The King of Super Bowl Advertising Is Basking in Beer’s Big Moment

11 minute read

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It’ll be glaringly obvious at Sunday’s Super Bowl that Anheuser Busch InBev is trying to woo newly cost-conscious consumers. The beer-maker will air an onslaught of ads totaling three and a half minutes of airtime—more than any other single advertiser. Since the first Super Bowl in 1967, AB InBev has purchased more ads during the game than any other company, by far.

AB InBev’s chief executive Michel Doukeris plans to attend the big game, not rooting for the Chiefs or Eagles, but cheering on his company’s brands: Bud Light (the official sponsor of the NFL), Budweiser, Busch Light, Michelob ULTRA and dozens more. Doukeris has been with AB InBev for more than 25 years, eventually earning the CEO position in 2021. Before that, the Brazilian-Greek businessman was global chief sales officer and president of the company’s Asia-Pacific division, where he led efforts that helped make China the world’s top market for Budweiser outside of the U.S., and the No. 1 market for Corona outside of Mexico.

Selling beer—even with a footprint on nearly every continent—isn’t easy, Doukeris insists, especially amid a possible recession. Once the Super Bowl parties end, he’ll be preparing to reveal the company’s 2022 financial performance on March 2. Wall Street analysts expect AB InBev to post a 7% increase in sales for the last three months of the year, compared with the same period a year earlier. Some of those analysts, however, also foresee a struggle in the year ahead for Doukeris. In January, UBS downgraded the company’s stock to a “sell,” theorizing that ongoing inflation will likely result in consumers drinking less beer.

Doukeris spoke to TIME ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Michel, do people assume that your job is easy because… it’s selling beer? The assumption might be that you don’t have to do much to get it to fly off the shelves.

That’s very interesting because I’m very shy as a person. But I make a lot of friends because everybody wants to be friends with the beer guy. And the first question that everybody asks is whether people pay me for the job that I do, because people think that it’s only about fun. When you think about the beer only, some people don’t remember that we have the farmers; they produce the grains that we use to brew beer. We have an incredible logistics chain that helps us to transport product that will be brewed, and, after being brewed, get that product to the retailers. People like the fun part, but they also need to appreciate the economic impact and the relevance that the category has in people’s lives.

Beer is such an elemental part of social life in many parts of the world. Why do you think it has that kind of relevance for so many people?

Three things: Beer is inclusive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, young or old, poor or rich. When we sit down together to grab a beer, it’s very meaningful… this connection, friendship, moments of enjoyment that no other category is going to bring to you. You don’t invite the guy that you met during college—and you don’t really know how his life is today—to grab a glass of champagne or to drink a Scotch whiskey. You invite them to grab a beer because it’s this instant connection that people have.

The second point: Beer is natural. It’s four ingredients. It’s very simple and you can find good beer in each and every place that you go. If you’re in the UK, or in Brazil, or in France, or the US, there will always be good beer.

Above all, it’s very local. We don’t design beer in California and produce in Bangladesh. We get our grains in Idaho or in parts of the northwest in the US, then we brew in St. Louis, California, or New York. And the pubs where we drink beer are close by—our neighborhood. So we see our friends. You know the guy that served the beer.

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You’ve worked all over the world. Can you talk about beer’s global economic importance?

What I do is an incredible privilege because in one week, I’m standing in Lhasa and talking to a Tibetan about their rituals to drink beer. In the next week, I’m in Bolivia talking to a farmer and how they use the wheat or the corn that they seed and harvest to produce local beer, or in Belgium talking to the prime minister. They all have common interests around beer. According to an Oxford study out last year, beer and the supply chain around beer is responsible for one out of a hundred jobs. And if you go to developing countries, then this can be one in 60 jobs. Because we go from farming to table, and you have this massive economic impact in the transformation—innovation, industrialization, logistics for the countries that are developing. Beer is a very important catalyst for the economies of these countries.

One of your challenges is staying on top of changing consumer tastes and being on the lookout for new products to introduce. How do you keep up with that?

