Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
It may seem ironic that on their most patriotic holiday – Independence Day – Americans celebrating in bars and backyards across the country were, for the first time in memory, more likely drinking non-U.S. beer than domestic brews.
Modelo Especial, the flagship brand of Mexico City-based Grupo Modelo, is now the best-selling beer in the U.S., bumping Bud Light from the top spot shortly before the July 4th birthday party.
The rise of Modelo reflects more than the opportunistic timing of a competitor’s stumble.
There’s no question the accelerating factor was the backlash dogging Bud Light for enlisting social-media influencer Dylan Mulvaney, whose content focuses on her gender transition. Sales have fallen sharply amid widespread pushback from customers who see the connection to Ms. Mulvaney as off-brand.
But Modelo’s ascension to the throne is no accident. It reflects the rapid growth in the number of drinking-age Hispanic-Americans and the continuing shift of the beer-drinking public toward more premium brews.
More pivotal, Modelo has achieved nirvana as a brand that “gets it” – the “it” being the essence of its customers. The brand’s laser-focus on what matters to its faithful in its Fighting Spirit advertising campaign has become even more powerful in the context of Bud Light’s derailment.
To be sure, beer consumption and brand loyalty are hardly recognized demographic metrics. And the nationality of beer, like that of cars and other consumer products, is a fudgy thing in an era of global supply chains and production processes, and pan-border corporate ownership.
But whether you like it or not, beer brands have become very visible markers in the continuing culture wars in the U.S. – and in Bud Light’s case, a cultural flashpoint. The divisive fallout from its promotion with Ms. Mulvaney reflects how personal and often political the relationships are between consumers and the products they choose, even something as innocuous as beer, the average person’s reward after a hard day’s work.
That’s what makes the Modelo campaign so different – and so remarkably successful in navigating the landmines of the current cultural landscape.
While other beer brands advertise aspirational lifestyles or strum on patriotic heartstrings, Modelo stays away from all that and instead celebrates the struggles and successes that are core to the experiences of everyday people, including and especially immigrants.
In its ads, there are no urban hipsters partying on a city rooftop, totally stoked surfers on a beach at sunset, or cowboy-booted friends walking through the rain at a county fair to strains of country music. Modelo has moved away from celebrities and athletes as endorsers, and for the record, there has never been a majestic horse galloping past snow-capped mountains in a Modelo ad.
Instead, the subjects of Modelo’s Flighting Spirit ads are the pictures of humility – a barber named Philly (BarberKing) Garcia from East Los Angeles who lived in his car to make ends meet, a mom hosting a family holiday feast and sports fans tailgating in a blizzard. The message: These people measure success and happiness in ways that are different from the norms depicted in much modern advertising.
In announcing the next iteration of its campaign, Mark of a Fighter, earlier this year, Modelo openly dissed the ideals underpinning so many of its rival brands, suggesting it “highlights the changing dynamics of what’s important today – the desire for more meaningful pursuits that bring happiness versus achieving status and fame” through “stories that recognize and reward the fights of consumers from all walks of life.”
Marketing bumpf? No question. But in a practical sense, Modelo’s approach has captured not only the essence of its faithful, but of beer itself. In a world of hyperbole, Modelo has dared to call beer what it is – a humble quaff for regular folks.
That stand has made Modelo an unlikely hero in a marketplace where culture, not flavour, seems to be determining the winners and losers.