With events and the hospitality industry hit hard by COVID-19, alcohol brands were some of the most affected. Marcel Marcondes, US Chief Marketing Officer at Anheuser-Busch InBev – the world’s largest beer brewer  speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about creativity in a crisis, relying on real-time insights, and the new consumption occasions that will define 2021.

With restaurants, bars, and sports events closing, alcohol brands have been among the most affected by COVID-19. What were the key early decisions you made?

For our industry, it was a big hit. Restaurants closing, bars closing, sports and any kind of cultural or musical events were getting cancelled. Those are big, big consumption occasions. For us, it had a massive impact.

The short answer was becoming even more obsessed with understanding the behaviour of our consumers. Our assumption was that routines were going to change, and drinking occasions would change. So, we developed incremental online panels to talk to even more people. We talk to thousands of consumers on a daily basis to really track what's going on.

Consumers are struggling through the pandemic in phases. The first one we identified, it was very clear, was fear. It was “I can’t even talk about occasions or products and brands, I'm only focusing on how I can protect myself from getting this virus.” That was a big thing right in the beginning. So, the first thing we did – and I was very vocal about it – was (decide that) we were not advertising anymore. We directed our efforts to see how we could help people be safe.

The outcome of this mindset was, for example, the fact that we shifted our beer lines to start producing hand sanitiser. On our social listening systems that we put in place, we started to see people concerned and comments about shortages of blood reserves in the hospitals, so we worked with the Red Cross. People were talking about going to the hospital with COVID, but not that people weren’t donating blood anymore. We spoke with all the sports leagues and with all the teams that we sponsor, and said “it's time for us to work as one team”. We converted multiple sports venues in the country into blood donation centres for the Red Cross.

We also started with some actions to support the (hospitality) industry, with specific initiatives to support bars and restaurants. So those were the first approaches that we had, as we understood that this was what people were really looking at.

Key takeaways:

  • To stay on top of emerging trends, ABInBev has levelled-up its comprehensive real-time insights platform and adopted the philosophy of a publisher: being fast and hyper-relevant.
  • The company is embracing different consumption ‘occasions’ on digital media channels, including online entertainment, streaming and gaming.
  • As a result of COVID-19, marketers need to remember the components of humanity, relevance and tangible action as well as creativity.
Several months in, how has your company's approach changed towards thinking about a long-term recovery and moving back into advertising and brand building?

When you’re thinking about the long-term recovery, it’s important to start first with the short-term, because you are observing which of the changes you are seeing in the short term will become long-term.

In our industry, there were a lot of changes in interactions with beverages… There was a big shift in the way consumers were buying: larger packs, and also buying much more online. New occasions started to arise, like gaming, which is starting to become a relevant occasion for people to drink beer.

We adapted all of our brand plans and our channels to add value for people in this new reality. We came up with platforms providing home entertainment. We started [marketing on] gaming platforms to add to those occasions as well. We did workout sessions via streaming, because gyms were closed. This is what we call ideas for good and growth – we're positioning our brands to add value to consumers in key consumption occasions that were connected to those brands. But at the same time, we're always taking tangible action to really support people in [affected] segments of the industry. So whenever we connected with food, there was a fund to support the restaurants. Whenever we were doing workout sessions, we were offering space for people to donate money to gyms that were closed, etc.

The change that will remain for a longer period of time is people staying home. Home entertainment will be key. For convenience, people will still buy online. On this, we have reached the point of no return. Once you start buying online, you're going to continue buying with that convenience.

Marcel Marcondes, US Chief Marketing Officer, Anheuser-Busch InBev

So, customer-centricity is more important than ever.

Simply put, humanity is the name of the game. With all these changes, we need to make our brands more relevant to what people really need as individuals and add value to the way they're living, instead of the old model: “what is my business plan, and what do I want my brand to say or do?” It's all about putting people first. We’re accelerating that exponentially, we’re becoming a truly customer-centric company. This is something that you have to do ‘on steroids’: put people first.

The second thing that I think is a very important change that we are getting used to – and this we do not see changing in the longer term – is a much higher level of volatility in the way things happen. So we're getting prepared with regard to our internal processes. Now (we need to) change plans in a much more agile way, because it's all about getting the pulse of what's going on with people and making quick decisions so that we can always be relevant and add tangible value. The third part is about action: taking the plans that we receive, (and asking ) what's the tangible action in this campaign or with this programme, so that we can add more value.

A lot of CMOs are discovering that processes which used to take months now take days. Are there major changes in terms of how you’re working now that you think will continue into the future?

One hundred percent of what we are executing now was not planned three months ago. This is a new norm for us, we want to make this our new routine. Today we have the routine of a publisher, in many ways.

We have daily meetings about what's going on, and what's trending and the hot topics. Then we have a clear criteria, which I think is extremely important, to find ‘the bright spot’. The bright spot is the intersection between what people care about, what they're talking about, and what our brands stand for. When we find those intersections, we have credentials to play and to join the conversation. If we identify something that is extremely relevant in culture or society, but it does not connect with what our brand stands for, then we don’t do it. Some companies or brands jump into conversations because they're culturally relevant, but they don't belong there, and this is when trouble starts.

