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E-Malt.com News article: Qatar: How Budweiser trackled beer-free World Cup
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Eelco van der Noll knew something was up when he received a WhatsApp message asking him to join a call with FIFA. It was just two days before the first kickoff of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s global vice president of experiential marketing was at the W Hotel in Doha, Qatar, overseeing finishing touches on what was to be Budweiser’s most expensive sponsorship to date, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 9.

The news landed on Zoom: Qatari officials had changed their minds about selling alcohol around stadiums before and after games. Beer, as global headlines soon announced, was being booted out of the World Cup.

“I just really thought, ‘This cannot be true’,” Mr. van der Noll said. “This is a bad joke.”

Budweiser was forced to rip up much of the plan it had been working on for years and write a new one in days. In the end, the brewer found a way to navigate the World Cup beer-free and roll with the media attention that the alcohol ban generated.

“One of the messages you really want to get across if you’re AB InBev is that beer is integral to sporting events,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, “and that was exactly the message that went across.”

The events highlight how expensive sponsorships seldom transform large companies’ brand valuations instantaneously, no matter how many headlines they generate or perhaps even what kind.

Budweiser’s reputation remained largely unchanged among consumers globally throughout the tournament, according to data from research company Morning Consult. The share of adults who said they have a favorable impression of the brand was measured at 42% in October, 41% in November, 42% in December and 42% in January. Soccer’s 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar ran from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18.

World Cup sponsors Kia and Adidas similarly maintained their reputational scores, according to the Morning Consult data.

“Even when things are just really newsy and buzzy and getting a lot of attention, it takes a lot to move the needle on a big, household brand like Budweiser,” said Emily Moquin, food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult. “Sponsorship of touchpoints like the World Cup is a very long-term play.”

AB InBev declined to comment on how it determines measurable success of such sponsorship deals, citing a quiet period before earnings. The company is scheduled to report four-quarter results March 2.

In July 2018, AB InBev attributed improved sales in Brazil, Mexico, China and Western Europe partly to its activity around the World Cup in Russia but noted that the tournament, for which the U.S. failed to qualify, didn’t help sales in Budweiser’s home country.

The company last October told investors that its marketing around the Qatar World Cup, including what CEO Michel Doukeris called its biggest digital campaign yet, aimed to drive demand for its brands globally.

On the ground, AB InBev’s chief supply officer said before the tournament that he expected more beer to be consumed in Qatar during the World Cup than the country would usually drink in a year.

“It will take months to see how it impacted Budweiser’s brand value globally,” said Evercore ISI beverage analyst Robert Ottenstein, “but given the prominence of the World Cup, the impact should be positive.”

Budweiser has been the official beer sponsor of the World Cup since 1986, and Mr. van der Noll has worked on the brand’s activation of that sponsorship for the past four tournaments. He and his team started planning for the 2022 World Cup as soon as the final whistle had blown in Russia in 2018, while AB InBev’s marketing unit began working on a campaign that would reach more than 70 countries.

Qatari laws, however, tightly restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol. It was agreed that Budweiser could serve alcoholic beer at its “takeover” of the W Hotel in Doha, at FIFA Fan Festival zones and in designated stadium areas outside the main bowls before and after games.

Things started to go awry just over a week before kickoff when Budweiser was ordered to move its stadium-perimeter beer locations from within the central sponsorship zones to less conspicuous spots, Mr. van der Noll said.

At two stadiums, Budweiser had set up large beer gardens, which it was told to dismantle. They were too big and complicated to quickly rebuild somewhere else, Mr. van der Noll said.

The beer-banning Zoom call came less than a week later.

“For all the World Cups we go into all kinds of contingencies, prepare for all kinds of scenarios,” Mr. van der Noll said. “But a few days before the event, to be told to remove our Budweiser from the stadiums…to be honest with you, that was not really something we had prepared for.”

It was the middle of the night in New York when Marcel Marcondes, AB InBev’s global chief marketing officer, found out about the stadium beer ban. His reaction, like Mr. van der Noll’s, was initially of disbelief, but he quickly spiraled into a deeper panic.

Budweiser doesn’t pay a reported $75 million for the official beer sponsorship of the World Cup just to serve beer at stadiums. Such deals also provide the rights to reference the tournament and its athletes in wider marketing campaigns globally, dibs on some TV advertising schedules and guaranteed space on digital billboards around pitches, all of which would have continued with or without alcohol in the stadiums, sports marketing executives say.

But the ban on alcoholic Budweiser undermined the impetus for being at the World Cup, Mr. Marcondes said.

“We thought, this disrupts our entire campaign on a global basis because beer belongs to the celebration—we belong to the celebration—and so we were disconnected from the purpose of us being there,” he said.

As Mr. Marcondes’s team in New York slept, Budweiser’s London-based social-media team acknowledged the imbroglio by tweeting, “Well, this is awkward”—the first suggestion of how the brand would handle the situation. It soon deleted the tweet, but the tone stood out.

“It gave [the reaction] a bit of a human face,” said Mr. Calkins, the marketing professor. “AB InBev is a corporate giant, so to get people feeling bad about what happened to them is a real accomplishment.”

On the ground in Qatar, Mr. van der Noll’s team was juggling beer—removing Budweiser and Budweiser-branded fridges from newly prohibited areas, lugging more no-alcohol Bud Zero into the stadium perimeter bars and making sure all the places it was permitted to sell Budweiser were fully stocked. They took down Budweiser-branded tents and equipment and rushed Bud Zero awnings that had been printed overnight into the bowls.

Meanwhile, Mr. Marcondes, the marketing team and advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy concocted a plan to retake the company’s claim on soccer celebration. A new marketing campaign called #BringHomeTheBud said the company would send all the beers Budweiser couldn’t serve in Qatar to the winning nation.

“I remember we started banging on the table [in excitement], like, finally! We’ve found a way out of this!” Mr. Marcondes said.

The revamped effort kicked into action Nov. 19 with a tweet announcing “Winning Country gets the Buds,” accompanied by a photo of a stack of unopened beer in a warehouse. It also shared photos of shipping containers—ostensibly holding beer—being driven or airlifted into cities in the final 16 countries.

The second part of the plan went live the moment Argentina scored the winning penalty. On the ground in South America, the company bought ad space to cement itself in the celebrations (it declined to say how much it spent). Color-changing cups designed for spectators were shipped from Doha, marketed as souvenirs and made available for purchase via the company’s e-commerce website and app, called TaDa. The company hosted fan festivals across Argentina in Buenos Aires, Rosario and Cordoba.

The promotions in Argentina used fresh beer from relatively nearby, not the leftover inventory from the World Cup.

“It would take too long even if we could or thought it would be a good idea to ship products from Qatar to Argentina,” Mr. Marcondes said.

As for the unopened beer in Qatar? AB InBev is working with local distribution teams to shift it elsewhere, an AB InBev spokeswoman said.

The photo that springboarded the #BringHomeTheBud campaign—the one showing a mountain of supposedly redundant beer in a warehouse—was only meant as an illustration and for logistical reasons was not taken in Qatar, the spokeswoman confirmed.

09 February, 2023

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