Ep. 2 The Bud Light Corntroversy of 2019

January 28, 2020

Ep. 2 The Bud Light Corntroversy of 2019

Jan 28, 2020

With the Super Bowl just a few days away, many in the corn industry will be thinking about a Super Bowl ad that ran during last year’s big game. In it, Bud Light launched a year-long attack against the corn syrup that Coors Light and Miller Lite use during their brewing process.

 

This misleading smear campaign could have been a new low point in what was already a bad year for corn producers. But instead, the National Corn Growers Association teamed up with MolsonCoors, the company behind Coors Light and Miller Lite. Together, they hit back against Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch, and they made it hurt.

 

In this episode, NCGA CEO Jon Doggett relives the "Corntroversy" of 2019 with help from MolsonCoors CCO Adam Collins, NCGA President Kevin Ross, and NCGA VP of Communications Neil Caskey.

 

 

Direct Share

 

Transcripts

 

Kevin Ross:                 

My reaction, though, it simply was that they just attacked my product. They just attacked corn directly, and farmers were upset. Farmers were pissed.

 

Jon Doggett:               

You have this great, big company coming in and poking at a product that we produce, but I think really, our farmers took it very, very personally.

 

Kevin Ross:   

I said, "You want to respond to Bud Light? Like, I mean, are you kidding me?" And he's like, "No. I'm serious. I think we need to make a statement here."

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Hello, and welcome to Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast. This is where leaders, growers, and stakeholders in the corn industry can turn for big-picture conversations about the state of the industry and its future. I'm Dusty Weis, and I'll be introducing your host, association CEO Jon Doggett. You can join Jon every month as he travels the country on a mission to advocate for America's corn farmers. From the fields of the Corn Belt to the D.C. Beltway, we'll make sure that the growers who feed America have a say in the issues that are important to them, with key leaders who are shaping the future of agriculture.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

If you haven't yet, make sure you're subscribed to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. That way, you can take us with you in your truck, your combine, or on your next business trip, and never miss an update from Jon. Also, make sure you follow the NCGA on Twitter @NationalCorn, and sign up for the National Corn Growers Association newsletter in your email at NCGA.com.

 

Dusty Weis:               

With the Super Bowl just a few days out, a lot of corn industry folks will once again be thinking about a Super Bowl ad that ran during last year's big game. In it, Bud Light launched a year-long attack against the corn syrup that Coors Light and Miller Lite use during their brewing process. This misleading smear campaign could have been a new low point in what was already a bad year for corn producers, but instead, the National Corn Growers Association teamed up with Molson Coors, the company behind Coors Light and Miller Lite, and together, they hit back against Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch and made it hurt. Today, we're going to tell you how.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Jon, this is perhaps the highest-profile news story in which the National Corn Growers Association was involved this past year, so it makes sense to have some high-profile guests to discuss it, and we have filled a room with them today. This is a veritable who's who of the corn industry and the brewing industry. Who do we have on the show today, Jon?

 

Jon Doggett:               

Well, Dusty, one of the things we find out in life is when the chips are down, you know who your friends are, and certainly the folks at Molson Coors have been our friends in the aftermath of the horrible, awful ad at the Super Bowl. And so we're joined today by Adam Collins, the chief communications officer at Molson Coors, and Adam, thanks for being here.

 

Adam Collins:               

Thanks for having us.

 

Jon Doggett:               

There's another big player in all of this issue, and America's corn farmers know him well, but he became an internet-famous sensation after the controversy, and that's NCGA's president, Kevin Ross. Kevin.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Yeah, thanks for having me on the show, Jon, as a pretty crazy set of circumstances that brought infamous or famous or whatever you want to call it, on the internet.

 

Jon Doggett:               

You never know what life is going to deal you, and so speaking of that, here's the guy who bore the brunt of the pressure when this story first broke, and that's NCGA Vice President of Communications, Neil Caskey.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

And good morning. I'm happy to declare that I am a reformed Bud Light drinker, and happy to be sitting right next to the latest internet sensation and influencer, so maybe there's something with that, Kevin.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Well, this is fantastic. I kind of joked around with my wife ahead of time, but I feel like instead of Ocean's 11, we're talking with Doggett's 4 here today. This is just a phenomenal crew of people. Great cast of characters, and a great story, when you come right down to it. The National Corn Growers Association really has one job, and that's put American corn growers in a position where they can thrive by advocating for their interests. And there are dozens of ways that the NCGA does this job, and while that work touches the lives of our growers every day, it's not usually high-profile headline-grabbing stuff. That was not the case a year ago. This is the exception that proves the rule.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

And it's a fascinating story that began about a year ago. The Super Bowl. I remember where I was. I'm sure you all remember where you were, as well. It made headlines around the world and took the National Corn Growers Association into a very public feud with the largest beverage company on the planet, Anheuser-Busch. And it all started with a dumb ad during the Super Bowl. So, Jon, it was Patriots-Rams on February 3rd, 2019. What was going on with you and the NCGA during that time?

 

Jon Doggett:               

We had a couple hundred growers in the great city of Denver. By the way, there's a small suburb outside of Denver called Golden, and a group of us were sitting in a restaurant. Neil and I and some of the other staff and my son were watching the game, and all of a sudden, this ad comes on, and I looked at Neil, and Neil looked at me, and I looked at Neil, and I said, "Neil, you're the communications guy. Now, what are you going to do?"

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Neil, how did it feel to be suddenly thrust into that spot in the middle of a football game that you were just trying to enjoy?