That’s one of the immutable laws of marketing. Consumers are always changing and evolving. I went to a brewery that we have in Belgium called Leffe that was created in the 12th century. That’s almost 750 years of history and heritage. This small city in Belgium used to have more than 30 brewers, but Leffe is the only one that survived through the centuries. The brand belongs to this monastery, where monks were the first to brew the beer. I was talking to them about the history, and they told me the reason Leffe survived is because they adapted to consumer taste. To do that, nothing really beats the feet on the street. Talking to people, paying attention to your wholesalers, your suppliers, your points-of-sale. They will tell you what’s happening—the collective wisdom. And that’s why I personally like to spend a lot of my time outside of the office. I learn a lot outside.

We’re going to see a lot of beer advertised during the Super Bowl. But I’ve seen reports that AB InBev won’t be the exclusive beer advertiser, in the way it has been for many years. Is that a loss?

Years ago, there was one TV channel showing the game and that was a huge concentration of the audience. Now, what you have are multiple ways that people watch the game and interact with brands. So the idea of exclusivity and only one channel is, at least for the time being, something that is old, and no longer part of today’s marketing. We continue to be a big advertiser. Bud Light’s going to be there. Michelob is going to be there. Busch Light’s going to be there. Budweiser is going to be there in several channels and regions. Exclusivity is less of a concern.

I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs in recent years about how their environmental, social, and governance strategies are evolving. Does AB InBev have an ESG plan?

We work with nature, and we work with our communities so we can have a good and healthy business. But the spirit of it is, if you have no water, there is no beer. If you have no barley, there is no beer. If you have no hops, there is no beer. And if our yeast dies, we cannot brew the beer. It’s also about local impact. If our communities are not thriving and healthy, we don’t have a business. And sustainability for us is not an afterthought.

Water is a big point for us. Beer is 90-plus percent water. So no water, no beer. And one thing that makes beer very special—why beer exists and is so popular—is because for many years people had to boil the water so they could drink water. So at one point in time, it was safer to drink beer than to drink water in many places around the world. But more than having high quality water, having enough water for the communities in the ecosystem where we operate is key. That’s why we are today the most effective brewery in water consumption per liter of beer being produced.

And this is not something that we are doing because it’s fashion; we’ve done this for more than 20 years. And we’re now also protecting the watersheds from where the water comes for our breweries. By protecting the watershed, you have a much healthier ecosystem. And we created this replicable model that people can improve watershed qualities in any area, globally. The technology can be used by anyone.

You’re still relatively new in the CEO role. You took over during the pandemic. What are some of the main things you’d like to change or accomplish during your tenure?

I think that the first thing that I did when I came to the position was to change our purpose. We implemented this new purpose, which is we dream big. Saying “cheers” means health, prosperity, support, equality, and everything that is relevant to people’s life today. So I want to see that our company gets known by its ability to be part of a future where everybody can fit in, everybody can celebrate, and that our product is also even more synonymous with good times. So this is a big meaningful thing to me.

The other thing—I think our company grew historically through mergers and acquisitions, and we built a fantastic platform. The future of this platform is a more organic one. So I would love to see the company recognized by its ability to generate growth, and again, growth that is inclusive. Because as we grow, our ecosystem grows together from the farmers to the suppliers, to the points of sales and communities in which we operate our business. And of course, I hope that when the time comes, that the company will have people that can keep having this great impact, and they will never call me to come back and help solve an issue, because then I’ll have some time for myself and other things I still want to do.

As a Brazilian, you probably favor football of a different kind. Do you have a favorite soccer team?

Oh, man. In Brazil, we all love the Brazilian national team. It’s beyond passion.

Speaking of passion, can you offer up one book, one movie, and one song or album that gives us a sense of who you are, and what inspires you?

Music: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The reason’s very simple: It’s about happiness. It was very innovative because it was the first time that instruments and human voice were put together in a symphony. I love the innovation.

Movie: Collateral Beauty (2016). This movie is fantastic. I love the idea that despite any tragedy—or anything that happens in your life—the beauty is always there. This speaks a lot to who I am.

Book: The Odyssey. I’m half Greek, and I think that is a fantastic story about values, how you tell and teach generation after generation about what really matters. And how creativity can unlock solutions.

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