In July, Natalie Johnson, who in 20 years worked her way up from an internship at Budweiser to become the first Black female senior brewmaster at the Anheuser-Busch brand's flagship facility in St. Louis, sat down with NBA icon Dwyane Wade to film a commercial.
Johnson knew she and Wade would discuss their respective journeys as persons of color, and unveil a $1 million UNCF scholarship fund from the King of Beers supporting students for the next five years.
What she didn't know, however, as they met in a neighborhood bar not far from Bud's HQ, was that the scholarship was being established in her name. Understandably moved, Johnson can't hold back tears. It's a moving moment that comes near the end of this five-minute clip that launched last week, prefaced by a heartfelt discussion about the challenges Black and brown people face as they struggle to succeed in America today:
Last year, as he prepared to retire after 16 seasons, Wade was on the receiving end of a beautiful Budweiser surprise. At a nearly empty American Airlines Arena in Miami, everyday folks, including his mom, thanked the three-time NBA champion for the role he played in shaping their lives.
Now, the UNCF Budweiser Natalie Johnson Scholarship will provide monetary awards for 30 students pursuing STEM majors applicable to positions in brewing. Since filming, Johnson's own career received a boost, with a promotion to brewing director of North America. Twelve senior brewmasters now report to her. In addition, Bud created an Intern Scholars Program to give five Black college students real-world experience in brewing and supply-chain management. Johnson will help design and direct that initiative.
A-B's commitment to equality runs deep. It has supported the UNCF for nearly half a century, sponsoring some 400 scholarships worth millions of dollars. And Budweiser strives for diversity in its marketing, making sure the faces and themes in many of its ads strike a chord with communities of color.
"It's important that our base, and even those that don't drink us yet, understand what we stand for," says Budweiser U.S. marketing vice president Monica Rustgi. "And it's important that we continue to act as a leader within the category. This was not only a gesture for us to acknowledge and move forward on our inclusion agenda. It was also a call-to-action to other beer companies as well as other CPG companies. We wanted to use this as a catalyst to provide more opportunity to the Black community."
In a conversation below, edited for length and clarity, Rustgi explains how the scholarship project came together and discusses Bud's long-term commitment to diversity.
Muse: Was this new campaign a reaction to current events, a response to the killing of George Floyd?
Monica Rustgi: With the recent events, we knew it was time for us to use our scale to help. We acknowledge and understand the power of storytelling to help educate, drive awareness, and drive change. That's why we thought of Natalie Johnson. We thought this was an amazing opportunity to say there can be more Natalie Johnsons within our company, as well as the industry. She's incredibly bright, incredibly committed. She loves brewing. In fact, she met her husband, who's also a brewmaster, here at the company. And she was featured in a documentary we did about two years back called Kings of Beer. She's committed to driving diversity within brewing.
How did Dwyane Wade get involved?
Dwyane, our recent co-founder of Bud Zero, reached out to us in June, and said, "I want to make sure brands are using the power of their scale to do the right thing." In an email, he said, "I want to help. I want to lead with Budweiser and see what we can do together." We thought of this idea of them meeting … and then brought on our internal creative agency, Draftline, to work with us on scripting.
It feels pretty unscripted, like a spontaneous conversation.
We wanted to make sure her story landed. But really, we let them flow naturally. They spoke for about an hour, hour and a half. It was very challenging to get it down to five minutes, because there was so much beautiful conversation. We went into it saying, "OK, we want to make sure X, Y and Z are covered." But we got so much more. Even from just her. We didn't give her any prompts, tell her any things she needed to say. The way she spoke about what it feels like when she gets an email or a phone call from a Black employee—it was really beautiful.
How much did Natalie know going in?
She did know Dwyane was going to be there. They were going to talk about their lives in the context of everything going on in the world. They were going to talk about their journeys within their very different industries. And then talk about the scholarship program. They knew this was about showing their perseverance and their role in helping to close diversity gaps. But that surprise at the end—she had no clue.
In the film, they share a great rapport.
Dwyane was so excited to meet her … because he just came on as a co-founder of Bud Zero, so he's learning about the beer industry. And he's fascinated by it. So, he was intrigued by her story, he was genuinely curious about her life. So just they just talked.
Are you going to use them in more marketing campaigns?
This is a long-term commitment, and they will absolutely be involved. Natalie is involved in designing the internship program. We will be bringing in five interns annually. She will be responsible for designing that program and guiding it. And I know Dwyane will be very much involved in this platform.
Are more commercials planned?
I don't feel we'll have any commercials, per se. Right now, we're focused on raising as much awareness, getting as many people as possible to apply … but of course, you can trust that this is not a one-and-done situation. This is an annual program, for five years. I am sure there will be beautiful, amazing stories of the people that we award scholarships and internships to. I'm sure Dwyane will be involved in the internship process next year. So that's sort of the next chapter, but we don't know definitely what shape that's taking. … We've always felt that representing the Black community in our marketing is very important.
Can you give me some recent examples of supporting the Black community?
Last year, we celebrated the rapper Big Boi in Atlanta by literally taking the face of our 25-ounce can and making it a tribute to him, because we admire what he has done for rap in the South, and the hometown hero he is for the community.
We are launching a similar program with Big Sean, a rapper who is a huge hometown hero in Detroit.
We want to make sure we're thinking of all the ways in which we can represent the Black community. This year we did the "Whassup?" campaign. That was in response to Covid and to raise awareness of the mental health hotline. One of the biggest decisions we made when casting the people in the spots—if you recall, it was Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union, DJ D-Nice, Chris Bosh, Candace Parker—was to stay true to the original concept [of the original 1999 campaign], which was a reflection of an all-Black friend circle. Also, we knew Covid was disproportionately affecting minority communities.
Can you speak to Bud's commitment to show diversity in marketing moving forward?
Community and progress—those are our two main brand values. In years past, we had a very consistent way of us bringing that to life, and that was very much speaking to our older drinkers. This year and in the future, we're acknowledging that we have four to five generations of drinkers underneath us. We acknowledge that each generation comes with their own perception of what Budweiser is, with their own set of how these values should come to life. We have the heritage, the tools, and the resources to really flex and be relevant for all four generations, and that's the way moving forward.