 

Neil Caskey:                 

On the game itself, and just on behalf of my fellow St. Louis employees, there were two crimes committed that. The one was the ad. The other that Stan Kroenke, St. Louis Rams, or formerly St. Louis Rams, rather, the L.A. Rams, were allowed to play in the Super Bowl.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

You St. Louis football fans just can't catch a break.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Well, hey, we have the Chiefs are our team now, so it's moving along. Yeah, so I was three months into the job, and I was planning on probably having a few Bud Lights and watching that game, rooting hard against the L.A. Rams, and Stan Kroenke in particular, and obviously those plans changed real quick. I think the biggest thing, aside from my boss looking at me and his son sitting right across the table and wondering what we're going to do, the biggest thing that was crossing my mind is, what happens if we don't, and we wake up tomorrow with a room full of 150 farmers. What are we going to say to them when they realize that they were blind-sided by that ad and realize that someone should have done something, and then realize that that someone should've been us.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

The biggest thing that was probably driving me was just fear of not having a job come Monday.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

And always an effective motivator as well.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

For sure.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

What about you, Mr. Ross? Tell us a little bit about your recollection of that night.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I was watching the Super Bowl at my seed dealer's shop, back in my hometown of Underwood there in southwest Iowa, and our kids had a 4-H meeting, and so we were watching the Super Bowl while they were conducting their business for the club, and my good buddy John, he had offered me a beer. He said, "There's beer in the fridge over there." And I said, "Well, I probably ought to wait until after the 4-H meeting's over for the kids, you know." Might want to set a good example there, so I hadn't even had a beer yet. Watching the game, and that commercial comes on, and I kind of was looking at it kind of funny. Hadn't really been playing complete attention, but I was like, "Ooh, that's interesting." And his look to me was like, "What the heck is going on here?"

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And then immediately, my phone started blowing up with text messages from farmers from all over the country, and then very quickly a couple of the text messages that came through were from Jon Doggett and Neil Caskey, and saying, "Where you at? Are you in Denver yet?" And I was taking an early flight the next day, and so I was still back home. We got those two text messages. I said I'd be out there in the morning, and immediately Neil calls me up and says, "Hey, I think we want to respond to this." And my reaction was, I said, "You want to respond to Bud Light. Like, I mean are you kidding me?"

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And he's like, "No. I'm serious. I think we need to make a statement here." And so-

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Clapping back against Goliath there. Now I want to get back into the tactics that you guys used to fight back against this in a second here, but first, did you all have any clue, Jon, what was coming?

 

Jon Doggett:               

We had no clue whatsoever that that ad was going to air. I mean, at the table where we were sitting and having dinner, watching the game, jaws were hitting the table, and it was just wow. We did not see that coming at all. Because when the ad opened up, I'm a bit of a Game of Thrones fan, and okay, you've got the castle and all this stuff. And I thought, oh, this is kind of cool. And then all of a sudden, it took another direction and we had no clue whatsoever.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

You and I, by the way, later need to discuss the finer points of Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons in a little bit, but that much said, it was about halfway through the first quarter, and this ad airs, and it was kind of silly. It was essentially a political-style attack ad that went after Miller and Coors for using corn syrup as a brewing aid and implying that there was something wrong with that. What went through your heads when you saw that? Kevin?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I think collectively, through the farmers' heads that were watching this attack ad, attacking a good product, a fantastic product that they've used for years and that many brewing companies, including AB, use in so many different brewing processes...The reaction though, simply was that they just attacked my product. They just attacked corn directly, and farmers were upset. Farmers were pissed.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Jon, I get the feeling that a lot of folks in the general public who maybe didn't grow up around the farm life don't necessarily understand the pride that goes into raising that product out of the ground and all that. Can you explain that for anybody that's maybe not plugged into that life?

 

Jon Doggett:               

Well, sure, and you've got to remember the context of a year ago, prices then, as they are now, were very low. Farmers were looking at some really tough times. The trade situation was not good. They felt like they had just been beat up and beat up and beat up, and here you have this great big company coming in and poking at a product that we produce, but I think really, our farmers took it very, very personally. Farming is not a profession. It's not a job. It's a life, and so that's why it was so important for us to have a very strong and a very articulate response to that.

 

Jon Doggett:               

But it also needed to be simple, and it needed to be simple enough that it really resonated, not only with corn farmers, but with the rest of the public. One of the things we asked Molson Coors was, did you know what AB was up to? Adam?

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, no, is the short answer there, Jon. I mean like everybody else here at the table, I've got my own sort of bizarre story from the night of the Super Bowl. I was supposed to be at a neighbor's house watching the game and enjoying a couple beers. That's not how my night went.

 

Adam Collins:               

We sort of had an idea that something might be coming. Earlier in the week, they had released all their ads except for Bud Light's, which I thought was odd. They had a piece of point-of-sale that we saw on Friday night that compared the three beers and their ingredients but didn't say anything. Just, beers and ingredients. And so you sort of piece together that something was coming, but we had no idea until we saw the ad. And we sort of had a couple different options of things you might do or you might say, but it's bizarre for, and not just in the beer industry, for any industry, for the number one to punch down to its lower rivals.

 

Adam Collins:               

I think we were as shocked as anybody that Anheuser-Busch would take that path, not just attack us and attack our beers, but as you noted, attack the ingredients and the great farmers all across the country who grow them and make our great beers possible.

 

Jon Doggett:               

So you know, we've developed a great relationship with you personally and with your company, but had you ever heard of the National Corn Growers Association before that night?

 

Adam Collins:               

Uh, no. I had not. I had not.

 

Jon Doggett:               

What?

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, I know. Neil, Neil.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Neil, that's your fault.

