Marketing From The Cockpit: How Creativity Transformed AB InBev From A Brand Buyer Into A Brand-Building Powerhouse 

Marketing From The Cockpit: How Creativity Transformed AB InBev From A Brand Buyer Into A Brand-Building Powerhouse 

Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) VP of global brands, Richard Oppy, explains how in just five years the marketing function turned the world’s largest beer buyer into the upper echelon of brand builders. Ab InBev has been cleaning up at Cannes and the Effies lately, while driving record levels of organic revenue growth. And, all of this in spite of a recent Bud Light hiccup!  

Lead image: Richard Oppy shares AB InBev’s journey from brand-building wanabee to top of the pops at the AANA’s RESET conference.

At a global marketing leadership meeting in 2017, it dawned on Aussie Richard Oppy and his peers that the world’s largest brewer had a problem.

A year earlier, AB InBev had acquired SAB Miller – then the second largest beer group – and its run of acquiring large rivals was coming to an end.

Like other beverages industries, the beer industry was about to embark on a period of consolidation.

Oppy, a “beer guy” who has risen up the ranks for more than two decades at Australia’s largest brewer, was leading Carlton & United Breweries marketing efforts across APAC South at the time.

“We knew that if we’re going to continue to drive strong growth, we couldn’t rely on m&a anymore. We had to grow organically. And if we’re going to grow organically, we had to make the shift to go from brand buyers, to brand builders,” Oppy told the AANA’s RESET Conference at Sydney’s international cruise ship terminal last week.

“And if you’re going to be a brand-led organisation… M&A has to take a back seat and marketing has to jump in the cockpit and start flying the plane.”

Oppy said that AB InBev’s team have benefitted from an organisation that focuses on longer-term thinking, including 10 year plans, rather than focussing all efforts on short-term sales. This has allowed the group’s marketing team the time to devise a strategy, implement the right systems, build partnerships and develop creativity chops from within, and have the confidence to deliver brand results over time.

At the very heart of AB InBev’s strategy is using creativity to solve business problems, elevate the company’s 500-plus brands, and better connect them with consumers. 

The marketing team wanted to be recognised as the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity’s creative marketers of the year, the most awarded Effies brand for effectiveness, and top WARC’s ranking for advertiser effectiveness. 

The ultimate measure of success would be using creativity to drive top line business growth.

“We had a big dream, a clear Northstar…that we wanted to be the best brand builders in the world,” said Oppy, who was elevated to VP of global brands in 2019 where he has oversight of global beer brands including Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona. 

“It’s been proven over a long period of time that those companies that are creatively awarded outperform the rest of the market by a factor of three.

“As marketers we talk about the importance of art and science. At our company we were really good at the science, the data, the analytics and consumer insights. But we weren’t great at the art, that’s we really lacked the voltage to creatively solve these problems.”

Enter the Justice League

To help AB InBev shift its capability more towards left-side of the brain creative thinking versus right-side analysis, the company surrounded itself with some of the top agency partners going (see image above), a roster that it reviews each year.

Creative leads at these agencies are part of a VIP Programme where AB InBev catches up at events like the Super Bowl to build relations and brainstorm ideas.

Oppy said this cohort are thought of internally as a Justice League of superheroes (see above image) that provide honest and challenging advice about the work.

“This Justice League is part of our family and an extension of our team,” Oppy said. “I hate when the agency comes up with a great creative solution and the client takes all the credit for the work. I also hate when things aren’t going well, the client throws the agency under the bus. Like in any marriage, we know there will be ups and downs, but we work through that together.”

The X-Factor

With creative superheroes in place, AB InBev set about developing a sustainable framework to help elevate all creative output across the business.

Called ‘Creative X’ it features four pillars: 

  • Creative Critique: training AB InBev staff to critically assess creative; 
  • Creative Brains Trust: internal and external creative specialists whose job is to come with fresh eyes, greenhouse work, and improve the output;
  • Creative Council: A panel judges assess and shortlist the best work across the AB InBev group;
  • Creative X Awards: Each year shortlisted work and teams enter a “mini Cannes” type event that celebrates the cream of the crop.

