—or literally anything else going on inside the company—by all means, get in touch!
Regardless of what happened to the tweet, though, I think candy corn Bud Light Seltzer can tell us a lot about what’s going on both at ABI, the world’s biggest beer company, and in the U.S. beer business generally.2 Let’s discuss, shall we? (We shall!)
First of all, the underlying beverage. It’s not real (for now at least), and we can be fairly sure of that because the @BudLight handle was replying to followers saying as much mid-week last week.
We’ll come back to whether this exists momentarily. But first, it’s important to note that it only vaguely matters. As I’ve written before, these gimmicks really don’t have to be real to accomplish their first-order goal of capturing attention online. Consider: what’s the ratio of Red Lobster customers who actually bought a Dewgarita™️ compared to Facebook users who shared its radioactive green glow from their newsfeeds to someone else’s? One in 100,000? In 1,000,000?
These beverages are polarizing and Idiocracy-esque by design because controversy drives engagement on social media. These days we mostly talk about that in context of politics and disinformation, but it’s true for lower-stakes stuff, too—like, for example, candy corn.3 Some people love it! Others do not! Life’s rich tapestry, and so forth. ABI’s marketers (and the agencies they work with, etc.) understand the value of controversy implicitly. They even winkingly acknowledge what they’re up to in the post itself: note the “Everyone will like this” on the crown of the can, and the corresponding tweet copy. Of course, they know that everyone will not like this They’re banking on it, in fact, because an audience (playfully) repulsed is an audience engaged.
When candy-corn haters quote-tweet @BudLight in disgust, they’re feeding the brand thousands of impressions they’d otherwise have to pay big bucks to generate through advertising. This is “earned media,” in the jargon, and it’s a powerful mechanism for keeping a brand fresh and relevant if you know how to do it. ABI absolutely, positively, without question knows how to do it.
But zoom out. Marketing smoke and mirrors are all well and good, but ABI is in the business of selling beer. Eventually, these gambits must translate to real, offline sales in America’s grocery stores, package stores, and gas-station beer caves. And no amount of amount of online buzz can save a bad product. So the very thing that makes a concept like candy-corn hard seltzer good fodder for Twitter timelines—a love-it-or-hate-it flavor—makes it a potential disaster to actually produce as a beverage IRL. I called this the “candy corn conundrum,” which, whatever, not my finest work, but just go with it, OK?
The conundrum is thus: American drinkers have come to expect surprise and delight with every supermarket visit, particularly in the flavored-malt beverage space. So brands have no real choice but to shit out ideas in hopes that they hit paydirt. Real offerings like the Bud Light Seltzer Fall Flannel pack, or Truly’s soon-to-be-released Holiday pack reliably earn headlines from friendly mainstream outlets, keep customers interested… and just might be the next bona fide blockbuster. (Disclosure: I purchased stock in Boston Beer Company, which owns Truly, in September 2021.)
Are these things good to drink? Maybe! But they’re new, and they can be marketed, and that’s what matters. Think last decade's craft beer “SKU-mageddon”/“rotation nation” meets this decade's fast-twitch online-to-offline feedback loops, all supercharged by FMBs’ short, cheap production cycles (compared to beer, at least.)4 Novelty rules the day.
To first-generation craft brewers, this sort of “innovation” would be the worst kind of commercialized, commodified, tail-wags-dog anathema. But today's craft beer business is a different story. There’s an entire cohort of wildly profitable “craft” breweries whose Instagram-first product development would be utterly alien even a half-dozen years ago. Ditto the products themselves: opaque, creamsicle-orange IPAs, slushie-style Berliner Weisses, and pastry stouts as far as the eye can see. Whatever else these beers are, they’re photogenic, optimized for consumption (and ideally, purchase) by the scrolling hordes.5 That’s marketing, baby!
Hard seltzer is an even better canvas on which to paint this sort of marketing masterpiece than craft beer ever could be. FMBs are a commodity. They have none of craft beer's considerable cultural baggage; they’re cheaper and quicker to make; and they feature accessible, familiar flavors. Crucially, hard seltzers can also command comparable price points at retail—and the segment still has a lot of room to “premiumize,” which is how industry types say “get bougier and more expensive.”
To understand the power of marketing for commodity food and drink, look to the American supermarket, the retail chain that sells most of America’s beer and nearly half of all its alcohol. As Benjamin Lorr, author of the excellent book The Secret Life of Groceries, told Fingers, consumer package goods like hard seltzer are effectively whole-cloth marketing fabrications:
It's the reason why chocolate is as fucked as it is, and chocolate is so fucked… the volume of demand that we want, and the fact that we can create anonymity in the supply chain by sourcing from all sorts of people, agglomerating [the raw material], lumping it together, and then poof out the other side, is this new product, this commodity, that doesn't have a connection to these to the individuals that are [producing] it. Or if it does, it has a fuzzy connection that is mediated by marketers.