 

Adam Collins:               

He's only been in the job three months.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

I failed.

 

Jon Doggett:               

He should've had that done his second week.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

I thought we worked on this answer.

 

Adam Collins:               

No, I hadn't. But what I can tell you is Neil and I got connected at...I think it was about 2:00 in the morning Sunday night into Monday. We got connected up through somebody inside my company who knew somebody inside the Corn Growers. It might have been one of the states or something?

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Yeah, it was Andy Jobman. And so he had some connection to Miller Coors, and there were some-

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Andy's a Nebraska boy.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Yeah, a Nebraska farmer, and yeah, and I don't know...It kind of laddered up to me, and then I sent or messaged, and then yeah, 2 AM we were connected.

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah. We didn't sleep a lot that night.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

We didn't.

 

Adam Collins:               

No.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Or for the next couple of weeks, as I understand it.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Uh, no.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

But that's crisis response 101, and you guys handled it masterfully, I have to say, from my outsider's perspective here. I remember sitting in the basement and watching the Super Bowl. I had a bunch of people over, and I saw that ad, and I went, "Oh, shots fired." And then because I'm a marketing and PR junkie, I had my phone out, and I was watching Twitter, and so I watched first as the NCGA fired back on Twitter, and then Kevin as your tweets started circulating on the Internet and kind of sat there and looked at a couple other PR buddies that I had in my basement with me and said, "This is the start of something, and this is going to go on for a long time."

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Jon, can you talk us through how you structured your response in the immediate hours after Budweiser came after you guys?

 

Jon Doggett:               

Sure, so Neil and I talked about it and the thing that really concerned us was AB is a company that is St. Louis-based, and we're St. Louis-based, and you would've thought that they might've picked up the phone and said, "You know, we're going to air this ad, and this is what we're thinking about doing." And there was no heads-up at all. And I think that was part of the disrespect that we felt from AB was, here's a company that's in St. Louis, and we're in St. Louis. Why are we having this kind of situation going on in the Super Bowl? Because you know they had to spend a whole lot of money on that thing. And so we just had to respond.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Neil, you composed the statement that the National Corn Growers Association came back with and tweeted in the immediate aftermath there. What message did you want to drive home with that statement, and how did you pass the ball then to Kevin, the president to the National Corn Growers?

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Yeah, I think for the most part, we wanted to express our disappointment, and if nothing else, we wanted Bud Light to know that, hey, you crossed a line. And to Jon's point, we're in the St. Louis agribusiness community together. I mean, we actually sit in meetings together, at luncheons, and just break bread and try to figure out how we can make the St. Louis agribusiness community better. And so that was surprising. And then obviously just the fact that they were kind of tearing down corn products, and by extension, corn farmers. We had to do something, and I think the word...We didn't want to go over the top. We didn't think that was necessary. But we wanted to make sure that they knew we were disappointed with them.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

And then we kind of, we threw a hail Mary and figured we would say, "Hey, thanks, Miller Lite, thanks, Coors Light, for standing with us." And so yeah, and I don't know if you guys picked up on that or not, and that was literally just a...It was a hail Mary.

 

Adam Collins:               

Neil, I hate to break it to you, but I think my first awareness of the National Corn Growers was Kevin's tweet.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Ugh, strike two.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

It was memorable. It was memorable.

 

Jon Doggett:               

One that he did use is he was pouring beer into a sink.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

We did, actually. The way that played out though...As I said, the farmers were texting me saying, we've got to do something. And I had no idea what to do, but the phone call with Neil, he said, "Do we want to respond?" I said, "Well, what are you thinking?" And Neil said, "You know, maybe pour out some beer or something. I don't know." And it was literally this quick, happening so quickly that we were all, I think brainstorming within minutes. And this was probably, I don't know, five minutes after it aired maybe? Or something like that. It was really quick.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I said, "All right. I'll have a video in five minutes or so." And so I knew my seed dealer had some beer in the fridge because he'd offered it to me, and luckily, it was Bud Light. He only had four of them, and we did four takes.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

And for the record, I didn't fully know, and I certainly did not appreciate the internet sensation at the moment. I'd only been on the job a few months, but it was Doggett. He insisted, he's like, "No." Because we had a room full, a hotel full of farmers that could've done this thing, and Jon's like, no. Believe me, I've got the perfect person for this job.

 

Adam Collins:               

I'm sort of curious, Kevin, who shot the video?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

My wife did, actually. Yeah, I was asked that question as well, very quickly after the video went on the internet. Yeah, it was a very small bathroom that these videos were taken in.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

But your wife was comfortable with it. What did your wife think?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

She, you'd have to ask her. She generally shakes her head at me in most of my ideas anyway, so this was just kind of an extension of the normal reaction.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

So we did that, issued that at Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Denver, and so of all places. I think that was like the only place we could get a reservation for however many with Jon, and so I didn't know. I think I went back to eating my french fries and thinking it was going to be like a smooth night. Jon got an email from, I don't know if you want to talk about the, what five minutes after that-

 

Jon Doggett:               

Maybe five, 10 minutes later after we sent the first tweet, I got an email from a fairly senior person at AB wondering what was going on and could we talk? And at that point, I made the decision that it was probably not good for me to talk to him at that time, and we would wait until the next morning because I wasn't happy, and I didn't see anything that was going to get done that night that was going to be beneficial to anybody.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Kind of one of those moments where it's maybe a little bit more fortuitous to hold your tongue and compose your thoughts.

