Many of us know the commercial: A man, sitting on his couch, watching a football game and drinking a Budweiser, answers the phone. He chats for a moment, but his housemate walks into the room, shouting, “Wassap!” The commercial devolves into nonsensical greetings, each actor screaming “Wassap” as more friends join the phone call.
But in Anheuser-Busch’s 2020 iteration of the notorious Budweiser ad, the ending changes. As the shouting recedes, the first actor asks his friend, “So, you okay, B?” The friend responds: “I’m good, B. Just quarantining, having a Bud.”
Riffing on the iconic 1999 commercial is a sharp response to beer buying behaviors during Covid-19. As Budweiser exemplifies, consumers are favoring familiar brands, bypassing the new for the tried and true. Nostalgia for normalcy is driving our beer purchasing decisions — and others, too.
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“I think revisiting nostalgic-type brands is really resonating across the beer category,” says Michael Della Penna, chief strategy officer at InMarket, a data analysis firm. “I think it goes back to the beer that you could afford and remember from when you were young.”
According to InMarket’s Covid-19 Beer Brand Buzz report, budget brands such as Busch Light have been outpacing those in the premium and super-premium beer categories, such as Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra, respectively.
“There is a trend towards value,” says Della Penna. “Budget-type brands are seeing a higher increase than some of the premium brands that people may have been purchasing in the past.”
Throwback purchases aren’t limited to the beer aisle. Data from InMarket shows puzzles and board games have seen double-digit increases in the past several weeks, as has simple exercise equipment like kettlebells and weights. Sewing-related products are also on the rise, not just for producing masks, Della Penna says, but for consumers to hem their own garments. “I think this is a harkening back to a time in your life when things were simpler, and doing these activities is providing comfort,” he says.
Nielsen also reports that 69 percent of surveyed Americans are purchasing alcohol brands they “know and trust.” In favoring brands with which they have previous relationships, customers indicate that knowing a product — its flavor and its financial commitment – can lead to a more confident purchase.
According to Larry Bell, president and founder of Bell’s Brewery in Comstock, Mich., this gives some beers an advantage, even in the craft market.
“Craft drinkers stopped their experimentation for a while,” Bell says of craft beer buying habits during the pandemic. “People are saying, ‘I’m not going to mess around with something that I don’t know and that I might not be satisfied with.’ And that drove them to more established craft brands.”
Consumer spending data reflects Bell’s observation. InMarket’s Beer Brand Buzz report had just two “craft” options in its Top 10 Beer Brands by Spend: Goose Island Beer Company’s 312 wheat ale and New Belgium Brewing’s Fat Tire amber ale, both of which come from large craft operations with nationwide distribution footprints. Compounded with shrinking retail space amid hard seltzer’s recent popularity spike, customers are increasingly shepherded toward larger beer brands.
“[Hard seltzer and decreased retail space are] crowding out the long tail of craft,” says Bell. “Established brands are going to have a leg up on any newcomers.”
But buying a familiar beer also points to the importance of ease in these decisions. Once the choices narrow, consumers are overwhelmingly purchasing the classics.
Miller Lite, for example, saw a double-digit increase in the first months of the pandemic — Della Penna points out that this domestic lager brand was the first successful mainstream light beer in the U.S. market. The brew has taken root in American imaginations, and that wistful memory could be driving its gains during the pandemic.
Convenience is also playing part in a move toward larger alcohol quantity purchases. According to Greg Doonan, communications manager at Nielsen, 30-packs and 24-packs of beer have seen double-digit sales growth since the beginning of the pandemic. In trading up to larger packs, Americans are both saving money on per-ounce costs and reducing the number of trips they make to the package store — an important consideration when running errands may increase a person’s risk of virus exposure.
Although budget-buying has been disputed among beer industry reports, affordability of domestic lagers and legacy craft brands is hard to ignore: As the U.S. unemployment rate reached record-breaking highs last month, and experts predicting the long tail of the recession to be even worse than that, it’s possible beer drinkers are reaching for less expensive brands.
In addition to buying cheaper beers in larger quantities, beer drinkers are pivoting to lighter, lower-calorie options. (Data from Nielsen shows that in the first week of May, when much of the country was under shelter-in-place orders, the top three premium light brands accounted for nearly 15 percent of the category’s dollar growth; and the top three beers in terms of overall growth were Busch Light (sub-premium), Miller Lite (premium), and Michelob Ultra (super premium), all of which fall under 100 calories per 12-ounce serving. With limited access to fitness facilities and fewer opportunities for outdoor recreation, looking for ways to cut calorie intake is also potentially affecting their decisions in the beer aisle.
