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The Midweek Motivator – Has Media Learned Anything from the Beer Wars?

“Many assume that half efforts can be effective. A small jump is easier than a large one, yet no one hoping to cross a wide ditch would cross half of it first.” (Karl von Clausewitz)

A few decades ago Beer marketers became enchanted with military thinking. If you visited the inner sanctum of Anheuser Busch headquarters, the 9th floor conference room was known as “the war room.” The walls were plastered with graphics and maps on which arrows pointed up or down reflecting their performance against their competition. Needless to say, most of their arrows traditionally pointed up.

The breakout by Budweiser chronicles that for a couple of decades Schlitz had actually been America’s number 1 brand; after all it “made Milwaukee famous.” But with no offense to Milwaukee it isn’t quite the same as Europe, so at the local corner pub among other brands, guys started drinking Budweiser, the so-called “The King of Beers.”

Over a couple of decades the lead tipped back and forth and marketing historians still say victory could have gone to either brand. Marketing cognoscenti will also confirm that over a long term even a small margin of leadership and a few million dollars can tip the scale. In current times regardless of the category (Beer or Broadcasting), management often asks the wrong question: “What’s our return on investment?” Instead, the salient question should be, “how much do we have to spend to ensure long term ratings dominance?”

Most historically-celebrated Admirals and Generals stress that sometimes the difference between winning and losing a war is a very small margin. Historians recount as the early Beer Wars turned the calendar into the 60’s, Budweiser grabbed the lead by less than 2 percent and was never beaten; a once close race became a route. By the 90’s Bud’s lead over Schlitz was 20 to 1! Some beer historians point out that Schlitz began to make an inferior product when they cut the brewing cycle which some claimed affected the taste of their beer.

Perhaps…but that move came an entire decade after Budweiser had grabbed the lead, never to surrender it. Now, in 2021 the Radio Wars’ decisions we make will likely have long term implications; an un-researched “Hail Mary” format change, shooting a morning team, scrubbing a format before it has a chance to mature, even scrapping a positioning statement too soon can impact a brand’s perception and potential favoritism.

Add one more Radio Warfare principle when attacking your competitor. Reiss & Trout emphasized an additional “Flanking Warfare” principle for outgunning a format leader: “Your pursuit is as important as the attack itself!”

This means pouring it on; not for a month, not for a year; instead over a period of years committing intellectual and financial investment.

Count on winning a Radio battle with (1) superior strategy, (2) a pour-it-on commitment, and (3) the retention of strong leadership. Some companies have ignored the “people thing” and some won’t recover.