 

Jon Doggett:               

And I don't do that often, either. But this was an exception.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

So Jon, you know, he's the DC background, and so he's playing the role of diplomat. To me, when I saw that, I'm like, okay. This hail Mary, that got through to somebody. The time to negotiate is not now. The time to escalate is when we received that email, and that's kind of when we reached out to Kevin. So if that tweet was kind of like the spark, I would say that the internet sensation to my left here was the diesel fuel that just kind of took it to the next level.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

It apparently got Adam's attention.

 

Adam Collins:               

It definitely got my attention.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Well, you know, when I got the email from the AB exec and I found out that he was at the game with his boss's boss, that had to have been a very, very uncomfortable situation in that suite because all of a sudden they're patting themselves on the back about this great ad, and now they're finding out that they've got thousands and thousands of corn farmers around the country who are just mad as they can be.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

At what point did you guys realize that your tweet and the video that followed it had really made a difference, was really landing?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

The tweet, we finally put it out, and it was just the four takes. All four beers got used, and the fourth one was good enough, but it was just saying that, hey, if you're not standing with us, then corn farmers aren't standing with you, and I think that was a simple enough statement, but it was certainly something that farmers were, again, they were mad, and so I think it was quickly shown that farmers meant that, too.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And we put it out, third quarter or so in the Super Bowl, or maybe early in the fourth by the time it went out, but I got home that night, and crawling into bed, and my wife says, "You know your video's got like 2,000 some views already." And I said, "Really?" I said, "Is that a lot?" Because I honestly, I was like, I don't know. I've never posted a lot of videos before of myself on anything, and she's like, "Well, that's pretty fast." And by the time I'd gone to the bathroom and brushed my teeth and crawled back in, and actually got in bed, she goes, "There's another thousand on there." And I was like, "Wow."

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Just in the time it took you to brush your teeth.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Yeah, I said, "Well, that sounds like it's moving pretty fast." But I didn't think much of it. And then woke up the next morning and I was catching a 6 AM flight, I think, to Denver, and by the time I got to the airport, saw there was more views, and by the time I landed in Denver, though, I got on the ground, and as soon as I turned my phone back on, I mean, there was like text messages coming in like crazy from buddies of mine all over that are saying, "I saw your video." And I knew as soon as I turned my phone on there that, "Holy cow, we hit a home run, or this thing went viral, or something." I didn't really know what all the effect was going to be, but at that point, you knew it was pretty big.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

So if this is a movie, this is the point now where we cut over to Miller headquarters. I should say Molson Coors headquarters.

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

What was going through your guys' minds at this point? You had this ad that was launched attacking you. You sort of had an inkling that it was coming, but you really didn't have any idea what a big attack it was going to be. So what was your immediate sort of war room approach to responding to that?

 

Adam Collins:               

Boy, I tell you, when the ad hit, I was sitting on my bed in my bedroom while everyone else in my family was enjoying the Super Bowl and having fun at the party, sort of shaking my head, right? Because it wasn't just that they attacked us. They attacked corn farmers. They attacked an American ingredient. I mean, who attacks American farmers? It boggles the mind.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

It seems counterproductive to me.

 

Adam Collins:               

Well, yes. That's a nice way to put it. I would say it was as bizarre as it was brutal. We had a corporate tweet, much like the corn growers did, that we fired off really quickly. We didn't actually think they were going to go to the full extent as aggressive as they possibly could, but that's what they did. And we were trying to plan over the course of the night, what are we going to do tomorrow? How do we think about this? And that's when we got connected up with Neil, and turns out, as I'd found out from Neil, that the Corn Growers were in Denver. Just as Jon alluded to earlier, just a few minutes away from Golden, Colorado, which is the largest brewery in the United States, where they brew Coors Light and Coors Banquet and a lot of other really wonderful beers.

 

Adam Collins:               

So I went into the office, and Neil had been there for three months. I had been in my job for six weeks. Very new. Don't really know what the boundaries are of what you should and shouldn't ask for. So I went into my office and I asked my boss, I said, "Hey, the corn growers are in Denver. Do you think we could get Pete Coors to drive over to their meeting in a giant beer truck and hand-deliver a whole bunch of beer?"

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And that was awesome.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Yeah, it was. It was.

 

Adam Collins:               

The answer was, yes, we can definitely do that. And so we did. And it was the start of a really great partnership. There's the old adage that beer brings people together, and in this case, out of some really ugliness in the country and the world's largest brewer, came a real great partnership where we've been able to work together, and we're sitting here together a year later now having this conversation and looking back and sort of chuckling about it now. It wasn't so funny at the time, but it's a great partnership that we've been able to generate as a result.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Adam had been on the job for six weeks, and Neil had been on the job for three months, and neither one of them knew what they couldn't do at that point, and sometimes, that's the best way to act, is act like you don't know what you can't do. That was proven to be a pretty effective way to deal with this.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

It never hurts to ask. At what point, Adam, did you realize that you had a real ally in the corn farmers, not just for the week or something like that, but someone with whom you could build what's now shaping up to be a partnership that looks to have some real legs on it?

 

Adam Collins:               

It was pretty quick. We had Pete Coors go deliver the beer, which was a fun, great thing to do. It was nice. Neil and I were talking. I said, "Well, do you guys want to go visit the brewery in Golden? It's right up the road." So we could do that. So we set them up with a brewery tour, and I think y'all had some beers in-

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Bill's bar.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Got a cool t-shirt.

