The Perfect Storm That Led to Anheuser-Busch's Super Bowl Ad
One day late last year, as the coronavirus pandemic raged on and much of corporate America continued to struggle with how to talk to consumers, executives from Anheuser-Busch and its agency Wieden + Kennedy got together for a masked, socially distanced Super Bowl planning meeting—over beers at the W+K office.
The scene was a microcosm of sorts. The leaders at AB and W+K had grown close in recent years, bonding over the course of W+K's eventful journey on Bud Light (including the super-viral "Dilly Dilly"). Now, as they discussed what to do about Super Bowl 2021 in light of Covid, they were, in some ways, like so many Americans so often in their lives—friends sharing an important moment with beers in hand.
There were also larger dynamics at play that afternoon that had been set in motion on New Year's Day 2018, when Michel Doukeris, AB InBev's Brazilian chief sales officer, took over as CEO of Anheuser-Busch. In the three years since then, Doukeris and CMO Marcel Marcondes had been on a mission to rediscover the soul of AB. And the answers they had begun to find—about what corporate purpose means, what consumers want and need from brands, what true category leadership looks like—would guide all of AB's Super Bowl decisions in this strangest of years, including the first-ever in-game spot for the parent company itself.
It's about people, not products
AB's 2021 Super Bowl work was, at its core, based around two beliefs that happened to be dovetailing at the company.
The first had been gaining momentum at AB for a while—that the company should start with human truths and category truths rather than specific brand or product truths. After all, a category truth is a brand truth if the brand happens to be the category leader. And AB was sitting on a great human/category truth in particular—that people come together, and make small but meaningful connections, over beers at many times in their lives. This human connection with a natural product tie-in, they decided, should be the focus of an AB corporate spot featuring people-centric vignettes, with the branding kept to a minimum.
Meanwhile, the decision to take Budweiser out of the game for the first time in 37 years was also a human-centric choice, just in a different way. It kept Bud focused on its own truth, which it had been acknowledging throughout 2020—that people struggling during hard times need real help more than they need ads.
AB's second belief heading toward the 2021 Super Bowl was that, after such a difficult year, it was time for the company to lead with a vision of optimism—now that vaccines are offering some light at the end of the tunnel.
These two beliefs—human and category truths over brand and product truths, and optimism for the future—were expressed almost flawlessly in AB's Super Bowl commercial from W+K. The spot, directed by Adam Hashemi, with David Fincher playing a creative role behind the scenes, shows many of the ways people connect over beer—simple scenes that remind us of what we've been missing during Covid—combined with a positive outlook of what's to come.
Here's the extended 90-second version:
"As we got started on this journey [in 2018], one of the things we tried to do was this soul-searching, trying to bring back what, exactly, AB as a company represents," Doukeris told Muse during an interview last week. "This brought us to something I believe was very special, which was: Before AB, there is beer. This is what motivated AB through the years. Somehow we lost this mojo. We became big, but no longer the leader in the way we think, the way we innovate, the way we act. Being a leader again in the beer category was the most important part of our strategy."
This idea that beer plays central role in people's lives was reinforced in 2020, mostly because we couldn't share beers with friends as often, or in as many places, as we would have liked.
"It was a hell of a year," Doukeris says. "More than once we thought, 'Man, we need to get through this so we can get together and have a beer.' When we were at Wieden + Kennedy's office, talking together, having fun, eating sandwiches, drinking beer—we felt like we'd been missing those moments together. And then the second thought was, we should be optimistic about what's coming. The worst is behind us, and there are great moments for us to have as we move forward. People need each other. We can communicate that message very well. If there were ever a moment for us to try to put all of that together, this was it."
Hashemi and Fincher worked with the W+K team—global CCO Karl Lieberman, global COO Neal Arthur, creative directors Brad Phifer and Michael Hagos, and many others—on expressing that vision in the spot. They kept coming back to smaller moments, which isn't the typical Super Bowl approach but which felt real and true.
"What made it emotional wasn't the moments like weddings, watching games in bars with huge crowds," says Lieberman. "What was interesting was how the smaller moments resonated. Being stuck in an airport. You see that and you're like, 'Damn. I miss being stuck in an airport and grabbing a beer with strangers.' We leaned into those things. What are the meaningful moments we never really took that way until now?"
They treated each scene like its own mini-movie. Using multiple DPs and different film grades, each vignette feels pulled from a different but broadly shared American experience.
Lieberman quotes from Fincher and Hashemi's treatment:
Of course it should be cinematic. But we always say "cinematic" in quotes. And we usually just mean it's going to look nice. This time it should actually be cinematic. It should capture the spirit of this country and the role that beer plays in our national psyche and social cohesion.
"It's a beautiful people story, so we don't need superstars," adds Doukeris. "We don't need players from the NFL or NBA. We don't need to hire the best musicians to be in the TV spot. It needs to be true and close to each and every person. And the more we went to these small moments, the situations we all are part of every day, the better the story we were building."
Arthur says it was an unorthodox creative process indeed, without many of the trappings of a standard Super Bowl brief.
"We never sat and worried about the script. We rarely talked about the message, honestly. We just talked about the feeling," he says. "There were no storyboards, there were no animatics, there was nothing where you go scene by scene. It was just, I want it to feel true and I want it to feel optimistic. We never sat down and dissected it the way you typically do."
The :60 that aired on the Super Bowl has a manifesto-style voiceover, though the online :90 does not—the brand voice there is limited to a few lines of text at the end. But in both versions, it's the vignettes themselves, and their small human interactions, that are the focus.