This is relevant because: the U.S. beer business has been a commodity business for most of its existence. It’s never been “all about the liquid,” as craft brewers were fond of saying in the late Aughts and through the Teens. It was only (sort of) that way during that period. That was the eye of a storm. Craft beer flourished partly because it delivered Americans a novel product (full-flavored beer), but also because commodity players got caught flat-footed and were uniquely ill-suited to compete on the things that mattered most to those drinkers—authenticity, story, ties to space/place, etc.
Smash cut to today: headwinds have stiffened, and hard seltzer hit the entire beverage alcohol business like a freight train. It’s a commodity through and through, and its popularity has restored some conventional order to the U.S. beer business. The old game is once again afoot. Scale, marketing, distribution, and, yes, liquid are all important, but in that order. White Claw, Truly, etc.—these are commodity products mediated into your fridge by marketing. (Speaking of which: there’s still time to hire me, White Claw!)
This brings us back to Bud Light’s candy corn hard seltzer tweet. Why did the brand take it down? One potential reason: it got enough traction on Twitter that the powers that be at ABI have decided to rush it into production, and they don’t want competitors—who have access to the same flavor extracts and production know-how—to get any ideas.6 Lord knows the company needs a homegrown hit in the vital U.S. market.
Regardless of why they took it down, expect more of this, and not just from ABI. FMBs aren't just changing drinking habits. They're also swing beer business’ collective center of gravity away from brewers (“all about the liquid”) and back towards marketers. Or, to put it another way: from craft back to commodity.
You can make a moral/value judgement on that if you want (I honestly don’t) but that's what's happening here, and will continue to happen. Which is why candy corn Bud Light Seltzer doesn’t really even have to exist IRL: it tells us plenty about the brand and the business as just another JPEG on the timeline.
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📬 Good post alert
Alright this is really more of a bad post alert from Molly (who’s a Friend of Fingers, thanks for the support Molly!) but I lol’d anyway. Wet turkey tipples, let’s go.
🎥 SNL finally figured out…
…what Fingers has been saying since Day One: everything is hard seltzer now! Thanks to all the Fingers Fam who sent this to me yesterday.
💍 Wedding drinks!
The rumors are true: your fearless Fingers editor got hitched. Former fiancée of Fingers is now forever mine. “We did a thing,” et cetera.
However you say it, it’s true: my now-spouse and I got married in Charleston in a celebration including family and friends and officiated by the co-owner of one of our favorite bars (who is also a good friend.) Congratulations to us. In lieu of gifts, please buy a discounted subscription to this here boozeletter:
My wife and I have actually been legally married for around a year at this point, having been wed last fall in what is (I guess?) known as a “minimony.”7 But like much of the rest of the country/world, we postponed our big celebration for a year. This time around was an absolute blast, filled with vaccinated friends and family who filled themselves with a lot of alcohol. Open bar, dude!
Some highlights from the tab:
223 liquor drinks + 26 tonics (presumably with gin or vodka, but who knows for sure)
45 house blonde ales
39 house IPAs
41 glasses of Cava
43 glasses of Chardonnay + 1 additional bottle
37 glasses of Sauvignon Blanc + 2 additional bottles
5 Underbergs lol
Good work all around, if you ask me. And by the way, thanks for all the lovely wishing well, Fingers Fam. I appreciate it, and so does—wait for it—MY WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!!!!!!! (Sorry. Just had to get it out of my system. But seriously, thanks so much everybody!)
Full emailed statement from Bud Light to Fingers, 10/12/21: “Bud Light Seltzer is all about bringing fun and bold flavors to the seltzer category. While a Candy Corn flavored seltzer might not be hitting shelves soon, wait till you see what’s coming out from us for seltzer fans to ACTUALLY try!”
This is adapted from a Twitter thread I fired off over the weekend. Hopefully you had better things to do than be on Twitter this past weekend; I certainly did, and yet there I was anyway. Oops. Even if you saw this on the timeline, reading a long Twitter thread sucks, so I figured you’d appreciate me consolidating/polishing this into an actual piece. Hope you do!
This is also why for much of the past decade, digital media companies paid writers peanuts to shit out intentionally troll-y hot takes about pretty much everything. Courting outrage was (and to some extent, still is, though that seems to be changing thanks to things like reader-supported newsletters) the name of the game on Facebook. And make no mistake: Facebook was the game for digital media companies in that era. I should note that I was not exempt from this vicious cycle. In hindsight, it sucked very much, but at the time… just kidding, it sucked at the time, too!
Whether they taste good is an entirely separate question. I don’t even mean that snidely! It’s just divorced from the matter of marketing, I think.
Another plausible reason for pulling le twete: ABI legal decided it was too close to ad guide redlines about marketing to kids. A candy-flavored halloween FMB lawsuit with the world's biggest beer company as the plaintiff? Paging class-action lawyers, the surgeon general, etc.