Iconic Bud brand center of takeover battle

As InBev plans to buy Anheuser-Busch, the US brewer's legacy plays a key role in messaging

The proposed $46 billion takeover bid from Belgian beverage company InBev for Anheuser-Busch has caused a stir among those who see the company, owner of Budweiser, as decidedly patriotic and American. The brand's patriotic message extends to its advertising, with recent spots calling it, "The Great American Lager," while earlier ads saluted US troops returning from Iraq.

Critics of the deal include politicians like Kit Bond, a Republican senator from Anheuser's headquarters' state, Missouri, who sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission saying the sale "potentially raises antitrust issues," and that the "community I represent is adamantly opposed to this acquisition."

Consumers might not always drink Budweiser, but they feel they need to protect the company as an American brand, says Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York.

"It's going to be extremely valuable for both sides to analyze the [protectionism branding] perspective," Paul tells PRWeek. "When you're having this type of fight, what types of angles do you have to your advantage to try and hold on to the company beyond the traditional messages? [Anheuser-Busch should be] utilizing that Americanism and that protectionism angle to its advantage."

Two Web sites campaigning against the InBev takeover recently appeared: SaveAB.com and SaveBudweiser.com, both of which are collecting signatures from the public to thwart the sale. The sites' organizers did not respond to requests for comment, though media reports cited Ed Martin, former chief of staff to Missouri's governor, Matt Blunt, as one of the people behind SaveAB.com.

"Anheuser-Busch has developed extraordinary, iconic brands, and that, along with market share, is what InBev seeks to purchase," says Rob Baskin, MD of MS&L in Atlanta. "If InBev wants to reassure people, it needs to be very direct and forthright."

InBev took the first step in addressing the issue by hosting a conference call with its CEO, Carlos Brito, touting the Belgian company's commitment to retaining the beer company's all-American brand, as well as its physical presence on US soil. InBev posted the call as a webcast on its Web site, along with other supporting documents on the deal.

"I think what's important here is that Budweiser, the beer, will continue to be brewed tin the same breweries - we don't have plans to close any breweries - by the same people, according to the same recipe, according to the same traditions and heritage," Brito said during the call. "I think that's what matters at the end of the day, and that's what we're committed to, because we understand that's so key to the business, to the brands, and to consumers, and therefore to us."

PR pros believe InBev's quick actions will bode well for the company.

"InBev is already doing a lot of the right things," says Jon Goldberg, partner and head of the corporate affairs practice at Porter Novelli. "[It's] offering the right kinds of concessions and diffusing the local economic argument."

A representative for Brunswick Group confirmed that it is handling "transaction work" for InBev, but declined to comment on communications strategy. Anheuser also declined to comment.

Scott Broberg, VP at Fast Horse in Minneapolis, says that InBev will need to maintain its quick response time if it does succeed in buying Anheuser.

"If a deal goes through, it will be important for InBev to quickly assure key audiences that [it plans] to honor that tradition by staying true to the brand here in the US... everything from local breweries to marketing and sponsorships," he says. "I'm sure there are no plans to put the Clydesdales out to pasture. [It] should deliver the news with tangible proof points and then ensure [it] follows through - both short term and long term."

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