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, Neil's got the T-shirt on there. But in Bill's...and it really blossomed pretty quickly from there, right? Because the reality is, yeah, they attacked Miller Lite and Coors Light by name, and that's obvious. But they attacked corn. They attacked ingredients. They attacked American farmers, and so if you look at what took place over the following weeks, every day we were on the phone trying to figure out what we would do next. Because you can look back now, and like I said, chuckle about it, but the reality is in that moment, it's an existential crisis for our brands, and I know the corn growers felt similarly for their organization and for their members.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

You know, the fact is though that beer in general is brewed with grain. The spirits industry is made with grain. And to attack the ingredients, and what's typically in these industries, it's the highest quality that goes into all of these beverages that are made for consumption, and I think...It just makes the whole thing that much more bizarre. And it was just awesome to have that opportunity to go to that brewery in Golden and I think have that point made or kind of backed up to a lot of farmers that were already there and for our meetings.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And it did. It solidified a great relationship, I think, moving forward, but the first night, too, I've got to go back to that, but having Pete Coors deliver a truckload of beer. I mean, I'm not kidding you. That was just kind of a surreal moment. It felt like a Smokey and the Bandit...You had those semi load of Coors coming in, and just one of those odd moments.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

So who's the Bandit and who's Snowman?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Everybody wants to be Burt Reynolds, right? It was just one of those deals that from that 24-hour turn to have where we were getting, looking at this commercial going, "Oh my goodness. We just kicked or punched in the gut." And then to have that complete turnaround to say, "Okay, we've got a good response, and we've got now a partner saying, 'Hey, we're with you." And that was amazing from a farmer-perspective, just to have that was truly something I think that farmers will never forget. It was awesome.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

A few weeks later, at the Commodity Classic, a trade show that the National Corn Growers Association is a partner in, you guys took a fairly unprecedented step in recognizing then Miller-Coors, now Molson Coors as a hero of the industry. Can you tell me about that?

 

Jon Doggett:               

Sure. And that was just really neat because David Coors, Pete's son, came and was going to accept the award on behalf of, not only the Coors company, but the Coors family. And I think that was important because our industry is a family industry, and so there was very much a connection that was made at the tour, and where our folks saw a multi-generational business that is not completely unlike their multi-generational family business, and so that was really cool. When David came and we had dinner, and he and I were sitting together, and we announced the award, and David came to accept the award, and he got a standing ovation.

 

Jon Doggett:               

I mean, and a prolonged standing ovation.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

We were cheering beer, Jon. Uh, you know, I mean...We were cheering David, too, but-

 

Jon Doggett:               

But it was...And David's comments were very good, and they were short. But they were very sincere. And it was, you know, we're standing with you because you've stood with us. And so then when he left the stage, he got another rousing standing ovation, which I think just really showed that, one, the appreciation that our folks had for the Coors family and the Coors company, just, hey, these are our friends, and relationships mean a lot to farmers.

 

Jon Doggett:               

The other thing is farmers just felt like they've been kicked around enough, and finally, we're punching back, and we've got an ally in that. And that was just really, really important. It lifted the mood for the entire Commodity Classic, and growers still talk about it. We had a meeting here earlier this week, and I heard this story yet again, so it's one that's going to have some resonance for a long, long time.

 

Adam Collins:               

Jon, Kevin, and Neil have heard me say this. We're proud of our beers. We're proud. We think they're fantastic beers. They're great beers. And we're proud of the ingredients that make them possible. And so to us, we share the same pride that farmers have in their crops, we have in our products, as well, and we put up billboards, literally billboards, across the country that said, Coors Light, had the famous Coors Light Rocky Mountains over a cornfield. Said we're proud of our beers, and we're proud of our ingredients and the farmers who grow them.

 

Adam Collins:               

Because that's real. That's how we feel. And we did a toast to farmers. We wanted to take this as a moment and figure out, how do we sort of turn it on its head. Beer is supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be positive. Like I said, it's supposed to be something that brings people together, and so how do we take the ugliness of that moment and find a way to try to turn something and do something good with it?

 

Dusty Weis:                 

It's been an eventful year, and maybe starting with Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, is there a memory out of all of those that's your favorite, that stands out to you?

 

Jon Doggett:               

I think the memory that I have of it was late that night, all of a sudden realized that we had hit the mark, that we had touched something right, and that this thing was taking on a life of its own, and it was going to be really good. And it just kept getting better and better, and Neil would call me or text me or come over and tell me, the next great thing that it was happening. And I can't tell you enough about how pleased those farmers were that they had an ally. They were very pleased that their organization had stepped up in a great way and fought back against one of the largest corporations in the world. That was pretty cool.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Kevin Ross, president of the Corn Growers Association. Is there a moment that rivals Pete Coors showing up in a beer truck, or is that it for you, man?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

That might just top it all. That was just flat awesome. But then that tour, and really having the chance to hang out with Peter and David Coors as well. Those guys were so down-to-earth. Just a lot of fun. But just really having the time to talk to those guys and learn a little bit about their family history and what they were doing. Jon mentioned the relationships with people and just how family businesses and things like that, but it really gave us a chance to chat with those guys and really, I think, understand that from their perspective, too. And then even having David come to Classic was a lot of fun.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Then lastly, having that chance to speak at the Miller-Coors conference. Also, I've told a few people this, that you should always have on your bucket list of things that you want to do is go to a beer conference because it was pretty solid. The beer conference, it was different for me. You learn different things about a different company, different industry, and so connected to ours that that was a lot of fun, but being onstage with Gavin Hattersley and pouring out a beer with him, that was pretty cool, too, and having that opportunity to speak to all their distributors and talk to them about just about how we saw this thing play out. That was an opportunity that they didn't have to give me. They didn't have to put me on that stage with him and give us that opportunity to chat with their folks, but that was an audience also that I think then heard from the farmers to say thank you, as well.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And again, just a piece that kind of solidifies the relationship and was a neat moment, as well. So a lot of cool memories from this thing, and hopefully, there'll be a lot more going forward.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Neil Caskey, VP of communications for the National Corn Growers Association. What's your favorite moment?