We have longer term plans, for sure, and things we plan for in advance. Those plans get recalibrated and adjusted based off those daily routines. We’re becoming much closer to a publisher now, and that’s how we’re going to do it moving forward.

How does your data and insights capability work within that philosophy, with regards to quick turnarounds?

We had that process already, but we got even more focused on that. We're challenging the boundaries of how many people we can talk to and how deep we can go with these conversations on a daily basis.

We currently have an online panel of 6000 consumers that we can access every single day. We have weekly sessions using that data, and if something more urgent happens we can even access that daily. On top of that, we are developing proprietary tools together with Google and other partners to get much sharper in understanding the trends. The mentality is that we need to be sharper on understanding what's going on with consumers today, but we also need to get much better on predicting where these changes are going to take us tomorrow.

I like to say that we're getting close to becoming CNN on election night, or like a political campaign. Given the amount of data, we can have those maps of the country with heat maps and thousands of people giving us answers about all the questions that we have: a statement in a campaign, the product, a social post, etc on a daily basis. We can see reactions across the country, and we're working with those tools to see where the trends are going take us in the future. I think the winners will be the ones to manage to adapt to the consumer’s new life better.

Do you think that COVID has redefined the role of marketing and the importance of the marketing function within your company?

I am a big believer that this whole situation is going to make marketing, as a function, exponentially more relevant. Everybody's waking up to the fact that you might be consumer-centric as a company, but now the winners will be the ones that will adapt what they do to serve consumers better and faster.

Consumers are changing. Their routines are changing, the way they interact with products and brands is changing, and companies will have to adapt. I think marketers were educated to convince consumers to buy whatever they make, and I think we've reached a point of no return on that. We need to wake up to the fact that, now, we need to adapt what we make to better serve consumers. That's our job, instead of getting consumers to adapt to what we make.

The marketing function is the biggest ambassador of the consumer voice and consumer behaviour. We have to be the change internally, so that we can improve the commercial strategies, innovation pipeline, and processes to better serve the consumer.

The industry has spent a lot of time talking about the importance of creativity, and long-term brand building vs short termism. Have you been able to think about this as you've been working through this year?

We’re coming from a place where attention is the biggest asset. Given the complexity of the landscape, grabbing people's attention is the beginning of everything. Creativity, in my opinion, is extremely relevant and will continue to be one of the most important elements that we need to bring to the table every day. Without creativity, you don’t grab anybody's attention or even start the conversation. This isn’t going to change because of COVID-19.

What has changed as a result of COVID-19 is that, in addition to creativity, we need to remember the components of humanity, relevance and tangible action. People should respect you (as a brand), and understand that you're doing something for them instead of only talking to them.

How are you approaching the usual consumption occasions being so disrupted? How does this affect your major activations around events such as the Superbowl, for example?

I don’t know how much this will affect the Superbowl specifically, but I do believe that occasions are becoming even more important because it's all about understanding how and when people are interacting with our products and brands. We can solve for the new needs or problems they have and make our brands relevant to them.

I would assume that occasions will become more relevant now. The tricky part is always to make sure that occasion-based marketing is not boring, because otherwise people will not pay attention. Creativity remains indispensable, even if we're doing occasion-based marketing. There is a big opportunity behind occasion-based marketing now, because those are changing.

Have you evolved your media mix through the COVID-19 crisis, in terms of the channels that you're playing in?

We dropped our investment in the beginning when we were in that ‘no advertising’ mode. Then, as people got used to the lockdown reality, we are finding our way back and investment has come back.

Digital continues to grow. Because we're talking to different people on different occasions, and who are going through different situations, the segmentation opportunities are even bigger and better. People are interacting with our brands in different ways, but they're still interacting, so we need to continue to be part of the conversation. People are consuming a lot of content now via digital channels: streaming is digital, entertainment is now virtual. So that’s gaming, music, or even sports. For me, it's less of a conversation about the level of investment, and more about how you address the dollars.

In the next 12 months, what is the single biggest challenge and opportunity facing your brand, and how do you plan to tackle that?

The biggest opportunity that we have is to make our brands even more relevant to our consumers by being more human. We are humanising the approach that we have, big time, and that's a huge opportunity.

This situation is making people reset their relationships with brands, and they are prioritising brands that they know and brands that they trust. So as we continue to humanise our brand and really treat consumers as people and add tangible value to them, I see an immense opportunity for us to exponentially raise the bar on that level of relationship – to be much more emotional, rather than just rational.

The challenge is that we need to have some stability in the external factors. What we have just been through is one of many big hits that we're going to have... We’re going to continue to go, as humans, through this rollercoaster and that will make the eco-system even more disrupted. That is the big challenge we will have in the next twelve months.