Anheuser-Busch moves from ads to actions

CMO Marcel Marcondes caught up with Campaign US on the company’s pandemic pivot and its brand campaign, ‘Let’s Grab A Beer.’

Anheuser-Busch has flipped the marketing model on its head.

The beer, wine and spirits conglomerate had to quickly adapt to the closure of restaurants, sporting events and other venues during the coronavirus pandemic, while still staying top of mind, relevant and providing value to consumers. Doing so meant adopting a more locally nuanced approach rooted in real-time, cultural conversations.

“It's about treating our consumers like people instead of targets,” said Anheuser-Busch CMO Marcel Marcondes. “It’s easier said than done, but it triggers a lot of meaningful changes inside an organization if you decide to work that way.”

One of those changes was putting action behind all of Anheuser-Busch’s communications. Another was reengineering its marketing organization to work more like a newsroom moving at the speed of culture.

“If you only talk about what you stand for, you are talking to yourself. If you only talk about what people are talking about, you are chasing culture without being invited or belonging. That's where companies make mistakes,” Marcondes said. “So we always look for that sweet spot.”

Marcondes chatted with Campaign US about the agency’s pandemic pivot and the next installation of its first corporate master brand campaign, “Let’s Grab A Beer.”

Campaign US: How has the last year changed Anheuser-Busch’s marketing approach?

MARCEL MARCONDES: We doubled down on consumer-centricity, adjusting how we deliver messages to make our brands relevant to consumers’ new routines. We streamed cooking lessons and workout sessions. We doubled down on gaming. We supported restaurants. It was all about adding tangible value to people’s lives, instead of just doing advertising.

That led us to a new internal mantra: We don't want to get back to normal. We want to be better.

How does Anheuser-Busch’s brand campaign, “Let’s Grab A Beer,” speak to that?

People miss getting together with loved ones around a beer. We are a natural, authentic, real part of that. The key message of the film was it’s never just about the beer. It's about being together. It’s a great opportunity to remind consumers of the role we play in their lives.

We see a lot of excitement about getting back to life. We’re seeing spikes in conversation about going back to restaurants, sports events, concerts, being closer to family and friends. But there is one common element in these conversations: let's not cross the line. Let's move forward safely. Otherwise, we can take one step forward and two steps back. So let's grab a beer — safely.

How do you keep up with the pace of change around COVID and in culture more broadly?

We’re pivoting our plans much more quickly. At the beginning of the year we thought maybe we could be ready for a reopening by September. But then vaccination rates started to accelerate, and now we think everybody is getting ready for a special 4th of July. It requires a lot of agility.

Digital gives us more flexibility to adjust plans and stay relevant. Our data team is also improving. Our DTC and e-commerce initiatives are growing and giving us more insights.  We talk to thousands of consumers online vs. traditional focus groups.

One big focus is to ensure your brand communication drives some sort of action. Talk about how you’ve been doing that.

After we released this second part of “Let’s Grab A Beer,” we did a campaign with Budweiser saying, “Show us you have been vaccinated, and your first round of Bud is on us.”

After that, we did a campaign with Michelob Ultra called “Pure Gold,” announcing that it's an organic beer. The campaign had an action: Michelob Ultra will be produced using 100% solar power. Then we released new aluminum bottles for Stella Artois, and said we will donate proceeds to the James Beard foundation.

The last piece was the Bud Light Summer Stimmy plan, where we’re offering 100,000 sports tickets — the largest ticket giveaway we've ever done — and later we'll do the same for concerts. We’re taking action to give people access to experiences they are missing.

Brand purpose is such a big topic. How do you determine which of your brands can speak to specific issues authentically?

Authenticity is non-negotiable. We use a simple diagram. In one dimension we have what the brand stands for, and in the other, what people care about. We only do a campaign on the intersection.

Budweiser stands for American values. America wants to come back to life, but it requires more vaccine education. So it makes sense for Budweiser to say, “If we want to celebrate our values of freedom, we need to take a stand.” Michelob Ultra is an organic brand, so it makes sense for the brand to talk about solar power.

When we talk about Anheuser-Busch as a corporation, it's even more serious. You can't change what the company stands for overnight. So the Super Bowl spot was very thoughtful. We exist to bring people together, to create a world with more cheers.

How do you balance local vs. global marketing strategies?

The closer we are to people, the more relevant we are, and the more local, the better. We’ll have five marketing offices in the U.S. by the end of the year. Our team can live the realities of consumers and get closer to areas that dictate trends and influence how society will look.

You can see that translated into some of our campaigns. For Budweiser, it’s much more about the sum of local programs instead of having big, national programs, and it's been paying dividends very nicely.

We have more initiatives going on at the same time, plus more agility to make sure whatever we do is relevant. But this is the evolution of our way of working.

How do you break through the clutter as consumers tune out interruptive ads?

To win, we must play a game of relevance, not interruption. If we continue to behave as an advertiser, it’s complicated. But if we are part of the conversation, we build relevance and a healthy relationship with consumers, and it drives results.

Consumers have an extremely low tolerance for being treated as targets instead of as people. It’s more about having a conversation than announcing something.

How has this shift in your way of working changed your relationship with agencies?

Agencies are on the same page. They want to do work that is relevant. So the more we connect what our brands stand for to what is going on with people, the more they feel like the work is relevant and exciting.

Of course, it comes with a price. We're all working very hard, so we're trying to have more frequency in our touchpoints so we can navigate through this better.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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