The Psychology of Nostalgic Beer Purchases
According to Dr. Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., the idea of a nostalgic beer purchase is unsurprising. This is because the product is especially susceptible to nostalgic experiences, she says. “You have the sense of smell, you have the texture, you have the foam, the color of it. It’s just so rich a stimulus.” According to Batcho, each of those stimulus features — the auditory, visual, and, most importantly, the olfactory — is a powerful memory trigger.
Batcho also points out that nostalgia is a very social emotion. “When you ask someone about their nostalgic memories, inevitably, it’s going to come back to the people they associate with a particular stimulus or time period,” she says. “When you drink a certain beverage, even a certain brand, it reminds you of people that were important to you or still are important to you.”
When remembering a particular beer, be it a cheap domestic bottle or a $12 pour of a craft favorite, what about the event remains distinct? Taste is important, but these memories are typically saturated with interpersonal experiences. And, in a time when staying away from friends and family is a paramount concern, people are subconsciously dipping into those memory reserves, recreating the experience in the safety of their homes — through cheap beers.
This phenomenon rings true for Karleigh Stone, a news producer in Florida. On her first grocery trip after the statewide bar shutdown in early April, Stone says, she bought three cases of beer, one of which was a 30-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why PBR? “Definitely nostalgia,” she says. “[My husband and I] moved to Florida from Chicago. PBR was a beer we got all the time on dollar-beer nights at restaurants in Logan Square, where we used to live. It’s a reminder of those happy times.”
Batcho believes leaning into these nostalgic purchases can also help create healthy coping mechanisms. By indulging in nostalgic memories or experiences, a person is less likely to feel alone. “Nostalgia reminds us that, since we were physically together at one point earlier in our lives, we probably will be again,” she says.
Craft Brewers Respond to Consumers’ Taste for ‘Better Times’
Even craft breweries, which have struggled throughout the pandemic, are seeing nostalgic buying trends unfold. Half Acre Beer Company of Chicago made its name with Daisy Cutter, an “obscenely dry” pale ale that claims blended notes of pine, citrus, papaya, and mango. It’s one of the first beers Half Acre brewed, and it’s flying off the shelves.
“Daisy Cutter has just been killing it since we’ve been in this time,” says Gabriel Magliaro, one of the brewery’s co-founders. “I think people are finding some sort of shelter emotion in drinking our beer right now.”
Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Mass., recently decided to postpone its scheduled new summer seasonal release, in part to focus on Copper Legend, the brewery’s annual Oktoberfest lager originally released in 2011. Launched shortly after the brewery’s opening, Copper Legend commands a strong following. Copper Legend sales account for close to half of Jack’s Abby’s seasonal portfolio, and the brewery did not want to risk interrupting its fall launch with an untested summer release.
Additionally, Jack’s Abby decided to re-release one of its original core beers. Jabby Brau, a session lager, was retired almost five years ago, but the brewery decided to bring it back for a limited release.
“There was just this feeling of wanting to do things outside of our core beers but not necessarily wanting to overwhelm with something completely new,” says Sam Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby. “We wanted to tap into that nostalgia. It’s got our original logo, which is super old school, so it’s been really fun to have that beer kicking around.”
Bell’s Brewery decided to forego its usual synchronized launch for Oberon, the brewery’s flagship summer seasonal wheat ale. The beer commands a huge following in Michigan and around the Midwest, and Oberon Day typically involves shipping out tens of thousands of kegs for synchronized celebrations. Wanting to dissuade people from attending big gatherings, the brewery decided to call off the parties and allow distributors to release the beer when they received it.
But even without the massive, synchronized launch parties, Oberon is doing well this year — in part because of its nostalgic pull. In addition to being one of the brewery’s first seasonal releases, the wheat ale holds special significance in Michigan, supplying a celebratory end to the state’s long, hard winters. And, each year, Bell’s releases 5-liter mini kegs with a fresh color and design, helping Oberon to command a strong, intergenerational following.
“Those cans become a permanent fixture in a consumer’s camp,” says Bell. “When they go open up the cottage, there’s their collection of Oberon cans. It makes them remember, ‘oh, we drank the blue can on the pontoon boat, and that was a great summer.’ I think that lends to the nostalgic aspect of Oberon.”
Any beer purchase has the capability of making us feel good. And although Budweiser’s “Wassap” commercial may not give us all the warm and fuzzies, it does give us a sense of familiarity. It is the pursuit of that comfort — of recreating a beer-drinking experience from what we recall as a simpler, less stressful time — that’s sending us back to beers that we know well. Budweiser and other comfort beers are bittersweet reminders that we were once together, laughing over a beer, and that someday, we’ll be able to do it again.