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Longterm, it's the friendships. I mean, obviously, Adam, when I reached out and said, "Hey, we're doing this thing. We'd love to have you." It was, "Yes." He's like, and this is probably going to get you in trouble, he's like, hey, I'm just going to say yes before we get it in front of the attorneys, so just count on it. So we can't go back on it. But your friends do that, and David Coors, the funny thing...We kind of talked about how we all felt. Right? When we first saw it. And we were going on that tour, and so I was kind of hanging behind the growers, and there's this guy, this kind of taller guy, and I was just telling him how I felt. And he's just listening. Just like, yeah, you know, man, I'm sorry. And then, I just kept talking.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

And it took about five minutes, I realized it was David Coors. So having friends like David Coors that clearly just listen. It's their namesake, and he was listening to how we felt. I mean, that says something just about the people behind that company. I will say, and we haven't touched on this, we have to. Toast to farmers. We didn't know whether we should accelerate or decelerate this thing, and so then you guys came up with this awesome idea. You launched it in an incredible way. If I'm being honest, as a fan of pop culture, as a marketer, that was pretty awesome, Adam.

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, the toast to farmers was really a huge moment for us, and one of my favorite moments really in this whole thing. We actually had the Brothers Osborne announce that we were doing this during the Grammys, which was pretty cool.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Crazy.

 

Adam Collins:               

It is crazy, and-

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Seven days after the Super Bowl.

 

Adam Collins:               

Very cool. Yeah, seven days after the Super Bowl. And it was so amazing to me, so Neil and I worked together, and we had these big ideas. You know how these things go. I said, well, we're going to try to do this, set it up in as many communities as we possibly can, and we'll get our local distributor, and maybe we'll get someone from the NCGA. We'll try to have people from the company out in as many markets and as many places as we can. But going into these things, you don't actually know how many people are going to show up. How many people will talk about it on social media? Which was really the idea. The idea was, there was a day, go out, buy a Coors Light, have a Coors Light, literally raise your glass to farmers across America. That was the concept, right?

 

Adam Collins:               

And we pushed it, and the response was absolutely amazing. So Gavin, who is our CEO, and I went to Des Moines, Iowa, where we met up with our distributor, who's Mike Brewington, appropriately named, and Craig, who heads up the Iowa Corn Growers. And we went to three bars, I think out there. We had Coors Lights. There were farmers. There was literally farmers who drove three hours to come be there with us.

 

Adam Collins:               

But it was fantastic. I remember, we went into a place, the first place we went to, which was my personal favorite of the stop was The Hitchin' Post, and it was jammed with people in there to literally raise a Coors Light to farmers. And then, getting in the car to go home, and you look online, you look on Twitter, and there are pictures of people doing this in Nebraska and in Kansas and in Wisconsin and in Illinois and Ohio and in Indiana. My favorite picture, there was about 60 people in a bar in Baltimore, Maryland, toasting farmers. In an urban center, raising a glass of beer, toasting farmers. And to me, that said, we're on to something here. People want to be brought together. People want something positive. They don't want ugliness. They don't want this fight.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

People made the connection between grain and beer in situations like that, and that's always, I mean, for us, we're steps away from the final product in a lot of cases, and so that's something that we've really gained out of that, I think. People realizing that grain is a huge part of many, many products that they use every day and consume every day, and that's a really big piece of that.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

In a lot of ways, if you want to kind of be a silver linings type about this whole thing, I feel like the campaign that followed and the blow-back really helped, especially for people living in urban centers like Baltimore, sort of connect the dots between where they live and where their food comes from. We used to say, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, that food doesn't come from the grocery store. It comes from the farmer. And in a lot of ways, I feel like this campaign that Molson Coors helped lead and the corn growers supported, really helped connect those dots for a lot of people that hadn't given a lot of thought to that.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Yeah, and I want to speak to that because Jon and I had this conversation, and so organizations like ours, we have spent millions over at least a decade, trying to create meaningful connections between producers and consumers of food because that's important to ensure we obviously have the license to farm, if you will, and they've been successful. Some have failed miserably. I will say that to have a big brand that interacts directly with the consumer to stand up and have things like a toast to farmer and put those billboards up along highways across the country...And I know that that wasn't cheap, but hopefully that wasn't like this massive campaign like AB probably spent on the Super Bowl.

 

Adam Collins:               

It did not cost as much as a Super Bowl ad, I can promise you that.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

And to have a brand like Coors Light, in this case, to stand up, lift up the farmer the way you did, I mean...That was impactful. And I think that that's one of the reasons why you continue to see farmers react the way they do. I've been to countless agricultural events over the past year, and I have not seen one Bud Light served at any of those, and so-

 

Kevin Ross:                 

That's a fact.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

I don't know. I don't have actual data, but I have anecdotal evidence that Bud Light's not being served in agricultural forums in these days.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

I've been to a couple of those events myself, Neil, and I've been to more than one that have been drank out of Coors Light.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

Commodity Classic's one.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Commodity Classic is definitely one of those. The other thing I know having grown up in farm country is farmers have long memories, and they're going to remember for a long time what Anheuser-Busch did to them, and they're going to remember for a long time what Molson Coors did, as well.

