Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Wendy’s has surpassed Burger King to become the number two burger joint in the U.S. Last year Coors Light outsold Budweiser, the self-proclaimed King of Beers, to become numero dos behind Bud Light, and earlier in 2011, Diet Coke zoomed past Pepsi (famously endorsed by the King of Pop. Ok, a stretch.) into the number three slot. Three brand kings-princes, really, since only Bud was ever number one-now trumped by their once lowly competition.
How did these leading brands falter and was it inevitable? It appears to be a mixture of fate and free will that have combined for each of these brands to lead them in the wrong direction.
It was fate
Cultural trends often tilt the playing field in the favor of one brand over another. And there is no doubt that Americans are far more knowledgeable and discerning about what we put into our bodies than we were when these three brands were in their hey day. The handwriting has been on the wall for Bud for many years, even before it was dethroned by its lower calorie sibling, Bud Light. Light beers began gaining market share when the famous Miller Lite “Tastes Great. Less Filling” debate defined the category. Lighter suds also attracted more female drinkers, which further fueled growth.
The same is true, of course, in the soda world in which four diet sodas are now in the top ten, where there were only two ten years ago. (The top 10 sodas in the U.S., in order of sales, are: Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi-Cola, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, Sprite, Diet Pepsi, Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Dr Pepper and Fanta.) Watch out for Coke Zero to make a run at cracking the lineup.
In the land of fast food, “burgers” have been attracting a lot of negative press for decades now, leading to more and more healthy options from all players. But of the leaders, only one is stuck with the actual word in their name, where both McDonald’s and Wendy’s have moved away from reminding us that their principal menu items are high fat, high cholesterol and mucho calories burgers-even though as a country we happily devour beef on a bun by the billions every year.
No fate but what we make
Yet in each case, these brands seem to have taken missteps as well, with Burger King being the worst offender. The Creepy King was unsettling indeed for far too many of their potential customers, but it was more than just an advertising gimmick. It was a conscious strategy by the brand and its ad agency to go after the core customer of fast food, young males. But what may have been a hilarious take on a children’s mascot to that segment, was off-putting to many others, and worse still focused on some of the most health-annihilating menu items such as the Monster Thickburger and the Enormous Omelet Sandwich. Um, excuse me, Your Highness, but the people are outside the castle gate demanding healthier food. What should I tell them? (As we all know, the Creepy King had nothing to say.)
Pepsi-Cola has watched it’s share slip for a decade and two years ago attempted to turn the tide with a famously expensive minor redesign of its logo and a major redesign of its packaging. But even that coupled with a social media push did little to slow the decline of what was once the best challenger brand in the world.
Bud has perhaps fallen the farthest of all. Its market share was 26% (almost 50% for all Anheuser-Busch beers combined) in 1988, but has fallen below 9% in recent years. The faded king has watched as imports and domestics alike chipped away at their sales. Their branding evolved, but never strayed far from the “King of Beers” claim, Clydesdales, and beechwood aging. Now their own light version is beating them and the Silver Bullet Coors Light brand has shot past them like a bullet.
It may be lonely at the top, but being second fiddle ain’t no picnic either. Each of these brands may have shared the same fatal flaw that betrayed many a real king, queen, or prince-a false sense of invincibility. While keeping their eye on the competition ahead of them, they’ve found themselves overtaken by smarter competition that adjusted to societal changes more effectively. In branding, as in royalty, the same brutal principle applies: The king is dead. Long live the king!