Marketing’s Changemakers: Natty Light is giving away $1m to help college students pay their loans

Natty Light's Super Bowl ad will air in 10 college towns

Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a new series from The Drum which will tell the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of value brands Chelsea Phillips discusses why the brand is giving away $1m to former and current college students this year.

Over the years, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Natural 'Natty' Light has become as synonymous with college as tailgates and frat parties. Now, to leverage its position as the drink of choice among broke college kids, the notoriously cheap beer brand is offering up $1m to help out graduates saddled with student debt.

Natty Light is getting the word out about its initiative on Super Bowl Sunday next weekend with a TV spot that will air in 10 local markets, all of which are home to college towns. The 30-second ad, which features students sliding down a makeshift slip-n-slide while Paula Cole’s ‘90s hit ‘I Don’t Want To Wait’ plays in the background, explains that college should be defined by epic stories, not epic debt.

“The ad was actually inspired by a consumer video. We loved the carefreeness of it and wanted to kind of bring that to life as an example of some of those wild college memories that just happen organically,” says Phillips. “I was just talking about how I actually experienced a slip-n-slide in my college days, so I think it’s just something that everyone can relate to. We’re really excited and energized by it.”

The brand’s initiative comes as the student debt crisis in the US worsens. According to Pew Research Center, Americans owed more than $1.3trn in student loans at the end of last June, more than two and a half times what they owed a decade earlier. What’s more, the US saw an almost 90% increase in the number of student loan borrowers - in addition to a nearly 80% uptick in average balance size - between 2004 and 2014, according to recent analysis from personal finance site ValuePenguin.

“The numbers are staggering. 45 million Americans have their college memories overshadowed by student debt,” says Phillips. “Natty is a brand that stands for fun, and it’s the brand that we want people to be making memories with. So in the spirit of having college remembered for the great times, we want to help people pay off some of that debt.”

While numbers of this scale make Natty Light’s $1m contribution seem like a drop in the bucket, the brand’s donation will have a substantial impact on the 25 students who will each receive $40,000 to help pay off their debt. The brand is asking those who want a chance at the cash prize to post a video to social that explains their “inspiration for going to college” and shows the green beer tab that can be found on limited edition 36-packs of Natty Light. From now until May 6 of this year, the brand - which has chosen ‘New Girl’ star Jake Johnson as the campaign’s spokesperson - will be selecting winners.

Although the Super Bowl campaign is airing in college towns, Phillips says the effort was designed to target recent grads too as Natty Light attempts to position itself as a cheap beer that's just as suitable for post-grad life as it is college parties.

“We’re really looking at recent graduates as our sweet spot of who we want to bring into the beer segment,” Phillips explains. “And Natty Light is a tool for us to do that, because the average salary of a 24-year-old is $27,000. So having an alternative in the beer category that is accessible but also fun and speaks to them in a way that they feel like gets them is important to us.”

Aside from widening its audience beyond the college set, Phillips says the effort is helping Natty Light carve out a “brand purpose” of sorts that isn’t simply lip service.

“As we look to build brand purpose, it’s important to find causes that feel like natural fits,” Phillips says. “I think the worst thing you can do is force something like this on a brand. We want to make sure we’re helping out our drinkers.”

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