 

Jon Doggett:               

I think it's important to remember that folks won't remember what you said. They might remember what you did. But they'll certainly remember how you made them feel. And in this case, everybody felt good, and that's been the lasting part of it, is you felt good.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Adam Collins, you're the CCO of Molson Coors. We've discussed a lot about the response to these ads, but one thing that we haven't touched on yet that I think is worth hitting is the content of the ads themselves, and the content of Molson Coors beer. In these ads, Anheuser-Busch is hitting you for using a corn additive in your brewing process. They're not as precise about that, but that's essentially what it boils down to, but what does that mean, and what role does corn play in the brewing process of Coors Light and Miller Lite?

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, I mean, we've called it bizarre. I think you called it dumb earlier. I mean, there's a lot of adjectives you could use. One of the oddities of the whole thing is that it's not actually in the final product, right? Just in the same way that Bud Light, which uses rice as a fermentation aid, there isn't rice in the final product of Bud Light. This is sort of one of the strange things about the whole dialogue. It's yeast food, I think as somebody put it.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I mean, it's sugar used to feed yeast to make alcohol.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Yeast gobble up that sugar and then secrete. That's one way to put it, alcohol.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

One of the interesting pieces about this is the fact, the whole home brewing industry has gotten so big that I think the consumer was more aware of already how you brew beer than they had been 15, 20 years ago that, I just think there's so many more people that are knowledgeable about the process, that that was a piece of this puzzle, too, and people understood that, hey, this is just a part of the process and an ingredient that we use to make a finished product. The American consumer, when it comes to brewing, knows more than they probably have in decades. I suppose 100 years ago, they probably all knew how to make it.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

They didn't necessarily know how to make it well back then. That's the thing.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Yeah.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

But that much said, what do we think then Anheuser-Busch was trying to do with this campaign? Was this simply a case of kind of presenting only part of the facts and then hoping the consumer would fill in that void in facts with something negative? What's going on there?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I think that's exactly what a lot of it was. There's a negative connotation, I guess, if you will, around high-fructose corn syrup over the years, which is really a fallacy anyway. I mean, high fructose corn syrup is sugar is sugar. The fact is, you can make it out of a lot of different plants, right? And different grains and things like that. So it's not an argument that ever holds water. When you get to the actual consumer and the actual health side of sugars and syrups, sugar is sugar.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

But at the end of the day, they were trying to go after a perceived issue within, health issue for corn syrup, and I think the consumer is just educated well enough now that they know it's not an issue at all. And so for them to have done that, again, that's another piece that is just mind-boggling that you'd try to go after that, and it's something that, it's like 10 years ago it was a big deal and anymore, I think the consumer understands about the fact that there is no issues around syrups and sugars. It's a food scare tactic. I mean, that's the way I'd kind of characterize it, and I think that's wrong.

 

Jon Doggett:               

So Adam, Molson Coors sued AB for false and misleading advertising, and you won a preliminary injunction. Tell us about that.

 

Adam Collins:               

Yeah, I mean, you'd hope that a company of that size wouldn't strike out to intentionally mislead consumers across America, which is what I believe, and what we believe, they did. We're proud that the courts have ruled in our favor, I think four times now. They haven't ruled in AB's favor yet. Not that I'm counting. But they were forced to take down some of the billboards. I mean, Anheuser-Busch had, Bud Light had billboards married up with their campaign. They had "no corn syrup" printed on their packaging. So if you went to the store to buy it, it was on their Bud Light packaging. So they were forced by the courts to change their packaging. They were forced by the courts to take down some of their billboards. They were forced by the courts to remove some of the TV ads that they had been running, as well, and obviously, they're appealing some of those decisions, but we think that the courts have seen what we've seen, as well, about Bud Light and their intentions.

 

Jon Doggett:               

And I think one of the interesting things in some of the trade pubs was this notion that, hey, finally somebody pushed back on this kind of advertising, and I know Neil looked at some things in some of the media, trade publications, that said, at last somebody did something, and some of my colleagues in some of the other commodity organizations, they...[inaudible 00:46:17] wonderful. You know?

 

Jon Doggett:               

But they've said, well, we wish somebody had attacked us, and we'd responded in the right way. And so I think we, maybe the upshot of this will be that companies will take a second look and a second thought about attacking some ingredient that need not be attacked.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Jon Doggett, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Since Anheuser-Busch lost in the injunction phases, they've backed off of some of their attacks, but they continue in some ads to advertise their beer as being, and I'm quoting, corn syrup-free. What message is that sending to you?

 

Jon Doggett:               

Oh, it's sending the message that they've doubled down on stupid.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

You only said that to me, so that applies to AB, took right.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Don't hold back, Jon. Wow.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

It seems like they're committed to this tactic for whatever reason.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Well, and the thing is is that any big organization that expends a whole lot of money on something that didn't turn out, sometimes they'll go ahead and say, well, that wasn't a good idea. Let's stop completely. And sometimes, they just say, well, if we do a little less of it, it won't be quite as bad. I'm not sure what their rationale is, but we do know that the majority of these ads that they are running now attacking corn syrup are not being run in the Corn Belt, and that's, I think, an indication that they understood how foolish this really was.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Kevin Ross, you're the president of the Corn Growers Association. What do you make of this?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I think I'd fire my ad company if it was me. They continue to hit on a sensitive topic, and farmers understand, who stood up for them and who certainly stood against them, and I think that's not going anywhere any time soon.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

It's worth noting that we're sitting here almost a year later, and we are on the eve of another Super Bowl, so I don't know if we have any highly placed sources inside Anheuser-Busch, but Adam Collins, the CCO at Molson Coors, do you know? What are they cooking up for this year?

