Only the last fight decides the battle, the saying goes. Molson Coors Beverage Co. now had to experience this truth painfully in a dispute with Anheuser Busch which was titled in press as corngate or beer war.
In March 2019, the second largest American brewer sued the U.S. arm of international brewing group AB InBev (inside.beer, 21.3.2019), for a USD 13 million campaign which was aired during this year’s Super Bowl (inside.beer, 5.2.2019). Allegdly consumers could get the impression that by drinking Coors Light and Miller Lite beers, two major brands of Molson Coors they were consuming high-fructose corn syrup, an artificial sweetener which is said to foster obesity.
In May and again in September a district judge ruled in favor of Molson Coors and prohibited Anheuser Busch all further use of mentioning corn syrup on advertisement campaigns, on social media and on packaging without further context. However, the judge allowed the brewer to exhaust the stock of packaging until March 2020.
The 7th U.S. Court of Appeals overturned today the ruling from September and said it was up to consumers to decide what is best. “If Molson Coors does not like the sneering tone of Anheuser-Busch’s ads, it can mock Bud Light in return,” the appeals court ruled. “Litigation should not be a substitute for competition in the market.”
The ruling states: “Molson Coors insists that a list of ‘ingredients’ differs from what the finished products ‘contain.’ That’s possible, and the omission of alcohol from the list of ingredients could support a conclusion that Molson Coors treats that word as a synonym for ‘inputs.’ Yet common usage equates a product’s ingredients with its constituents—indeed, some of Molson Coors’ own managers testified that a beer ‘contains’ what’s on the ingredients list.”
“By choosing a word such as ‘ingredients’ with multiple potential meanings, Molson Coors brought this problem on itself,” the appeals court said. “It is enough for us to hold that it is not ‘false or misleading’ for a seller to say or imply, of a business rival, something that the rival says about itself.”
The appeal court has sent back the case now to the district court to decide “whether any question remains for trial, or whether our decision instead wraps up the proceedings.”
“Anheuser Busch and Bud Light intentionally misled American consumers,” Molson Coors Chief Communications and Corporate Affairs Officer Adam Collins said in a statement. “That is unfair to the American people and we believe it is unlawful, which is why there have been multiple federal rulings against Anheuser Busch in this case.” As for next steps, he said: “We are disappointed with the 7th Circuit decision and we are exploring our options to continue holding Anheuser Busch accountable.”
In a statement, AB InBev said: “We are pleased with today’s decision. We have said since the beginning that this lawsuit brought by Molson Coors is baseless. Right now our focus is on supporting our employees, our communities, and our business partners during this unprecedented crisis.”
However, the final outcome of this dispute is no longer relevant to both brewers as they have moved on from the campaign and currently are focusing most of their marketing on coronavirus response ads.