ONE-MAN FOCUS GROUP APRIL 22, 2013
Are you a beer butterfingers? A cola klutz? A soft drink simpleton?
America's beverage industry apparently thinks you are. With the year not even four months old, we've already seen three high-profile brands release new package designs that seem to present a solution in search of a problem: They're easier to hold in the hand. Or at least that's what they're claiming.
First came the new Heineken bottle, which was touted as having "an embossed thumb groove that improves grip." Then came the new Pepsi bottle, which was designed with "ergonomically contoured" ridges for superior gripability.
Now Anheuser-Busch is getting into the act. Last week the brewery unveiled a new Budweiser can design that's crimped in the middle. The unusual shape, which will start showing up on retail shelves in early May, plays off of the brand's longstanding bow tie-shaped logo, but an Anheuser-Busch press release also noted that the new can will be "easy-to-grip."
All of which makes you wonder what's been going on out there in the beverage world. Like, has there been a rash of consumers accidentally dropping their beer cans and soda bottles when the rest of us weren't looking? Is grasping a can or bottle a more complex operation than it seems? Has the American Ergonomics Association been lobbying the soda and beer industries? (That's a trick question: There's no such thing as the American Ergonomics Association.)
"I've been covering this business for a long time, and I never heard anyone complain that the old Pepsi bottle was hard to handle," says John Sicher, editor of the trade journal Beverage Digest. "And regarding the basic 12-ounce can, it's comfortable in the hand, and I've never heard ergonomic issues raised about that package either."
So if there's no need for enhanced ergonomics on a can of Bud (especially if it's going to be nestled in a beer koozie anyway), what's the deal with all the functional enhancements? They're presumably bells and whistles designed to attract younger consumers.
Or at least that would appear to be the most obvious answer. But Scott Hamrah, a semiotic brand analyst with the brand consulting firm TruthCo., doesn't see it that way. "There are no studies – none – showing that young people respond to these kinds of things," he says. "Millenials are very savvy consumers. Also, they do not like Budweiser, which is a big part of why Bud sales have been falling for years."
Hamrah actually thinks these design changes are geared toward the other end of the demographic spectrum. "All three of these products [Heineken, Pepsi, Bud] are heritage brands, and they have an aging consumer base," he says. "So these designs are for an aging Baby Boomer population." In other words, can and bottles might not be slipping out of people's hands just yet, but they could be soon. Ergo, ergonomics.
Functionality notwithstanding, the new Bud can has at least two other bullet points that may be problematic. For starters, it uses twice as much aluminum as a standard can–a no-no in our increasingly green-sensitive era.
But the biggest problem is that the new can holds 11.3 ounces (about six percent less than a standard 12-ounce can) but will not have an accompanying price break. Meanwhile, the regular Bud can will still be available. Do the Anheuser-Busch folks really think a packaging gimmick will convince people to pay the same price for less beer? If so, they should, you know, get a grip.
Want to learn more about the new Bud can? Check out this video from Anheuser-Busch: