How Budweiser marketed its way out of the ‘awkward’ World Cup beer ban
After Qatar performed a last-minute U-turn and outlawed stadium beer sales, tournament sponsor Budweiser had to think on its feet. Here’s how it made lemonade out of lemons.
A shipping container of Budweiser gets dropped into Argentina
When Budweiser learned on November 18 (just 48 hours before kick-off) that, despite earlier assurances, the Qatari government would be banning alcohol sales at 2022 World Cup stadiums, the $75m Fifa sponsor was understandably taken aback. “I thought it was a joke,” says Richard Oppy, the vice-president of brands at owner Anheuser-Busch InBev. It wasn’t.
“We had all that beer sitting there and we didn’t know what to do with it,” he recalls, thinking back to one of the most unusual sponsorship moments of last year’s World Cup.
At its ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, meanwhile, global chief creative officer Karl Lieberman was similarly blindsided, first hearing the news from friends as the world watched the U-turn play out. “I was floored by the news,” he remembers. “My phone was blowing up. Even from people who don’t pay close attention to the marketing world.”
The pair knew that Budweiser needed to respond to the situation to save face and salvage sales – and that it had to do so without worsening relations with Qatar or jeopardizing any contractual makegoods with Fifa – so they got to thinking. As Oppy sagely puts it: “When life gives you lemons, you’ve got to make lemonade.”
The original plan
The Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr and Raheem Sterling fronted ‘The World is Yours to Take’ was the creative platform leading the brand through the sponsorship – its biggest global campaign ever, rolling out in 76 countries and at 1.4m bars and restaurants, twice as many as its previous record.
It was to serve as a “rallying cry for the world” after the pandemic says Todd Allen, the global vice-president of marketing at Budweiser. Its rousing hero spot ‘Tunnel’ shows athletes and fans swaggering towards the light at its end.
In a stroke of good fortune, the brewer had already planned that, for the first time ever, it wouldn’t confine its Fifa Fan Festival purely to the host country but take it to 10 competing nations, meaning that when celebrations dried up in Qatar it was able to compensate, reinventing a campaign that was a year in the making over the space of a weekend to incorporate new messaging – ’Bring Home the Bud’.
The awkward tweet
For some fans at the World Cup, last-minute switched-in alcohol-free Budweiser Zero wasn’t going to cut it, while the thought of all that Bud spoiling in the desert heat was too much for some to take.
The day of the 11th hour announcement, Budweiser posted its now infamous “Well, this is awkward“ message and gained tens of thousands of retweets before mysteriously being wiped from the record.
Oppy knew grief would follow, “but it was awkward,“ he says. “Fans who wanted to watch the football and enjoy a beer weren’t able to.“
Full of praise for the work of the community manager, he adds: “It had the perfect brand voice. It had great timing. It wasn’t corporate. It wasn’t snarky and it got picked up and it was well received.“
An “abundance of caution“ at a “sensitive time“ drove the deletion, however, with Budweiser appearing to be pursuing a make-good from Fifa for the lost volume and inconvenience.
Nonetheless, once the tweet was out of the bottle it wasn’t going back in and it was to “fuel to the fire“ for what followed, says Oppy. “People respected what Budweiser did, how quickly we pivoted and how we made this a positive situation.”
Meanwhile, on the agency side, Lieberman ”woke up” to the ”awesome tweet” and soon leaned into its ”idea of watching a real human being react to this thing”.
Despite kick-off coming fast, the fact that Thanksgiving was just around the corner in the US meant the team had a restricted creative toolkit, having previously planned to ease up for the holidays. And while Lieberman says his account may be ”blurry,” he recalls an all-hands-on-deck meeting where the team ”threw ideas into the soup.”
The beer ban was the hot topic of the tournament and Budweiser now had a sponsorship people were invested with. ”No one ever talks about sponsorship in this way, so that was useful,” says Lieberman.
The outcome was two ideas – a pragmatic one and a bold one. Idea one was that it could go big on Bud Zero in the materials and move on. That compromise would have had a strong initial impact, but it lacked legs to last the whole tournament, thinks Lieberman. ”To at least get as close to the breadth of the sponsorship we had before, we needed something that can keep this dialogue going through the games.”
Idea two was to have some of the world’s most-decorated creatives drafting tweets from the ”planes, trains and automobiles” taking them home for the holidays as the brand figured out how it would get its Qatar-bound Buds back home too. This idea was the winner. ”We came across this great photo of a warehouse with a bunch of red boxes. It looked like it was from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was the image we used to communicate where all the beer was coming from.”
The tweet ran one day before kick-off, around one day after the first one was deleted.
The global campaign, ’Bring Home the Bud,’ then grew from there, the idea being that beer destined for the World Cup would instead be sent to the winning country’s fans. There were a lot of chefs in the kitchen but they were all cooking the ”one meal,” says Lieberman, praising the agile culture at AB InBev that enabled it to react so fast across dozens and dozens of markets.
Oppy builds upon this, adding: ”While we are the biggest brewer in the world, we moved like a startup, we made decisions quickly.”
Around a day later, the speediest marketers had already set up container stunts with the ’banned Bud.’ Soon, ’Bring Home the Bud’ and the winner-takes-all excitement was communicated.
One of Oppy’s highlights was hearing Ecuadorian fans chanting during the opening match: ”We want beer, we want beer.”
If the beer ban was bad luck for Bud, ambassador Lionel Messi winning the tournament with Argentina must counter that.
An already buzzworthy campaign got to be tied to one of the most memorable moments in football history. As dry as Qatar was, Argentina was flooded with Bud. The team estimated it gave away around a million Buds during 30 parties over 30 days. Oppy recalls seeing at least one Budweiser-themed tattoo from a Messi fan too.
And taking the activity all the way through to packaging, limited edition Messi merch was altered “pretty much overnight” to transform his raised first into a World Cup-wielding one.
From a content perspective, Messi’s Budweiser victory video became the second-most viewed Instagram Reel of all time, garnering 175m views and nearly 20m engagements. This asset was always in play and needed some finessing to acknowledge that he ’Brought Home The Bud.’ Adidas told The Drum it got a similar lift from the success of Messi.
At the time of writing, AB InBev was restricted from sharing sales data. Allen does say however that Budweiser enjoyed a 50% share of all social mentions among brands activating during the World Cup and a 70% share of social impressions.
He adds: “We were by far the number one for share of voice on digital and social, driven by all the positive conversation that we had throughout the tournament.“
Oppy says “good planning, clear positioning, strong ambassadors and prepped assets“ meant it was well-prepared for any “curveball,“ while Allen praises the team’s ability to reframe the “obstacle as an opportunity“ and Lieberman finishes up by saying he is just thankful his staff was so “resilient“ to all the “hectic“ changes they had to make.