How Bud Light's 'Dilly Dilly' fantasy world overthrones marketing a reality

AB InBev and creative partners Wieden+Kennedy on the cultural success of creating a Medieval world, a failed attempt to get Meghan Markle on board, and knowing when to call time.

Andy Goeler remembers the day he knew "Dilly Dilly" had cemented itself in culture forever.

The vice president of marketing for Bud Light was at home watching an NFL game one Thursday night in November 2017 when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger yelled the tagline to his teammates during a play.

"I literally slid off my couch!" said Goeler. "And from there it just took off like a rocketship."

Months before, Goeler and his creative partners over at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) had crammed themselves into a New York City conference room to hammer out a brave new marketing direction for the Anheuser-Busch InBev brand.

They wanted to sharpen the theme of "friends you can count on" by orchestrating a scenario in which pals relied on each other via the spirit of America’s most popular beer. Suggested settings for this world included a zombie apocalypse and the Revolutionary War. But there was one that shone brightest.

"We let consumers own it"

The VP, who’s string of creative achievements includes the 1999 Budweiser "Whassup?!" spot, continued: "We’re having fun looking through different pieces of content, and then this Medieval script comes up -- and I remember this so well -- the creative team from Wieden we’re reading in Medieval voices. We all really connected to the Medieval world because we felt that it was a place that we could have a lot of fun with."

"Dilly Dilly" (which Goeler shouts in a surprisingly good British accent) is the brainchild of W+K’s copywriting team which nurtured it from "cheers" to "hazzah" to the globally-renowned slogan it is today.

But what the duo created has transpired to be far more valuable than any tagline -- they birthed a fictitious ecosystem where Bud Light is revered as the most almighty thing. It gave way to limitless messages which can be voiced through any number of characters.

"Today’s consumers are very skeptical of advertising, so you have to provide content they want to engage with," he said. "Having one of these characters deliver these messages is so much more powerful than when it comes from a corporation. We were seeking a world that would give us a place to keep going back to that would become recognizable to consumers and enable us to build voices to speak on behalf of the brand."

The importance of creating this world is on par with letting consumers own it. Goeler explained that Bud Light has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to copyright infringement.

It didn’t take long for "Dilly Dilly" merchandise to swamp the underground beer market (it’s a real thing, apparently). And when Bud Light’s attorneys called Goeler panicking about a small brewing company in Minneapolis launching its own "Dilly Dilly" IPA, he pumped the brakes on sending a corporate cease and desist letter. Instead, his team flew a Medieval town crier across the U.S. to burst into the brewery, unravel a scroll and decry the king’s flattery, but his orders to make no more. They also threw in a couple of thrones at the Super Bowl for two of the brewery’s employees.

AB InBev reports encouraging 2018 as beer industry continues to transform

Bud Light used the same tactic when it engaged in a public spat about the use of corn syrup in other beers during Super Bowl. A seething Miller Lite was quick to respond with full-page adverts in the New York Times, to which Bud Light addressed with a letter from the king. You can argue calling out competitors is cheap, but what you can’t deny is the genius absurdly in picturing a MillerCoors team engaged in a fight with a fictional character. It works.

While the public seems to be enjoying all this beer brand banter, there is a much more serious battle taking place behind closed doors.

The industry has been struggling with a decline in traditional/longstanding beer sales in recent years as consumers look to craft beers and other products. It’s been widely reported that Goeler was asked back to Anheuser-Busch InBev amid the uncertainty to restore Bud Light’s glory.

In February 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported how shrinking Bud Light sales may have a detrimental impact on marketing spend for some beer distributors.

But one year on, AB InBev is painting a picture of success. The company recorded an overall global revenue growth of 4.8 percent in its annual 2018 report.

Its U.S. revenues declined by 0.7 percent. Revenue per hectoliter grew by 1.9 percent, driven by revenue management initiatives and continued premiumization of its portfolio. Commercial initiatives for the market led to its best annual share trend performance since 2012.

The report claimed Budweiser and Bud Light are performing better than prior year trends. However, the core and core light segments remain under pressure as consumers trade up to higher price tiers.

"The beer industry has never been more challenging," said Goeler, who didn't talk specifically to the impact "Dilly Dilly" has had on revenue. "There are thousands of brands out there, and as the lead brand we’re getting a little here and a little there. We’re in a constant battle to try to hold our own and bring new consumers into the franchise.

"We tried to get Meghan Markle and got the quickest 'no' ever"

"As we look at our below-the-table metrics, there are significant gains on some of the key indicators, and if we didn’t see that we wouldn’t be continuing with the Medieval world. But this whole marketing approach is doing really good things with the brand health. We’re pleased with it but we always want to sell more Bud Light."

The beer’s Super Bowl spot, which highlighted its commitment to quality and transparency by revealing its ingredients, did wonders for Bud Light’s conversation -- even if they couldn’t get Meghan Markle to play the king’s daughter.

"We got the quickest ‘no’ you will ever see in your life," said Brandon Henderson, one of creative directors for Bud Light at W+K. "And it came from a duke or someone way too important to be writing to us."

Harping on what beer’s made of is Bud Light’s strategy for the immediate future. Expect to see more ads centered around the brand’s commitment to its four only ingredients: barley, hops, water and rice.  

Henderson, along with his colleague John Parker and team of creatives, are busy building work for Bud Light’s summer portfolio of lime and orange flavors. By Labor Day, the fact that these include no preservatives and are brewed with real citrus peel will be drilled into your head. All of this messaging is slated to come from Medieval World.

"'Dilly Dilly' won't last forever"

"We already have our sitcom set, we just need to write the jokes and keep it interesting," Henderson continued, adding that they’ll know to end the "Dilly Dilly" saga "when the scripts start getting bad. Once we start running out of stories to tell is when it’s time to hang up the hat."

It’s a feeling Goeler shares. He’s comfortable knowing that one day soon a chapter will be closed in Bud Light history and the drawing board will rear its head once again. The marketer said "there’s no real science" to knowing when to call it a day, and stressed that any decision "has to come from gut and listening to consumers."

For now, though, the team can ride this cultural tsunami which has unequivocally had a positive impact on brand awareness, even if the correlation to revenue isn't clear right now. 

"‘Dilly Dilly’ won’t last forever," he admits. "But the Medieval world can last for a long time. We can introduce more characters and stories."

Goeler added: "Prior to ‘Dilly Dilly,’ I don’t know if we were as close to connecting to what is relevant in culture today. ‘Dilly Dilly’ put us on the map for that. For a marketer, it’s nirvana -- it doesn’t get any better than that. The key is how do you stay in there and keep things relevant?

"It’s hard."

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