June 4, 2023


local businesses

How Miller Lite and Bud Light’s epic clash shook the marketing world

This article is part of a four-part series about famous brand rivalries.

Few brands have the intense rivalry that Miller Lite and Bud Light have, despite Bud Light’s consistently higher sales and reach. The decades-long feud is littered with lawsuits and smear campaigns. Their aggressive back and forth has shaped beer advertising, and neither looks ready to yield as they take the battle to new fronts. 

In recent years, a shrinking beer market has heightened the stakes for both brands. In 2020, the category declined 3% as hard seltzer and premium spirits started to eat into beer’s market share. While craft and import varieties generally enjoyed a pandemic boon, affordable offerings lost market share. And in an increasingly divided society, consumers may care more about social messaging and connectivity than brands squabbling over calorie and carb count. These trends could change the dynamic between Bud Light and Miller Lite going forward. 

Miller basically invented the light beer category as we know it today… and Anheuser-Busch was struggling to catch up for years because Lite was so dominant.

Joel Hueston

Independent consultant

While evidence suggests beer was first brewed in 3,400 BCE, light beer is a relatively new invention. According to popular belief, the Miller Brewing Company — now a subsidiary of Molson Coors — introduced Miller Lite in 1975 as the first light, low-carb beer. Aggressive advertising fueled an instant success, helping to make light beer the powerhouse it is today. Of the top five beers in America, four of them are light: Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra make up 41.8% of the domestic beer market.

“Miller basically invented the light beer category as we know it today, when they introduced Miller Lite nationally, and Anheuser-Busch was struggling to catch up for years because Lite was so dominant,” said Joel Hueston, an independent consultant who focuses on craft breweries. He also worked for the Miller Brewing company between 1979 and 2010. 

The real history of light beer is slightly different than popular belief. Miller Lite was indeed the first light beer. But it wasn’t always known as Miller Lite, and the Miller Brewing Company didn’t invent it.

Originally, Miller Lite was known as Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which was invented by biochemist Joseph L. Owades, an employee of the now-defunct Rheingold Brewing Company. Owades determined how to remove starch from beer, dramatically reducing both calories and carbs. It was meant to be the drink of choice for the health-conscious, the beer equivalent of Coca-Cola’s Tab.

After the beer failed at Rheingold, Owades got permission to share the formula with Meister Brau Brewery, where it was renamed Meister Brau Lite. That company went belly up in 1972, after which the beer was purchased by the Miller Brewing Company, then owned by tobacco behemoth Philip Morris. Three years later, the beer was reformulated and rebranded as Miller Lite and reintroduced to the world.

For years, Miller Lite was the biggest and only name in the light beer game. It leaned heavily into the “manliness” of light beer, emphasizing sports figures and celebrities in its advertising. The Miller Brewing Company also managed to market beer to those who typically don’t drink beer, and the company grew.

For most of Miller’s history, Anheuser-Busch paid little mind. To it, the bigger threat was Pabst in terms of sales. But after the Philip Morris acquisition, the beer giant began to take notice. 

From a simmer to a boil

The company known as Anheuser-Busch was formed in 1879 following earlier efforts in the brewing industry by German immigrants Eberhard Anheuser, a candle maker and Adolphus Busch, a brewery supplier. In 1861 Anheuser barely sold 4,000 barrels of beer a year, according to the book “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer.” By 1873, the business sold a profitable 27,000 barrels a year. 

Adolphus Busch, 1890

Photographs and Print Collection/Missouri History Museum

Eberhard Anheuere, 1898

Photographs and Print Collection/Missouri History Museum

After becoming a minority partner, Busch took control of the company following Anheuser’s death and purchased the recipe for Budweiser, according to “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer.” Around this time, pasteurization extended beer’s typically short shelf life, allowing for national sales. Anheuser-Busch expanded and quickly became the largest brewery in America, weathering Prohibition, and remains so to this day. The company was purchased by InBev in 2008, transferring power from August Adolphus Busch IV to Dave Peacock.

The Miller Brewing Company’s history was not as stable. While a large brewery, it was leagues away from Anheuser-Busch and was not deemed a threat. But leadership shake-ups at Anheuser-Busch threatened to shift that power balance.

The patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch family, August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch Jr. was behind some of the company’s most memorable marketing advances, including associating the beer with baseball as owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. The now-iconic Clydesdale horses featured in Budweiser ads, such as the famous 9/11 memorial commercial, were a gift from Gussie to his father to celebrate the end of Prohibition.

By the 1970s, some employees saw Gussie and his right-hand man Richard Meyer as too traditional. Philip Morris’ purchase of the Miller Brewing Company in 1969 was evidence that the company needed to change, especially if it wanted to compete with the cigarette company’s large advertising budget.

“Philip Morris was a much more powerful company than Anheuser Busch. Their product was the No. 1 product in the world, which was Marlboro cigarettes… So [August III] thought, ‘oh my God, these guys are coming after us. We got to really go after them’, and Gussie just couldn’t be bothered with it,” William Knoedelseder, author of “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer,” told Marketing Dive.

Gussie became CEO, a new title for the company, in 1971, and instead of naming his son August A. Busch III president, the one to take up the mantle was Meyer.

A fermenting rivalry

By the time the Miller Brewing Company had a viable product in 1973, an aggressive marketing campaign was already underway, two years before the beer went national. The Miller All Stars campaign featured retired athletes singing the praises of Miller Lite, emphasizing that it’s less filling. A now-iconic tagline first appeared during one spot: “Lite Beer from Miller: Everything you’ve always wanted in a beer… And less.” The messaging signaled that consumers could enjoy more beer. Miller Lite All Stars struck a home run, and Miller was the fourth most popular beer in America by the end of that year.

“Anheuser-Busch was very, very convinced that they should be dominating the beer business, and they weren’t when brands like Lite were doing so well,” Hueston said.