 

Adam Collins:               

I don't think they're going to tell me. No. I don't know. And you know, I don't think...Again, we will know until we see the ads, like we did last year.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

What's the gut feeling around the table, fellas? Are we in for another corn-troversy?

 

Kevin Ross:                 

My phone, or my video on my phone, is ready just in case.

 

Jon Doggett:               

I don't think they're going to...I think they, hopefully, they've learned their lesson. I think it was an embarrassment to them that would be tripling down on stupid instead of doubling down on stupid, so I hope not. But we are ready to respond if they do.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Talking about the Super Bowl coming up, I'll tell you, a lot of the ads that are on there are products that are made from corn. Pepsi, or you've got Doritos, or things like that that'll be probably all over it, and many of these food companies were foods that are going to be advertised during the Super Bowl. A lot of these are made from the nation's corn crop, and I think that it's not a good look to attack all of food.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

And whether it's an ingredient in it or direct, beef or pork or whatever on the table, we're a part of it. The corn industry is a part of it. And this has been something I think for us, this whole situation, talking about beer and how it's a key ingredient in most brewing processes, this whole discussion has brought that to life. I think people understand a little bit more about how corn makes or plays a bigger role in their daily lives than they realize, and that was a side benefit for us that we couldn't have got to without this thing happening like it did and now I hope they see that. I hope they realize that, and I hope it makes that connection back to the farmer.

 

Jon Doggett:               

We have another ball game coming up, and it'll be this summer, and it's the Field of Dreams game in Iowa. And if any of you have seen the movie, you know what goes on in the Field of Dreams. Build it, and they will come. And Neil's been working on that a lot, so Neil, what do you have in store for us?

 

Neil Caskey:                 

We talked about the Super Bowl, and I don't have any predictions of what might happen in that game. For the record, I am pulling for the Chiefs, as a new member of Chiefs Kingdom, so hopefully they'll be there and-

 

Dusty Weis:                 

I was going to say. I didn't know how we split up the territory when the Rams moved out west, but-

 

Neil Caskey:                 

So, yeah, the Chiefs are appropriately claiming St. Louis, at least West County St. Louis.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Sorry, I thought we were tailgating now. We're talking football again.

 

Adam Collins:               

I'll join you there Kevin.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

It's a cold day here in January, but it won't be too terribly long that we're going to be playing baseball in a warm cornfield in Iowa, and so it's just...It's funny how we went from a Super Bowl ad in 2019 that really tried to kind of tear corn products and corn farmers down to in the days that followed, we partnered with Molson Coors to really begin to lift corn farmers up, and in just a few months, we're going to be celebrating corn farming during a baseball game of the White Sox and the Yankees this August at the, I guess, the commemorative-

 

Kevin Ross:                 

In the great state of Iowa.

 

Neil Caskey:                 

In the great state of Iowa. That's right. And so hey, it's a good time. I know that obviously it's been a rough go for many corn farmers, but it is good to see that Major League Baseball and our friends at Molson Coors and others see the good in the people and the products of corn farming.

 

Jon Doggett:               

And we're going to be probably doing a podcast on that probably later in the spring, and this is going to be so exciting. We've been excited about this thing that we've been talking about for the last hour or so, but the next big thing that's going to be really fun, and you've got to have fun in this business, and the next big thing is going to be that game in August in Iowa.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Well, Jon Doggett, you're the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Do you have any last thoughts on this matter before we put this one to bed for the year?

 

Jon Doggett:               

This has been a tough year. This last year was a tough year for farmers. The weather was horrible. Prices were bad. We had trade disputes. Then we had a major company take a swing at us. But again, as I started with, we know who our friends are now. And we certainly have great friends at Molson Coors. We're glad that we have that relationship, and I'm really proud of the work we did. Neil has just been outstanding. He's done a wonderful job in shepherding this thing to such a great place, and it's really pretty cool, and I am so happy that what could have been a really bad deal became a really pretty good deal.

 

Jon Doggett:               

The board had a discussion a couple weeks before the Super Bowl, and one of our board members, Kevin Skunes from North Dakota, said, "You know, it'd just be great if we could have an ad at the Super Bowl." And of course, the finance committee chairman jumped up and said, "Well, we can't do that." But you know what? We had an ad at the Super Bowl, and it wasn't our ad, but it became our ad, and I think that's really pretty cool.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Well, on that note, we've got some cold Coors light here. The mountains are blue. Some of us haven't cracked them open.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

I already opened mine. [crosstalk 00:53:44]

 

Dusty Weis:                 

But, Jon, if you'd like to propose a toast?

 

Jon Doggett:               

To our friends, our new friends and our long-lasting friends at Molson Coors. Thank you so much.

 

Kevin Ross:                 

Thank you.

 

Adam Collins:               

Toast to farmers.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

Well, this has been a great discussion. Neil Caskey, the vice president of communications for the National Corn Growers Association. Kevin Ross, you're the president of the Corn Growers Association. Adam Collins, the CCO at Molson Coors. And of course, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, Jon Doggett. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this. I feel fortunate just to get to mediate such a fascinating discussion here. We've got so much more in store for the next edition of Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast. So thank you, Jon Doggett, for the opportunity.

 

Jon Doggett:               

Thank you.

 

Dusty Weis:                 

That is going to wrap up this edition of Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast. New episodes arrive monthly, so make sure you subscribe in your favorite podcast app and join us again soon. Visit NCGA.com to learn more or sign up for the association's newsletter in your email. Wherever Jon May Roam is brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association and produced by Podcamp Media, branded podcast production for businesses. PodcampMedia.com.

 

Dusty Weis:                  For the National Corn Growers Association, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.