All dressed up and ready to party or simply chill out, Budweiser's bow tie-shaped can's debut in May 2013 is the dramatic culmination of dozens of months of development.
"The Budweiser Bowtie Can is incomparable, like nothing seen before," enthuses Pat McGauley, vp of U.S. innovation for Anheuser-Busch. "The world's most iconic beer brand deserves the world's most unique and innovative can."
With a symmetrical pinched-in middle or waist, the can's shape mimics a bow tie. An immediate visual precursor to the can was the 2011 introduction of a graphics redesign with a bow-tie motif.
It has a volume of 11.3 oz, the result of the shape combined with the requirement to keep the can height at 4 7/8 in.-the exact same as a standard 12-oz can-to minimize the impact at the brewery. The proprietary can does not replace the traditional Budweiser can and will be available only in the United States in an 8-pack carton.
The can has been in development since 2010, though it was a year earlier that the company envisioned the concept as part of a five-year plan for the brand. In alluding to a certain fictional exploratory spaceship, the development project had the codename "Enterprise" that ties directly into this unique package.
"We want to keep Budweiser relevant to a new generation," McGauley explains. "A shaped aluminum can is somewhere ‘we had never gone before'-in fact, the technology to shape the can didn't exist until 2011. A lot of thought and research went into perfecting this can, including the shape, size and graphics. Enterprise reflects the process of discovery we went through to make this can innovation possible."
Enterprise comprised package development, can production through subsidiary Metal Container Corp. (MCC) and, finally, packaging production at the Williamsburg, VA, brewery in 2013-the first to run the can. A second brewery, in the Los Angeles area, will soon be running it to supply markets in the western U.S.
Along the way, the Enterprise project team tapped a dozen departments and touched "way more than 100 people at some point," according to McGauley, and included weekly team meetings.
That collaborative, collective effort culminated in the May introduction.
"As brand marketers and innovation managers, we're excited to take this icon that Budweiser has had since the 1950s and structurally build it into the package, which we feel is a brand's most important, universal consumer touch point," says McGauley. "We could now put our bow tie into consumers' hands and provide the kind of brand relevancy that consumers embrace. Once consumers hold it, it's a ‘wow' experience and they fall in love with it."
They will also be holding a can with substantial heft: It's made from 0.02-inch thick aluminum sheet, twice the thickness used for a standard 12-oz can, due to the requirements to form and shape it. While that goes against the grain in the sustainable- and cost-driven movements to source reduction, a saving grace is that aluminum is highly-and can be perpetually-recycled.
McGauley sees the instant marketing benefits of a heavier-weight can: "It feels substantial when held," he says. "It doesn't crinkle and has a premium quality feel. Those are great cues to halo back to the Budweiser brand."
The new can takes the branding concept a Clydesdale gallop if not quantum leap forward.
While much has changed with the new can, key elements remain untouched to retain the product's 100-year heritage:
- Time-honored Budweiser creed and A-B medallion;
- Ingredient statement and "King of Beers" moniker; and
- Red and white primary colors.
McGauley feels the hybrid of the new and the old should bridge the appeal to current and new beer drinkers.
"We expect our core audience will like this can," says McGauley. "We believe it has the highest appeal for 21- to 34-year-old consumers, who like to see that we're continuously evolving and improving the brand. We hope the innovative can gives trend-seekers or those who haven't tried Budweiser a reason to try our beer."
It's the real deal
One thing the brewer did not want to do was to introduce a novelty can. "There are a lot of gimmicky cans and beer packaging," McGauley states. "This is not one of those, this is the real deal centering on the Budweiser brand."
That extended into the detail work on the printed graphics. Unlike the structural development that was handled in-house, the company's graphics design was assigned to London-based Jones Knowles Ritchie (jkr), an agency that it has worked with before and that also orchestrated the carton graphics.
An additional benefit of the shape is that it's easier to hold according to McGauley. "It feels better in the hand than a standard can," he says. "It was a kind of ‘eyes lighting up' moment when people here realized we really had a great solution."
The package is positioned as incremental rather than as a replacement, which is also seen in the multipack: The brewer went through all possible carton combinations internally and with retailers-6-, 8-, 9-, 10-, 12-, 18- and 20-packs-before settling on an 8-pack. It is the first time that the company has offered this format, done to limit cannibalization and price comparison with existing multipacks. While the pack is priced at parity with a 12-pack of 8-oz cans, the brewer emphasizes that wholesalers and local markets set pricing.
