The Triumph Of Bud Light Platinum, Millennial Party Fuel
Tastes weird, more filling, sells like crazy.
"Man has long dreamed of turning lead into gold,” a gravel-voiced man told us. An otherworldly assembly line rolled out endless blue bottles while the stark plinks from Kanye West’s “Runaway” underlined the narrator's gravitas. “We dreamed of turning gold into platinum.” Weighty pause. “Triple-filtered. Smooth-finished. Top-shelf taste. Introducing...Bud Light Platinum.” And, via this grand ad — aired during first spot of the first commercial break of the 2012 Super Bowl — Bud Light's new sibling said hello.
Let's say that, after seeing the spot, you poked around and found the particulars of what makes this kind of Bud Light (which was in stores on the Monday before that Super Bowl Sunday) special. You’d have read about the higher alcohol content: 6% to Bud Light’s 4.2%. You’d have read about the sweeter taste, and about the space-age bottle (officially, a “cobalt blue”). And you would have been forgiven some skepticism. So this is Bud Light, a beer whose entire purpose is to be cheap, unpretentious, and easy to drink, you might have thought. But it's more expensive, has a heavier taste, and is for fancy people.
At the time, industry analyst Bump Williams was one of those who weren't buying. “I'm expecting a lot of product on the shelves with very little repeat purchases at the super-premium price point,” he told the Washington Post when the product launched. “It's better than Bud Light Golden Wheat” — Platinum’s predecessor in the Bud Light spin-off game, and an industry cautionary tale; it lived for just over two years — “but that's a very low [bar].” Corporate overlord InBev — which took over Anheuser-Busch in 2008 — isn’t known for its skill launching new products. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent cover story “The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer” details, InBev’s success has largely come through cost-cutting, and consumers have been complaining about the futzing it’s been doing with the legacy brands it's acquired.
Civilian reviews of Platinum were unpromising. “Reminiscent of a malt liquor mixed with the dregs of a Bud Light”; “the smell is honestly horrific”; “tastes like stale raisins,” said the commenters at BeerAdvocate.com. “I can’t beat around the bush: this is a foul fucking beer,” added YouTube’s Hoggies Beer Review. For DadBoner, the popular Twitter account of fictional Michigan divorcee Karl Welzein, Bud Light Platinum became an instant punch line. Karl was an immediate fan of “‘Nums,” he says, because they get you “homeless drunk, but with a touch of class.”
With both snooty tastemakers and bottom-line-oriented industry observers aligned against it, Platinum seemed destined to go the way of the Golden Wheat and so many other Bud products (remember Bud Extra, the “alcopop” packed with coffee and guarana?) that got the splashy rollout and then disappeared. But InBev and Anheuser-Busch can now shrug off all the criticism. Third-quarter numbers show that Platinum already has a nearly 1% market share in the U.S., comparable to Sam Adams. Over a million barrels of Bud Light Platinum have been shipped. Anheuser-Busch sees it as its most successful launch this decade. Platinum is a big fat hit.
Bud executives believe the beer's comically narrow appeal — it's a party beer for people who want to look upwardly mobile while watching their calorie count — is actually the key to its success. Bud Light Platinum is, on purpose, designed to appeal to people in a four-year age span: “24 to 27 is really that sweet spot,” says Bud Light Vice President Mike Sundet of Platinum’s target audience. “Really co-ed. And it’s less than a demographic than a mind-set. It’s the consumer who’s out at night, looking for that nightlife party time experience. Very interested in social media. Frequently interested in attending live music shows.” (Speaking of social media: early on, Platinum sent free cases of beer to people they'd found using the brand's hashtag, #makeitplatinum, on Twitter.) Sundet points to Platinum’s other big Super Bowl spot. Soundtracked to 23-year-old EDM superstar Avicii’s “Levels,” it showed an office full of “creatives” palling around — dancing, gambling, and, of course, crushing some ‘Nums.
