For WARC’s Spotlight Brazil, US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor talked to Daniel Wakswaser, Marketing VP of Ambev, about the brand’s COVID response, and about its global “Ideas for Good” initiative, which crowdsourced ideas from all over the company that could be implemented in local markets, benefiting consumers, the bars and restaurants the brewer does business with, and society.

This article is part of the August 2021 Spotlight Brazil series, "A close look at LATAM's largest market." Read more

Some topline insights:

  • AB InBev shifted focus globally during the pandemic from consumer-centricity to people-centricity, which, at times, meant shifting production to necessities, such as hand sanitizer and face masks.
  • Many of the company’s innovations, such as the idea from Brazil to help fund bars and restaurants through gift cards, came from its global “Ideas for Good” initiative, in which ideas were crowdsourced globally and then implemented in local markets.
  • The company oriented its COVID response around three stages: the early pandemic, in which safety and hygiene were of particular concern; the economic depression, in which bars and restaurants needed help; and third, the boredom stage, when people were tired of being homebound and lacked entertainment.
  • To address people’s boredom in Brazil, Ambev launched a series of well-produced – and hugely popular – YouTube concerts featuring popular artists, using the series as a launch pad for a new product, Brahma Double Malt beer.
  • The concerts were also an opportunity for Ambev to employ its home delivery service, Zé Delivery, so that Brazilians could order beer quickly and easily; Zé is a product of AB InBev’s ZX venture unit, and had been in development for a number of years.
WARC: What has been the experience in marketing at Ambev through the pandemic?

Daniel Wakswaser: I think the experience from our side has been very unique, in a sense that we are a very fast-paced company. We have this in our DNA to move fast and understand what are the contexts and how can we adapt. And I think early on in the pandemic, we took advantage of the global company position in the sense that we understood what was happening in China, and then [the pandemic] went all the way into Europe. And then in the US, and then Brazil, Mexico and South Africa... So because of that, we moved fast. And we created a global task force called “Ideas for Good”. And basically the big premise on that was, we shifted consumer-centricity to people-centricity, and that allowed us to understand what were the problems that society was facing.

And we understood that there were three phases very early on in the pandemic. And we tried to prepare and use our brands and our muscle, as a big company, to help the countries we operate in. Let me give you a couple of examples – so the first thing we saw was that, of course, as the pandemic was starting to be understood, people were afraid [and wanted] safety and hygiene.

Then they moved very quickly to the economic depression, that affected bars and restaurants and people in jobs.

And then they started to get a little bit bored. Because entertainment was down – soccer, football, basketball, everything was canceled, right? So, what we tried to do is – instead of trying to do advertising – we tried to do things that help society on these three things.

So, in a lot of countries, we produced hand sanitizer, we shifted our beer production into hand sanitizers, we helped governments build hospitals, we transformed our bottles into [production of] face masks. So that helped a lot in stage one.

In stage two, we used one of our global brands, Stella, to help restaurants, right? So how do we help restaurants revitalize and survive the pandemic? So, we incentivized people to buy [gift cards for future purchases at bars and restaurants] when they came back, and we helped with the other half, and that helped a little bit of the restaurants, the partners that we had.

And in the third phase, we created a bunch of entertainment programs, so that people could try to enjoy from home. So in Brazil where I am right now, we created a bunch of live concerts for a big, big musical platform, and that broke all the YouTube records, ever... And so I think that was the experience being in marketing. I think marketing has to be consumer-focused, but I think we shifted to be people-focused and then tried to solve the problems society was facing, instead of trying to advertise that, “Times are tough, it's gonna get bad,” that kind of philosophical poetry that a lot of the brands tried to do.

So just a final comment, I think the secret of the success for that was to assign a task force and meet very often. Every week, we briefed the [AB InBev] markets on the platforms that society required. And we, even the global CMO, every week, we were presented 60, 80, 100 ideas, and we had a committee that selected those ideas and gave money to test those ideas.

I’ve noticed how AB InBev executed on this idea of transporting ideas from one market to another, hand sanitizer being one part of it.

We had lost a little bit of touch of the part that we play in society to help bring people together to help … So, on that sense, we have been a global company for a while, not that much, we’re not like P&G, we became a global company a bit later. But we always had that idea of stealing things from [other AB InBev] markets copying, not being afraid of that, but it wasn't happening as fast as it should. So, we faced the crisis with that mindset, like, let's try to do this for the first time for real. And I think the advantage was twofold. First, the unique point of view that the pandemic was starting exactly the same [all over the world], but in different time frames…

So that helped. We had a global problem that had the same problems all over the markets. And we had that idea of scaling, adapting and copying, so I think it was a unique time for us to test that again. It wasn't happening as fast as it should in the past... so people were unafraid of copying things. I mean, that hand sanitizer thing? Why should you do something different? That's what you should do, so we exported that to 30 markets in a month. We donated water to a lot of governments – we scaled that idea to 25 markets, that idea of Stella in the restaurants and bars, more than 20 markets.

Getting back to people-focused versus consumer-focused, consumer is about what people want or need in a commercial sense, where people focused is about people needing hand sanitizer, people needing water?

Exactly. There is a collective feeling that, governments have let us down, and people are putting faith into creators and sometimes into companies, right? They want companies to be more human, companies to be more purpose-led. And I think, for us to be prepared for these times, we also need to understand, we need to make sacrifices. And what I mean by consumer versus human is also – what are the sacrifices? It's very easy for you to do something that ultimately is helping your bottom line. That's kind of a selfish incentive in a way. I think, selfless incentives – and nothing is purely selfless, let's be honest about that – but ultimately, when you are more human, and you stop your production lines to do hand sanitizer because you're helping society and of course, once you help society, your reputation is better. And, of course, the economy comes back faster. And then of course, you move the business, so there's nothing as a selfless act. But there are acts that are more selfless and acts that are more selfish.