"Adam and David wanted to give the performers words and scenes and motivations and things to talk about, to convey the emotion of the scene better," says Lieberman. "When [W+K] did the P&G mom spots, there'd be a lot of dialogue in them but ultimately the music prevailed. As we put the [AB] edit together, we realized you could tell the story through the language captured on film that in theory was just going to be in the background."
"It was never a question of the role of the product," adds Arthur. "We knew beer was going be front and center because it is front and center in these moments, and it's overlooked. For us, that was the aha—that this is happening all the time. We just overlook it. We take it for granted. We love when there is something that's true, that the camera hasn't just turned its gaze on yet. The minute you see it, you're like, 'Oh, shit. I do miss having a beer in the airport and all the things that signals. And I didn't realize it until this moment.' We're the leaders in this category. And it's our responsibility to own those moments."
To big dreams
Doukeris frames the approach as, in part, a recognition internally at AB about how a category leader should act—leading the way by talking about beer, not just brand; leading the way by being optimistic; leading the way with a larger truth that can have a halo effect on the category; leading the way by helping in real ways while also being entertaining and uplifting in ads.
"For too long, maybe, we kept looking at ourselves and tried to be our best on our own criteria and methods," Doukeris says. "The transformation journey we have been on over the last three years is: How do we make this category better? How do we service our partners and work together with our people better? We want to lead not because of the size we have, but because of the beliefs we have, the values we have, the initiatives that our people bring forward. We could have shots of our beer garden in St. Louis and everybody would recognize Budweiser, or the Clydesdales, or how we stop brewing to produce water when there are disasters. But we chose to be people-centric. We chose to be optimistic."
While the spot is built around the line "Let's grab a beer," it ends with a different onscreen tagline, "To big dreams." That line also embodies the new strategic thinking and creative approach. It's an expression of the company's purpose, which AB has spent a lot of time and effort drilling into lately—including soliciting advice from Simon Sinek, among others.
"At one point, Simon said, 'The why you exist is the origin of the company and the foundation of our culture,' " says Doukeris. "And at one of our meetings, I said, 'Guys, it's all about dreaming big.' Everything started with Sebastian Artois dreaming about brewing a special beer for Christmas. With Busch and Anheuser dreaming of a high-quality beer that would be sold in the United States and would be better than the European beers. It even started with me at 20 years old, dreaming I could work for a big company. Every time we get together, we always say, 'Let's dream big as one team. Let's get this to be great, not just good.' And so, we landed on the idea of dream big. When we do our day-to-day campaigns with Budweiser, it's to big dreams. When we help people with our corporate agenda, and sustainability, it's to big dreams. We want to have a better world, right? So it all came together beautifully. And the meaningful moments in people's lives, to big dreams that are yet to come, was very well connected to that."
"We were in the desert for a while," Arthur admits of the search for a tagline. "But the minute Michel said, 'Dream big,' instantly people were like, 'There it is.' We feel like this is just another massive opportunity, another lever to pull for the company—a platform in terms of the way we communicate as a company and the way we communicate with our customers. Similar to the way Nike would use a 'JDI,' we'll find places to use this."
"We were so excited when Michel went to that dreaming territory because it went from being a sort of sweaty, over-explanatory space to an emotional one," says Lieberman. "It does the thing all the best taglines do, which is, it can be said by people and by the brand. And it doesn't feel like one owns it more than the other."
The rest of the portfolio
"Let's Grab a Beer" wasn't, of course, the only AB commercial to air during the Super Bowl. The company aired one spot for Bud Light bringing back classic spokespeople and -characters; one for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade depicting a rain of lemons as a metaphor for 2020 (a spot that was a finalist for the 2021 Super Clio); a Michelob Ultra spot about happiness and joy; and a spot for Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer that featured celebrity doppelgängers.
Those efforts also tied into the larger AB approach—particularly Bud Light "Lemons," with its more humorous take on the trials of Covid, and Mich Ultra's "Happy," which was completely anchored in optimism.
"It's a privilege to show up on the Super Bowl and have the opportunity to bring to life the voice of all these brands," Marcondes says. "The exercise is simple in terms of the framework, but hard to bring to life—it's all about connecting what people care about with what our brand stands for. Bud Light is all about bringing humor to a world that is extremely serious. We were launching a lemonade seltzer. So it felt very simple, and was a human insight as well—when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Or Michelob Ultra. Everybody's burned out. Michelob Ultra is for people seeking a balanced lifestyle, people who work out. For them, it's important for us to deliver a message like, 'Hey, you've got to enjoy the ride. Don't wait until things get back to normal to be happy again.' The best way to express that is through these high-performance athletes. You expect them to sacrifice everything every day. So if even they find ways to enjoy the ride, why shouldn't you?"
All this focus on human truth, in the end, explains why it was never an option for AB not to address Covid in its Super Bowl advertising—even though so many other brands went with pure escapism. After all, Covid itself has been our human truth for a year; ignoring it would be embracing a fiction.
"You have to be mindful of the reality we're living in," says Arthur. "This whole thing was about speaking in a voice that's authentic to the company about what's happening in the real world, and our role within that. It would have felt massively disingenuous to act as if we're disconnected from our customers, disconnected from the world, disconnected from the moment we're in. I don't even know that we would have considered an option that was just like, 'Everything is great.' And the thing we got most excited about was the shared optimism we have for what's ahead. The act of grabbing a beer is, for us, just so warming. It fills us with anticipation and excitement. That's the most interesting thing we could have said."