Despite the heavier-weight cans, the fiberboard caliper remains the same as for a 12-pack. It offers a "slash handle" where consumer push their fingers through to carry it.
"It's an impactful-looking carton to support the great-looking primary can inside," summarizes McGauley. "It can stand up on its end and it can lie on its side, which is unusual, too."
The initial carton design had to be adjusted so that when the end flaps are closed, they are glued properly and stay sealed.
The can is produced internally by MCC, a wholly owned subsidiary that supplies more than 45 percent of Anheuser-Busch's U.S. beer cans and 55 percent of its domestic lids. MCC also produces cans and lids for major U.S. soft drink companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Hansen Natural Corp. The company operates four other can-making plants and two lid plants.
The world's most complex and expensive bow tie?
Anheuser-Busch pegs the overall investment for the Budweiser Bowtie can at around $20 million, the bulk of which was for capital investments at the MCC can-making operations in Newburgh, NY.
"It's a significant investment from our perspective and for Anheuser-Busch in general," offers MCC president/CEO Tony Bhalla, a 23-year company employee.
Most of the capital centered on purchasing and installing a Vertical Shaper (VS) from Belvac Production Machinery, a modular machine that converts a cylindrical can body, or preform, into a shaped can.
Even ahead of that process, the five-color litho printing on the aluminum sheet used for the preforms required more than the usual attention to detail.
"The printing must be better, more precise because of the fact that you're expanding metal," Bhalla points out. "We can't allow the letters to be hazy or fuzzy, so we give the graphics special care." That care includes using software to develop printing plates to offset the distortion from the shaping.
"The way the graphics are shaded and how the tones progress from darker to lighter and bring your eyes to the can's waist, all that was designed to highlighting the bow tie look," adds McGauley.
Anheuser-Busch purchased the production model VS Serial Number 1 in 2011 when the system was not yet proven, according to Bhalla. It was installed in late 2012 and running at production levels in early 2013. Bhalla and his team worked from CAD drawings that he knew worked from a marketing design standpoint. He says it was crucial to determine "the proper angle to provide enough of a dispersion that people can tell that there's a difference from a standard can. That's what we were able to accomplish."
"We explored various shapes that would be distinguishable in the marketplace, but also viable from an engineering standpoint," adds McGauley. "Aluminum can be stretched only about 10 percent without fracturing, which requires that the angles of the bow tie be very precise."
The drawn and wall ironed (DWI) can sidewall is reshaped by a 10-degree angle to form the distinctive bow-tie look.
While the system is a first of its kind, it's a standard VS machine with the number of modules and the specific tooling customized for the bow-tie can.
MCC's VS system has eight modules, each with two stations. Belvac states that a standard machine can operate at 1,200 cans per minute.
In this process, the can is pinched in the middle, which is not new, but the trick is to expand the can, according to Bhalla.
The bow-tie can is formed starting at the bottom of the container. A succession of necking dies progressively reduces the diameter of the can along its entire height until the midpoint of the bow tie is formed. Next, a series of expansion dies sequentially reform the upper portion of the can to restore the diameter to the original specification, thus forming the unique bow-tie shape.
Bhalla says they had to overcome two key can-shaping challenges: "The metal could tear as it is being expanded, so we had to learn how to do that right. The second challenge relates to scratching, which can happen if there isn't proper inner-wall protection from the coatings that we apply. We had to learn how to make this can, expand it without tearing and not have scratching. We had to do this at our production speeds.
"These added can-making steps make an exponential difference in complexity versus a straight-walled can. Some of these things have never been done before. From a technology standpoint, this is an advanced package. I consider it an awesome accomplishment."
While the brewer has produced 30 million of the cans as of our May interview, the can-making operations are still in startup mode, according to Bhalla: "We have had to do some refining and redesigned some of the components, but nothing unusual from the fact this is a serial number one machine. The equipment is performing well and we have learned a lot of things of how to make it an efficient process."
Bhalla underscores the benefit of doing this project largely internally: "That's the beauty of having a vertical operation within Anheuser-Busch in which we can work hand-in-hand with Pat [McGauley] and his team from concept and in a transparent manner and deliver the end result."
McGauley concurs wholeheartedly: "I don't talk to external suppliers like I do internal ones on a project this size. Speaking directly to a colleague like Tony [Bhalla] is a big advantage. Vertical integration is a very beneficial element that helped get this project from start to finish."