"It's an aspirational brand," says Beer Business Daily's Harry Schumacher. "You hit people that are regular, low-income guys that have ambitions — they wanna have that little bit extra cost of the beer. For a status symbol." Philip Van Munching, author of Beer Blast: The Inside Story of the Brewing Industry’s Bizarre Battles for Your Money, agrees. “Everyone wants a reason that they’re paying too much for a beer in a nightclub.” Platinum gives you one right there in the name.
When I quiz some Millennials about Platinum, it’s eerie how on-brand their opinions are. “My friends were actually just talking about this the other day,” Emily, a 22-year-old marketing intern, tells me. “They decided it was ‘a drink for frat boys who like, grew up a little bit.’’’ Her roommate Rachel jumps in: “When I think Platinum, I think expensive credit cards, which leads to expensive stuff, which leads to ‘Wowww, this dude is doing alright.’ So it’s like the young man’s fancy drink. We are too young to appreciate a nice scotch. But who drinks Stella — Europeans? Bud Light Platinum says, ‘I watch football, I’m grounded, but I appreciate quality stuff.’”
A recent college graduate I know who works in financial services in New York City tells me he’s a big fan of the Plat. “BL has usually been my budget beer of choice among the others (i.e., Coors, etc.),” he writes in an e-mail, “mostly since I drank it in school so much.” Now, he’s made what he sees as a natural progression: “Natty — Bud Light — Platinum.” This guy also drinks a lot of craft beers, IPAs, that sort of thing, so it’s not like he thinks Platinum is the best-tasting beverage around: It’s his party beer. “If I'm showing up at a friend's house with a six-pack,” he says, “bringing a six-pack of Platinum is a pretty safe bet.”
There is one bit of sales pitch in particular from Sundet that I can’t help but roll my eyes to: his advocacy of that “signature” cobalt bottle. “It’s different from anything else in the industry,” he tells me. “We feature that in everything we do. The launch of the brand was focused on that blue glass bottle. It has a sense of differentiation, a sense of intrigue.” The bottle! The bottle! It sounds beyond preposterous. But taking a look at my own consumer choices, I realize it’s not so crazy. How much did my choice last week of a sixer of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale over Sam Adams Winter Lager have to do with the bucolic nature scene sketched on the label? Staying in the family: How much does my continued allegiance to Budweiser tall boys — itself spurred by a press photo I saw once of The Hold Steady knockin’ em back — have to do with the solidity and tradition the Budweiser label suggests?
At some point in our conversation, Sundet brings up Sensation Innerspace 2012, an EDM party sponsored by Platinum that went down at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena in late October as a defining brand event. I live just down the street from Barclays and happened to be around the area the evening of Sensation. First I saw just a few packs of rambunctious young people, tricked out in stunner shades and Native American headdresses and neon wristbands. Then I saw the true assemblage: hundreds of them, all massed in front of Barclays, all in white, all primed and focused on having the best night ever.
At first, I scoffed. The EDM, the herd mentality, the unintentional cult suicide associations — it was everything I was glad I, as one of those conscientious consumers so ready to dismiss Platinum, did not associate with. But I couldn’t help but be impressed. From the Platinum marketing team’s point of view, associating with the brand means associating with a community of like-minded young people who like staying up late. I’d wager that many, if not most, of the kids at Sensation weren’t actively aware they were at a Platinum-sponsored event. But unwittingly or not, they fulfilled Platinum’s community ideal. Somewhere, on some flyer, it said, “wear all white.” And these kids, so earnest, so down with the team, complied in full.
Yes, Platinum, as a punch line, is low-hanging fruit. But it’s hard to stay mad at it. I’ve actually been drinking it while writing this, and it is indeed sweeter and smoother, and damn effective for catching a quick buzz. Plus, this little row of cobalt-blue glasses I have staring back at me sure is easy on the eyes. On that note, I should probably stop typing now. But I will leave you with one last bit of advice: guys, every once in a while, if you have the urge, don't fight it. Just go ahead and #MakeItPlatinum.