The cynic may look at the strategy for a mega-company like Anheuser-Busch InBev and say it’s easy. With a global footprint, solid budget, brand partnerships, and name recognition, how hard can it be to grow? The reality is that it is pretty hard, as big brands, big budgets, and a big legacy can find it sometimes hard to pivot, and when you don’t pivot, you run the risk of being overrun.
As we have gone through the Pandemic we have seen, and continue to see, those brands with a legacy or not, that have been able to adapt to change and pivot, and those whose culture, and their leadership, have struggled to adapt.
One that is admittedly figuring it out, but has found some key pivot spots is indeed AB InBev, and a good reason for that, especially in North America, is leadership, led by a team headed by Nick Kelly, Vice President - Partnerships, Beer Culture & Community. Has it been easy?
“It’s been probably one of the most challenging times for any brand, and it hasn’t been easy no,” Kelly said recently. “What it has been is an awakening for many of us as we all try to find the right ways, the right messaging, and the right activations to keep consumers engaged and our brand relevant at a time when spending correctly is a huge priority.”
While AB continues to have its big-name partners and thrives off of them, there have been several recent pivots…esports and gaming, the NWSL, and even a move with the NBA, that has given a glimpse into the playbook Kelly and his team are playing out, much of which may not have been seen as traditional for such a traditional brand.
“Our goal really is to find the unduplicated audience,” Kelly said. “We have to make a lot of judgment calls, especially recently, and if a brand is worth the time and effort to be a fit, and thankfully we have the benefit of having a great amount of data that helps us make those decisions.”
One of Kelly’s biggest plays even before the Pandemic hit was in women’s soccer. AB InBev had invested heavily in the U.S. Women’s National Team going into the last World Cup, and the response showed a really high resonance with consumers across the board. The goal was to now take that affinity and bridge the gap to the next major international play for the athletes, be that the Olympics or the next World Cup, so as to not lose momentum. The bridge became the NWSL, a property Kelly felt was being undervalued for the demo that it reaches, and Budweiser stepped in with a program that included not just traditional activation, but programs to engage some of the NWSL rising stars immersed in the business of Bud off the pitch. The result, as a first mover, helped the NWSL gain more legitimacy and put its athletes into a really unique position with consumers year-round. Even more proof of that bridge? The sponsorship from the World Cup continues for Budweiser in the NWSL today, and since it kicked off in October 2018, has earned them $557,388 in brand value. 75% of that value was earned around the WWC in 2019 and still represents the top post by engagement with nearly 2x the second ranked one. Budweiser is so heavily involved with NWSL and its mission that they are even helping sell sponsorships for the league outside of their category involvement, an unusual, but welcomed addition to the partnership
Then there is esports, and the investment Bud Light has made into building unique digital activation platforms away from a traditional brand investment. Their “Battle of the Best” program as well as Bud Light’s own gaming channel on Twitch, focusing on personalities tied to NBA 2K helped expand a storytelling narrative for yet another audience…those with an affinity for gaming, an audience that can be a bit slippery when it comes to a more traditional brand. “Gaming has been a fun play for us to experiment and best understand how to engage with an audience that has always been elusive, and we have to be careful to segment out the audience which can skew way too young for us sometimes,” he added. “However what we have been able to do is learn about the gaming fan and his or her buying habits in a way that was very effective and authentic, and we are now better positioned for success as we build ties in those communities.”
Experimentation was also key for the company in its relationship with the XFL, and although the Pandemic brought the league to a very early demise, for now, the lessons learned there will be helpful for all the AB brands as they continue to grow and look at opportunities in and around the NFL. “The XFL, similar to what we have done in esports, was a great opportunity to test programs and different forms of engagement with consumers, things we could not have done with an NFL partnership,” Kelly said. “We fully realized some of the engagement opportunities the XFL presented might be a hard sell for a brand like the NFL that is over 100 years old, but we were able to prove concept and can now take those best practices to more mature partners who will be less reticent on a program that might be a little different, and less traditional, going forward.”
A successful campaign with the XFL partnership centered around "Celebrations" which meant that players were chugging or shotgunning Seltzers in the post-game locker room. It made for very entertaining social media content that was very on-brand for the league's irreverent style. Up until the league's abrupt end in April of this year, Bud Light Seltzer received $364,841 in brand value from the XFL league, teams, and players, which also included sponsorship of the final score graphic updates.
The Pandemic has brought a whole slew of less traditional adaptations to brands like AB in recent months, and Kelly has welcomed the learnings as the path forward. One of those key paths was with the NBA and using all digital and social channels to engage with their Michelob Ultra Courtside program as a way to bring the consumer experience into a game experience where there were literally no fans. The ability to have a partner willing to pivot, like the NBA, has been critical in finding not just the right tone, but the right level of engagement, at a time when the engagement for fans is literally in front of a screen, not in an arena.
“The NBA was great in looking at our partnership and asking what we can do to create a better, and more effective and inclusive, virtual experience for millions of fans stuck at home, and the Courtside club is a great example of that adaptation,” Kelly added. “It showed the passion of the fans at a distance, while tying us back to the action in the game, it will be one of the more positive learnings we have as we look ahead to what’s next.”
What’s next for sports and entertainment, as well as for engaged brands looking to grow the marketplace, remains the ultimate challenge. Weighing a socially distanced and masked in-person experience vs. a virtual one, no matter how highly engaged a consumer is, will be an ongoing challenge. “We are still in an unknown space and are trying to make smart guesses as to what resonates, especially using the data we continue to collect,” Kelly said. “What is the value of a Mike Trout Zoom experience we can create for contest winners vs. getting them product, what will Super Bowl look like for us with events, and how will we continue to learn and innovate so we are not just sitting back and waiting to see fan reaction, those are all going to be the things that keep us up at night. There is no doubt a lot of the learnings of today will help us as a progressive company going forward, the question is really in the uncertainty of what will work for the long term. We are lucky to have a wide swath of great partners, and the best practices will keep growing, but the fan and consumer experience will be so fluid in the coming months, and may not resemble as much of the past as we would have imagined.”
“The key is to keep listening to the consumer, find the spaces that can’t be duplicated, and evolve with our partners,” Kelly concluded. “We are just as bullish as ever, and are looking forward, not back, in this really interesting time. League and team partnerships have historically been crucial to our strategy of connecting with consumers in key markets nationwide. Since 2016, we have worked with the team at MVP to help us measure and value earned social media across all of these partnerships to monitor how our partners are performing for us, and so we can make any necessary, informed adjustments in real-time, based on what the data shows. Social engagement is an important metric in our performance-based sponsorship model and MVP has been an extension of my team to surface insights and help us make content performance recommendations that drive more eyeballs and engagement across the Anheuser-Busch portfolio of brands.”