He gives Bhalla a great deal of credit. "We're always going to ask for the world and Tony's job is to give us close to what we ask for," McGauley says. "In this case, we got exactly what we were looking for. It's great when marketers come up with crazy ideas that engineers can actually deliver-we can't be happier with the result."
Cans are shipped in trucks to the Williamsburg and intermodal to the west coast brewery. There are fewer cans per truckload versus a standard can, but the amount is "not significant," Bhalla reports.
'Choppy' around the waist
Lastly, there were challenges at the brewery, which was compelled to make adjustments to accommodate the shape. One of the more obvious was for filling, according to Bhalla.
"The flow of the beer into the bow-tie can was a little ‘choppy' during filling because it was hitting that pinched-in waist," he explains. "We just had to learn how to adjust the filler's settings, which was not difficult. We were able to do that and get the right pressures inside the can. It is no longer an issue."
Both breweries that will be packaging the cans, currently in Williamsburg and soon in Los Angeles, share an identical setup.
Packaging production rates are high, but admittedly not as high as for traditional cans. For more details on the impact at the brewery, see "Putting the bow tie on-line at the brewery" below.
As with other projects before and those to come, McGauley says they all begin and end with consumers.
"Everything starts with asking how we can deliver new things to our consumers that get them excited and then ultimately delivering a business case that really supports the brand and the long-term growth projections for the brand," says McGauley.
The Budweiser Bow-tie Can is a hard act to follow, but we can anticipate that more Anheuser-Busch breakthroughs remain just offstage to take their bow soon.
Jones Knowles Ritchie (jkr), 347-205-8200
SIDEBAR: Putting the bow tie on-line at the brewery
Rick Shippey, general manager, Williamsburg (VA) Brewery, Anheuser-Busch, comments on the bow tie can's effect on packaging production.
What was the impact of the new bow tie cans on your production?
The biggest changes were to the can seamer and the multipacker. Due to the thickness of the can, we needed to add a way to adjust our seamer to give the proper thickness in the can seam. Additionally, we needed to change the infeed starwheels that control the flow of cans into the multipacker. Previously we controlled our cans in the middle. With the bow tie, this no longer would work. Our engineering team had to figure out a new way to control the new can.
Did the new can affect filling?
There were no major adjustments to the 165-spout H&K Delta filler. Although the line does run a bit slower than normal production, this is a limitation of the multipacker rather than the filler.
Were there any other adjustments due to the heavier cans such as guiderails or other components?
We needed to work to balance the conveyor flow between the pasteurizer and the multipacker. We need it high enough to keep the packer running, but if the line pressure gets too high, the bow-tie cans may ride up on each other and cause fallen cans.
Were the associated changes anticipated ahead of time?
Whenever you have a new package or product, we try to anticipate as many of the necessary changes as possible. There are always some that you cannot foresee and must be worked through as you learn how best to run the new package. An example of this was the post-pasteurizer line pressure. I would not have anticipated that as a major issue.
How often do you run this new can and is it run on one line only?
We run this package every other week; it is run on only one of our four can lines.
Can you compare this to any other packaging changes over the years?
Each new product or package brings its own unique set of issues that have to be solved. Some with the bow-tie can are similar to other package start-ups, but others are quite different.
1. It is a much thicker gauge package than our normal 12- or 16-oz cans. With the thicker gauge comes a higher risk to our equipment in the event of a package jam. This means we need to be on top of our game when this package runs at our Williamsburg brewery.
Two things that stick in my mind about the bow tie:
2. The 8-pack package has been a true puzzle to solve on our multipacker. The vast majority of our can multipacks are rectangular when viewed from the end; this package is square. The difficulty to get this package to run was surprising to our can-line team, but we solved the issue and made it work.
Any other comments?
Anheuser-Busch has a deep bench of great people who made this technical innovation possible. Our engineers here in Virginia and elsewhere in the country-including in New York, California and Missouri-solved multiple technical challenges to make this happen.
This project also underscores how Anheuser-Busch has expertise and excels in all steps of the beer-making process. This includes growing ingredients, malting our own barley and making cans. When someone holds a Budweiser in their hand, they know Anheuser-Busch has been meticulous in every single detail.
See a video of packaging production at the Williamsburg brewery at www.packagingdigest.com/bowtievideo.