Why Budweiser’s World Cup beer ban might not be all bad for the brand
Just 48 hours before kick-off, alcohol sales have been banned at the tournament in Qatar. Could the brand use this blow to its advantage?
Budweiser was to be the only alcoholic beverage available to fans at the eight match venues in Doha – a privilege it had secured in an estimated $75m sponsorship deal inked with Fifa.
“Well…this is awkward,“ the AB InBev-owned brand wrote in a now-deleted tweet as headlines emerged that a full alcohol ban was coming. The reasons for the last-minute U-turn are unclear, but some reports pin blame on the Qatar royal family putting pressure on organizers at the 11th hour to ban all alcohol sales within the venues to adhere to the country’s strict laws. The Guardian has also suggested that Qatar organizers remained concerned, even after years of negotiations, that the large number of supporters it expects from Gulf and Asian countries would find it uncomfortable to be in stadiums among people drinking.
Hinting that all was not well between the beer brand and organizers, Budweiser’s branding and serving stations had already been given a less prominent position in stadiums, according to reports earlier in the week.
“Following discussions between host country authorities and Fifa, a decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the Fifa Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, removing sales points of beer from Qatar’s Fifa World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters,” said Fifa in a statement confirming the decision.
It continued: “There is no impact to the sale of Bud Zero, which will remain available at all Qatar’s World Cup stadiums. Host country authorities and Fifa will continue to ensure that the stadiums and surrounding areas provide an enjoyable, respectful and pleasant experience for all fans.
“The tournament organizers appreciate AB InBev’s understanding and continuous support to our joint commitment to cater for everyone during the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022.“
An AB InBev spokesperson simply said: “Some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.“
According to Amar Singh, who is senior vice-president for content and comms at sports and entertainment agency MKTG and a former marketer for Budweiser in Europe, the decision will be “very disappointing“ – not least because there have been 12 years of conversations and preparations with the brand, Qatari authorities and Fifa. This resulted in Bud making compromises to ensure local customs and laws were respected while also giving western fans the option to drink during matches.
“Putting marketing and the value of the sponsorship to one side, there will be logistical, operational and HR-related issues to sort out,” adds Singh. “Beer will have been long ordered and in place in stadia, staff trained up and protocols established – so that will be an immediate focus as we are two days from the tournament.“
He stresses, however, that in-stadia beer sales at the tournament – while significant – are ultimately a small piece of the sponsorship pie and that Budweiser won’t necessarily be losing sleep on the volume of sales it is going to lose in Qatar.
Instead, the brand should see this as a golden marketing opportunity, with Dark Horses strategy director Mark Lloyd advising that Budweiser’s comms teams and agencies should quickly focus on the massive PR win that could balance the negative publicity it has had for being associated with the tournament in the first place.
This World Cup has been problematic for almost all sponsors, with them being forced to defend their decision to support a tournament in a country with a poor human rights record and strict laws on homosexuality. “Budweiser was among those that decided the potential gains of the year’s biggest sporting event were too much to miss out on, using it as a platform to promote both beer and tolerance with its slightly opaque ‘No Matter Your Tunnel’ campaign,” says Lloyd.
“But this decision by Qatar to ban beer – and effectively Budweiser – from tournament venues gives the brand the best of both worlds. It still gets to be a sponsor of the World Cup and reap the benefits of pitch side exposure and glossy global campaigns, but it can also cast itself as an outsider to the corruption and atrocities committed in the name of football.”
Jonny Fordham, media relations director at CSM Sport & Entertainment, agrees: “The brand’s now-deleted tweet shows that it was initially keen to lean on the comically bad timing of the ban. Consumers will side with Budweiser over Fifa and Qatar, and the brewer can profit from increased brand sympathy and sentiment. With thousands of supermarket concessions around the globe, don’t be surprised to see fans at home showing solidarity and having a cheeky dig at their mates in Qatar... as at least they can drink Bud back at home while watching.”
But the fall-out post-World Cup will be concerning to Fifa. Commentators have speculated that AB InBev might have grounds to take legal action, with James English, a partner at sports marketing agency Fuse, saying that when it comes to contractual implications, the brand could claim breach of contract and/or request compensation.
He explains: “Contractually, Bud may or may not be able to claim breach, but that is not to say that rights holders will not engage in compensation discussions. We have seen this countless times, not least following Covid, where rights holders across various sports engaged in compensation discussions to support long-term relationships with their sponsors. We would expect any such discussions to be focused around the infrastructure costs of setting up for the tournament, the cost of the beer itself and the lost commercial opportunity from this decision – particularly since all of this will have been in place ahead of the tournament starting in a couple of days.
“Ultimately, it may be that Fifa will look to offer Bud some extra inventory to compensate as a good commercial gesture, but I don’t think the relationship will be drastically soured or any suing will take place – but we will see.”
Budweiser has been a partner of the Fifa World Cup since 1986 and the footballing body will be hoping the strength of that relationship will help it weather this situation. ”Fifa also knows full well that the onus will be on it to demonstrate how it can mitigate the commercial and optical benefits that would have come with fans in stadiums cheering with Buds in hand,” continues Singh.
Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely AB InBev would risk its sponsorship for future tournaments. “It is the world’s largest brewer and a company that pours millions into the sport via multiple brands – the 2026 Fifa World Cup, taking place in Canada, USA and Mexico, will offer much more familiar territory and a considerable opportunity to go bigger on the ground than it ever could with Qatar thanks to an extensive network of on-trade and off-trade partners and established relationships in their heartland,“ adds Singh.