Everyone has their own pandemic-era memory of when they first felt society was coming back to life.
For Karl Lieberman, the executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, it was Brooklyn’s last big snow storm of the winter. He and his wife were walking to get take-out from a local restaurant when they spotted two guys in full snowsuits sitting outside drinking beer.
“I was like, oh boy, the second this weather turns everyone is going to be out there,” he says. “If it’s that powerful of a need for people that they would be willing to endure that to go see each other, this is going to be huge.”
After all this time, will going out in public again feel like it once did?
That’s a question many Americans have been asking themselves and each other these past few weeks and months. The mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement are front and center in the next phase of Anheuser-Busch’s “Let’s Grab A Beer, America” campaign, created by Wieden+Kennedy, which debuted this week and features a series of vignettes showing people getting back together again with family, friends and potential future lovers—and without masks.
The new 60-second spot also comes just days after the beer company committed to buying every American adult a round of beer if the U.S. reaches President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of the nation vaccinated by Independence Day. (As of last week, at least 51.9% had received at least one dose, while 42.6% were fully vaccinated.)
The campaign also includes out-of-home advertising in major cities including Boston, Los Angeles and New York, where digital billboards will display real-time, local Covid-19 vaccination rates. Lieberman says New York’s billboard, shaped like a beer bottle and situated in Times Square, is inspired by the famed New Year’s Eve ball.
For Anheuser Busch Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Marcondes, two moments of normalcy come to mind: When travel restrictions were lifted and he was finally able to see his parents, and then when he attended an in-person meeting with wholesalers after everyone had been vaccinated. He was among the many who felt the familiar awkwardness of not knowing whether people felt comfortable being close to each other, shaking hands or even hugging after such a long time.
“That hug and some of the those scenes and situations portrayed in the film, I’ve been through them and feel every emotion that we had there,” he says.
Anheuser-Busch isn’t the only brand in recent weeks to debut ads about life returning to normal. An ad by Uber nods to people leaving their messy houses to don masks and catch rides, while another by EXTRA gum imagines the euphoria of a summer after separation. All are examples of the struggles brands face to match the tone of the moment while not going overboard too soon.
One of the tricky things in making ads has been not knowing how to gauge what kind of mood people will be ready for on any given day. Amid the uncertainty, Marcondes and Lieberman have had agenda-less meetings to talk about whatever is on their and consumers’ minds. Lieberman says one of these conversations revolved around how much to focus on anxiety in the ad, as opposed to the joy of meeting people again.
When the ad was shot a few weeks ago, the team wasn’t sure how the country would be feeling when it ran, according to Lieberman. Would it be better to focus more on the anxiety at the beginning, or the middle tension of the journey or the joy at the end?
“We weren’t sure where the country was going to be when we finished, but it felt really great that we got to tell the entirety of the story which was the beginning and the middle and the end,” he says. “We weren’t sure it was going to be appropriate or if the country would be ready yet to show people embracing, to show people in a bar. Because we were fast and nimble enough, we kept up with what was happening in the real world.”
Marcondes says his favorite character in the film is a man named Simon, who in one scene is practicing saying his name into a mirror, only to meet a woman at a bar and accidentally introduce himself as “Salmon.” (A totally relatable slip after having been forced to stay home along for so long.)
“People are coming back to doing things for the first time again,” he says. “So it’s like the first kiss you never forget or the first hug or the first time when you met somebody and these things that you never forget are happening all over again…The other element that I found very interesting was some things that you’re used to doing, but after you stop doing that for a long period of time, you lose your mojo. Even getting to know somebody.”
The campaigns may feel altruistic, but the beer giant is benefiting from its initiatives. For example, the vaccine beer giveaway is operated through an Anheuser-Busch customer loyalty website, which collects user data that can then be used for future marketing if consumers opt in for receiving messages. This is also just one of the many initiatives that Anheuser-Busch has debuted in recent week, which follow a year of efforts that began soon after the pandemic itself engulfed the nation. Earlier this spring, the company released an ad educating people how to safely drink with friends and put their mask back on in between sips. Soon after, it released a variety of brand-specific campaigns. For example, Bud Light’s “Summer Stimmy”—a parody of real-life stimulus proposals—committed $10 million to passes for sports events and other tickets.
Asked how Anheuser-Busch is able to track the effectiveness of the campaign, the company cited a February 2021 survey that found the Budweiser Bigger Picture campaign led to a 3.2% increased lift in the likelihood of people getting vaccinated after seeing the ad.
There’s also the desire to get people back into bars. Despite the abnormal year, Anheuser-Busch InBev said on its first-quarter 2021 earnings call that beer volumes grew 15%, even surpassing pre-pandemic beer volumes by 2.8% compared to first-quarter 2019.
“The more we not only deliver messages, but actions, the more relevant we become, the more people talk about what we do, the more we are part of the conversation, and the more our business gets to a better place,” Marcondes says. “But I think we need to take a stand. But we need to focus in prioritizing territories where we naturally belong, to avoid being opportunistic.”