How Miller Lite and Bud Light’s epic clash shook the marketing world

    This article is part of a four-part series about famous brand rivalries.

    Few brands have the intense rivalry that Miller Lite and Bud Light have, despite Bud Light’s consistently higher sales and reach. The decades-long feud is littered with lawsuits and smear campaigns. Their aggressive back and forth has shaped beer advertising, and neither looks ready to yield as they take the battle to new fronts. 

    In recent years, a shrinking beer market has heightened the stakes for both brands. In 2020, the category declined 3% as hard seltzer and premium spirits started to eat into beer’s market share. While craft and import varieties generally enjoyed a pandemic boon, affordable offerings lost market share. And in an increasingly divided society, consumers may care more about social messaging and connectivity than brands squabbling over calorie and carb count. These trends could change the dynamic between Bud Light and Miller Lite going forward. 

    Miller basically invented the light beer category as we know it today… and Anheuser-Busch was struggling to catch up for years because Lite was so dominant.

    Joel Hueston

    Independent consultant

    While evidence suggests beer was first brewed in 3,400 BCE, light beer is a relatively new invention. According to popular belief, the Miller Brewing Company — now a subsidiary of Molson Coors — introduced Miller Lite in 1975 as the first light, low-carb beer. Aggressive advertising fueled an instant success, helping to make light beer the powerhouse it is today. Of the top five beers in America, four of them are light: Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra make up 41.8% of the domestic beer market.

    “Miller basically invented the light beer category as we know it today, when they introduced Miller Lite nationally, and Anheuser-Busch was struggling to catch up for years because Lite was so dominant,” said Joel Hueston, an independent consultant who focuses on craft breweries. He also worked for the Miller Brewing company between 1979 and 2010. 

    The real history of light beer is slightly different than popular belief. Miller Lite was indeed the first light beer. But it wasn’t always known as Miller Lite, and the Miller Brewing Company didn’t invent it.

    Originally, Miller Lite was known as Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which was invented by biochemist Joseph L. Owades, an employee of the now-defunct Rheingold Brewing Company. Owades determined how to remove starch from beer, dramatically reducing both calories and carbs. It was meant to be the drink of choice for the health-conscious, the beer equivalent of Coca-Cola’s Tab.

    After the beer failed at Rheingold, Owades got permission to share the formula with Meister Brau Brewery, where it was renamed Meister Brau Lite. That company went belly up in 1972, after which the beer was purchased by the Miller Brewing Company, then owned by tobacco behemoth Philip Morris. Three years later, the beer was reformulated and rebranded as Miller Lite and reintroduced to the world.

    For years, Miller Lite was the biggest and only name in the light beer game. It leaned heavily into the “manliness” of light beer, emphasizing sports figures and celebrities in its advertising. The Miller Brewing Company also managed to market beer to those who typically don’t drink beer, and the company grew.

    For most of Miller’s history, Anheuser-Busch paid little mind. To it, the bigger threat was Pabst in terms of sales. But after the Philip Morris acquisition, the beer giant began to take notice. 

    From a simmer to a boil

    Anheuser-Busch was formed in the mid-1800s by German immigrants Eberhard Anheuser, a candle maker and Adolphus Busch, a brewery supplier. Prior to taking on Busch as a partner, Anheuser barely sold 4,000 barrels of beer a year and it reportedly tasted horrible. After marrying Anheuser’s daughter Lilly in 1861, Busch went to work for his father-in-law, according to the book “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer.” By 1879, the business sold a profitable 27,000 barrels a year. 

    Adolphus Busch, 1890

    Photographs and Print Collection/Missouri History Museum

    Eberhard Anheuere, 1898

    Photographs and Print Collection/Missouri History Museum

    After becoming a minority partner, Busch took control of the company following Anheuser’s death and introduced a string of reforms, including purchasing the recipe for Budweiser and figuring out how to pasteurize beer, extending beer’s typically short shelf life and allowing for national sales. Anheuser-Busch expanded and quickly became the largest brewery in America, weathering Prohibition, and remains so to this day. Up until its purchase by InBev in 2008, it was family owned. 

    The Miller Brewing Company’s history was not as stable. While a large brewery, it was leagues away from Anheuser-Busch and was not deemed a threat. But leadership shake-ups at Anheuser-Busch threatened to shift that power balance.

    The patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch family, August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch Jr. was approaching the end of a 25-year tenure as CEO in 1971. He was behind some of the company’s most memorable marketing advances, including associating the beer with baseball as owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. The now-iconic Clydesdale horses featured in Budweiser ads, such as the famous 9/11 memorial commercial, were a gift from Gussie to his father to celebrate the end of Prohibition.

    By the 1970s, some employees saw Gussie and his right-hand man Richard Meyer as too traditional. Philip Morris’ purchase of the Miller Brewing Company in 1969 was evidence that the company needed to change, especially if it wanted to compete with the cigarette company’s large advertising budget.

    “Philip Morris was a much more powerful company than Anheuser Busch. Their product was the No. 1 product in the world, which was Marlboro cigarettes… So [August III] thought, ‘oh my God, these guys are coming after us. We got to really go after them’, and Gussie just couldn’t be bothered with it,” William Knoedelseder, author of “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer,” told Marketing Dive.

    Upon Gussie’s exit in 1971, his son August A. Busch III wasn’t the one to take up the mantle. It was Meyer.

    A fermenting rivalry

    By the time the Miller Brewing Company had a viable product in 1973, an aggressive marketing campaign was already underway, two years before the beer went national. The Miller All Stars campaign featured retired athletes singing the praises of Miller Lite, emphasizing that it’s less filling. A now-iconic tagline first appeared during one spot: “Lite Beer from Miller: Everything you’ve always wanted in a beer… And less.” The messaging signaled that consumers could enjoy more beer. Miller Lite All Stars struck a home run, and Miller was the fourth most popular beer in America by the end of that year.

    “Anheuser-Busch was very, very convinced that they should be dominating the beer business, and they weren’t when brands like Lite were doing so well,” Hueston said.


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