The 6 Hallmarks of Great Beer Ads

A journey through one of advertising's most perfect categories

Beer may just well be the perfect category for advertising. Big name brands with fans that span the spectrum between casual and passionate. You have constant innovation and shifting trends, from the rise of lite beer and lager in the '80s to today's surge in no- and low-alcohol beers. You have pleasant associations to draw on, but also regulations that can paradoxically force brands to get more creative as they can't just take the most obvious routes.

It's also a category with an astonishing heritage of classic ads which today's brands can draw inspiration from. The central truth of ad effectiveness is that you must entertain for commercial gain—and beer marketers learned that lesson early. From the Hofmeister Bear to Budweiser's "Whassup?" frogs, beer brands have always understood the value of funny, playful characters and surreal non-sequiturs. And there's a rich tradition of great beer slogans too, from Carlsberg's "Probably the Best Lager in the World" to Dos Equis' "I don't always drink beer, but when I do…"

Consider Heineken's ad starring poet William Wordsworth as he struggles to write the classic "I wandered lonely as a cloud…" opening to his poem Daffodils. After several clunky attempts, Wordsworth puts down his quill and has a refreshing drink of Heineken. Anachronistic? Of course, but it does the job and the ad ends with a play on the brand's famous '80s tagline: "Heineken refreshes the poets other beers cannot reach."

Jokes, cultural references, wordplay and other elements built to attract the broad-beam attention of the brain's right hemisphere perform as well today as they did years ago. These elements, as well as others like human communication, betweenness and melodic soundtracks, are important for building brands because catching that broad-beam attention is what gets you noticed by people who aren't your customers yet.

There's a second type of attention, known as narrow-beam, which is more oriented toward specific goals and tasks, like buying a particular brand of beer. Prominent, distinctive branding, which makes it obvious your product is available and makes it easier to buy, works well in bars and shops, for instance. But to create the positive mental associations that make your brand feel like a good choice, you need to capture broad-beam attention with entertaining, emotional work.

With this in mind, here are six themes that when woven together, have consistently delivered strong, memorable beer ads.

Characters

Characters give your ads and stories a focal point and build brand recognition without compromising on entertainment. Some beer brands have shied away from characters, as they're often associated with juvenile categories and also, there are strict regulations in many markets about using characters which might appeal to kids to sell alcohol. (No more Hofmeister Bear, sadly). But that being said, they can be done and done well.

Dos Equis' sophisticated "The Most Interesting Man in the World" is a great example of a character that became a popular early internet meme, but the Bud Knight and his King, with the idiotically catchy "Dilly Dilly!" slogan, have also struck gold. Meaningless but addictive, and the perfect character and slogan for a brand with bro appeal. "Dilly Dilly!" created confusion at first, but then people loved it—so much so that the brand grabbed headlines when they announced they were killing him off.

Scenarios

Where the set-up and characters vary per ad but the punchline is the same is called a scenario. It's been rare to find beer brands using recurring scenarios in recent years, which is a shame as some of the greatest beer campaigns of all time use the technique. Heineken's "Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Can't Reach" is a great example from the 1980s, as is Carlsberg's "We don't do… but if we did…" spots which were flights of comic fantasy in the '90s.

Humor

Humor is a natural fit for beer for all of the obvious reasons. Memorable spots have been tongue-in-cheek, knowing and topical—though surrealism and broad comedy can work too. Boston Beers' Sam Adams brand made one of the most entertaining and effective beer ads of recent years when they teamed up with robotics firm Boston Dynamics for their 2022 Super Bowl ad—a great example of "entertain for commercial gain."

Storytelling

Friendship, stories, tall tales and banter are at the heart of beer culture around the world, so it's not surprising how strong beer ads can be when they focus on telling a story. This category embraces all the others—every successful element from a strong character to a cute animal can be enhanced when it's part of a great narrative. And any of those things can be wasted on an ad which is ultimately little more than product shots and vibes.

Strong stories in any category help get that all important broad-beam attention, since they'll tend to involve central characters, an evocative location, human interaction and a single narrative—all of which are elements the right brain picks up on more than the left. The beer category is full of great examples—one of the finest is Stella Artois' "Reassuringly Expensive" series, a set of comic vignettes of French country life based on the Jean De Florette films. The first spot is a masterclass of storytelling, all the more so when you realize it aired in the U.K. with no subtitles and still launched one of the most successful campaigns ever.

Animals

Cute animals are a prominent feature of almost every other category, because they leave viewers genuinely delighted. Beer ads haven't used them as often—partly for regulatory reasons, as mentioned earlier—as it's vital for beer commercials not to be seen as appealing to anyone below legal drinking age.

Consider Carlsberg's "The Seal," which demonstrates the brand's commitment to sustainable policies with the help of a cute seal. What makes the ad work isn't just the cuteness, or the green initiatives, it's the fact that Carlsberg openly acknowledges how unusual it is to feature an animal like this in a beer ad. And paradoxically, that incongruous element is exactly why it works.

Camaraderie

The final element a lot of beer ads have in common is a celebration of friendship and camaraderie. This doesn't have to be all-male camaraderie, though often it is, as exemplified by the four lads racing to keep their beer from spilling in Carlton Beer's "Beer Chase," which encouraged viewers to associate their beer with friendship and bonding.

Emphasizing friendship can also take your ad to deeper emotional places than other beer ads. In Guinness' "Made of More" campaign, the brand made several commercials putting the spotlight on the lengths friends and family will go to help one another, such as 2016's "Wheelchair Basketball," which told a story about inclusive friendship with a surprising and very moving twist.

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Jon Evans
Jon Evans is chief growth officer at System1.

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