Most of us know O’Doul’s as that weird beer in the corner of the bodega cooler. Released in 1990 as a nonalcoholic alternative for people who wanted beer without the booze, it’s since become something of a cultural punching bag. But many of us would like to have the social experience of drinking without actually drinking–suggesting that part of O’Doul’s bad rap might be its green-and-gold branding, which portrays it as a faux-Irish lager rather than embracing its role as a beer alternative.
In anticipation of “Blackout Wednesday,” as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when many college students come home and party is known, the Anheuser-Busch corporate social responsibility department has developed a potentially brilliant marketing play. In select bars across Manhattan, they’ll be experimenting with a new, limited-edition O’Doul’s can design by the celebrated graphic designer Mr. Kiji.
Instead of green and gold, Kiji reimagined the can with quirky geometric patterns and retro pastels. The typography looks more like something out of a zine than a label for a beer can; the whole design is pure Instagram bait.
“I came into this role a few months ago when we were looking across our portfolio. We have over 100 brands . . . and you can imagine we don’t give the same priority to all those brands, when we have Budweiser, Bud Light, and Goose Island,” says Adam Warrington, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Anheuser-Busch. “But then we have O’Doul’s. At 28 years old, there’s a a level of equity in the brand, but it’s not a new brand. It’s been there for a while and it’s been untouched for a couple decades.”
According to Anheuser-Busch metrics, only about a third of millennials have ever tried a nonalcoholic beer, and Warrington admits that O’Doul’s is not on the radar for most of them. That’s strange, in a way, given that young people largely seem to be drinking alcohol less often than previous generations, while cultural movements like mindfulness, daybreaker parties, and mocktails are in.
The company realized that this booze-less beer offered an opportunity to experiment with the brand’s identity, timed with one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year. Repackaging O’Doul’s as something attractive, even cool, to imbibe, could make it a tool for what the company dubs its “responsible drinking” initiative, the perfect way to say “enjoy drinking our product as much as you can, but not too much!”
Over a beer at the Anheuser-Busch offices, Mr. Kiji agreed to the project, instructed to completely ignore any brand legacy for the product. He developed several concepts, and the company liked them so much, they chose not one, but two designs to become cans.
Honestly, O’Doul’s has never looked better. The can celebrates art and design in a way that’s on par with the craft brew scene’s own design renaissance, in which thousands of brewers around the U.S. have embraced distinctive visuals to stand out on the shelf with a lot more than a logo.
“This is not part of a grand O’Doul’s brand refresh. That would be for the colleagues of mine in marketing,” Warrington cautions. But it’s clear that Anheuser-Busch’s CSR department, at the very least, would love to see the project scale outside a one-night event–noting that the design itself was developed to work beyond a can, on bottles and other marketing materials, too. “Depending on the reaction, you never know. We’ll see what happens.”