How much of this collaboration, globally, do you think is going to continue once the pandemic recedes?

That is the $1 billion question. The one thing we’re thinking right now is like, man, this is such an important process of getting folks on the same page, of creating weekly routines all over the world...

We do not operate that well as a global company, because beer is very domestic. The biggest beer of every country is a local beer. So, we're not that P&G and Unilever global-led company, right? So ultimately – I stayed in a global role for two years – most of the time you feel a little bit strange, because you cannot add as much value as you thought you could. But during the pandemic, we could. So, what we're trying to do right now – I mean, the pandemic is not over yet – right now, we're doing the same “Ideas for Good,” [but] we're calling it “Ideas for Euphoria.” So, what we are doing is the opposite – I know that New York is reopening, I know the London is reopening, you know that China's back to normality – what can I as Brazil and the team in Colombia, Argentina, Mexico can learn for the euphoria? How do people behave? How do the bars come back, events and so forth?

Let's talk more about the concerts. You didn't tiptoe into it, you went big.

People are bored. People need entertainment. And what they're receiving right now is like at a low end of [production]. We cannot bring people together live like, physically – is there a way to mimic a little bit the experience of live things in digital form for people to consume at home. And then we started investing in big production... it was not a huge production, but well produced. So, we got the best artists in Brazil, and we started to broadcast that with cameras, and production and special effects and so forth.

And we tied that with Zé delivery, which is our Drizzly, which is our kind of in-home, cold beer delivery system. And we launched an innovation, which was Brahma Double Malt, a pure double malt beer. And all of this hit the society like never before. It was being first, being fast, investing in doing something that felt a little bit more well-produced rather than just a homemade [production].

Tell me about, how you amped up Zé delivery during the pandemic. It must have been difficult to scale when it wasn't a focus of your business previously.

That's a good story. And I need to go one chapter back, just to explain the whole deal. Back in 2015, we created a separate unit called ZX, which is our ventures unit, right? And we started to incubate businesses there, craft beer businesses, that were kind of kicking us in the US. We started to incubate them all over the world. We started to kind of open ventures on an e-commerce thesis.

[Over] five years, some of these things were almost killed because they didn't pay back. As all interesting unicorns have in their history in the beginning, the cash flow doesn't pay back, and so forth.

So, for a very, very long time Zé delivery, didn't pay back, didn't have traction, the thesis was not clear. But we kept investing, and I think that goes back to the culture of our company being an entrepreneurial company. Let's give it some time... And because it was going on for five years, and had learned a little bit and was starting to grow faster.

When the pandemic came, they say that luck, meets the prepared, right? So ultimately, because of that opportunity, we were prepared. And then we scaled like hell. It was the perfect thing, at the perfect time. And they had gone through five years of a rough scenario, so we had learned some things. So, in a sense, we were able – I wouldn't be, crazy to compare us to Amazon – because, of course, Amazon is Amazon, but in the same way Amazon had 20 years of learning things, when the pandemic hit, they kind of could become bigger and faster. And it was the same with us, people were stuck at home, they wanted to have their beers, they wanted to kind of disconnect and relax a little bit. And we were the only ones that were ready, to empower bars, that were also closed, to deliver cold beer in your house, and sometimes, in literally five minutes.

How would you sum up how your country is doing?

That is a tough one. I think first, there is a statistic that shows mobility versus vaccination. The first disclaimer you need to know about Brazil is that we are one of the worst countries in the correlation of both, meaning that our mobility is higher than it should be, meaning that the pandemic controls are not working very well here. So, people are going out more than they should, then what we see in more developed markets. It's not as if also when euphoria comes when the pandemic is over, it moves from zero to 100.

But Brazilians are very optimistic people. So, in that sense, if you put that all into the mix, here, we are tired, we are afraid. But we take a look and we say, okay, the worst has, I think, gotten behind us, and we're going to get stronger out of that.

As a brand do you have to make decisions that are potentially polarizing, that you wish you weren’t placed in that position, but as a major brand you are?

In a polarized society, it's impossible. It's usually impossible to please, everyone, but in a very polarized environment it’s kind of harder. And that is tough, right? Because, I mean, we're a beer brand. Ultimately, what we would love is if we could just have a beer and talk about our issues and try to get to middle ground. Right? That's our utopian view of our legacy as a business to the world, right?

But I think the exercise we do is first and foremost, to not try to do stuff, just to look good with the more progressive side of society. There are a lot of mistakes being had, because you're trying to be seen as the cool kid on the block. We are very serious about our principles, the things we believe, the things we think are important for society to evolve. And we are clear on that and we make positions on that, right?

We do not take a stance on every topic. We do not try to please everyone. We are not politically to the right or to the left. We do not have a very clear political ambition in that sense. But, there are cases where we have to make a stance. So, for instance, we did something with the Amazon rainforest. We talked about that, because it's important for us. Our biggest soft drink comes from the Amazon rainforest, so we had to make a position on that. It didn't please everyone.

We are very, very, towards diversity and inclusion, right? It's a topic that we believe society needs to evolve massively. We're not going to compromise on that, even if some people are not pleased on that. We believe they are on the wrong side of history.

We need to take a stance about equal rights, about the rights for people to work, diversity in the workplace, from backgrounds, and from sexual orientation, and inclusion. And that doesn't please everyone, but we're not in the business of pleasing everyone; we're in the business of making people connect for a better world and in our view, a better world is a world in which we have inclusion and diversity. So, we need to make a stance on that.