Oppy said the Creative X system has not only lifted the standard of work across the group, but has led to several award winning campaigns for its brands including Michelob Ultra, Budweiser and Corona. 

The work, the work, the work

Michelob Ultra

Michelob Ultra’s McEnroe vs McEnroe campaign, by FCB, showcased a live tennis match between tennis superstar John McEnroe against five virtual avatars his younger self. The event, which ran live on ESPN set new boundaries in what can be achieved in branded content entertainment, delivering impressive media results and cleaning up at major awards shows including Cannes and the Emmy Awards.

Budweiser

Another campaign that won Budweiser plaudits is when Qatar ruled at the last minute FIFA’s official beer sponsor could not serve alcohol at the event, leaving tonnes of beer dormant in the Middle East country. 

The Budweiser team and its agency partners turned this nightmare situation into a huge earned media success by promising to transport all of the beer from the event to celebrate the winning nation, in this case Argentina.

Budweiser’s Bring Home the Bud campaign received the endorsement of Lionel Messi, and helped elevate Budweiser into the consciousness of football beer drinkers the world over.

“It accelerated top line performance during and post World Cup. The World Cup is a good example that creativity does drive growth,” Oppy said.

Corona

Perhaps the pick of recent AB InBev work is when it won a Dan Wieden Titanium Lion last year for its Corona Extra Lime campaign, by DAVID Bogotá. This solved a major supply chain issue in Corona’s largest, China, which had a shortage of quality limes to accompany its beer.

The brand invested heavily in a new Chinese farm to grow high-quality limes for the market. This not only allowed the Chinese beer drinkers to enjoy the Corona lime ritual, but also provided local farmers with a more lucrative and a sustainable crop.

As an aside, Oppy said that Coronavirus did not have a negative impact on Corona brand salience of sales in Mainland China.

Bud Light’s hiccup

Although these campaigns have won accolades, Oppy admits that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

In April 2023, Bud Light faced a boycott in response to a social media promotion the company conducted with actress and TikTok personality Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman – transgender issues are at the coalface of America’s culture wars.

Oppy, who has no responsibility over the US brand, said the biggest lesson for the company is that “the consumer is the boss”. 

“The consumers were very clear that they didn’t want us to play politics. They were saying ‘talk about your beer, we love beer and talk about sport with the NFL’,” he said,

“So the lesson was stick to your swim lanes and stay away from politics.” 

Frothy results that stick

AB InBev’s rise up the global marketing and advertising charts is something to celebrate with a Stella or two.

At Cannes it has been award creative marketers of the year for two years running (2022 winning 50 lions, and 2023 winning 48 lions), the first time any company has achieved the feat. In 2017, Ab InBev picked eight lions and was well behind that year’s winner Hungry Jacks.

In the Effie effectiveness index, AB InBev has risen from 24th rank in 2017 to number one the past two years.

Meanwhile, it has risen from the 42nd WARC Top Advertiser to number three years in a row.

“With a really big change and by putting a system in place, we proved this wasn’t a fluke and that it is replicable and sustainable,” Oppy said.

“But your CFO and CEO are probably thinking that’s nice for marketing, but does it drive growth?”

The short answer is, ‘yes’.

AB InBev has achieved all-time high revenues in 2023 of $60.1 billion, which is 12 per cent about pre-covid levels in 2019, and at a time when traditional full strength beer consumption is in decline for younger drinkers in many markets, including Australia.

“So creativity does fuel top line growth,” Oppy concluded. “Dream big and if you want to be a brand-led organisation, marketing must be in the cockpit flying the plane. Creativity needs to be at the centre of the strategy.”

At a time when there is increasing pressure for short-term, lower funnel performance, this is a compelling case study about how playing the long game – powered by creativity – can deliver for brand and also drive impressive top line sales results – in other words, the long and short of it.




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