wall street journal, june 2023

Marketing gone awry recently cost Bud Light its long-held crown as America’s bestselling beer.

But the brand’s owner, Anheuser-Busch InBev, was here at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity—a lavish annual gathering in the south of France, often called the Oscars of the ad industry—collecting one of the event’s highest honors: Creative Marketer of the Year.

A collision this spring between Bud Light’s marketing hub in Manhattan and many of its loyal drinkers across middle America resulted in a case study in how not to market through the culture wars. A consumer and celebrity backlash against a Bud Light social-media promotion with the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney snowballed into a boycott and plummeting sales. The uproar prompted AB InBev to put on leave two marketing executives who oversaw the promotion, leading to more criticism.

In the wake of that controversy, across the Atlantic on Monday, AB InBev’s global chief marketing officer, Marcel Marcondes, took to the Cannes Lions’ main stage to give the event’s opening seminar. The session was described in programming notes as a talk in part about AB InBev’s “relentless focus on connecting with consumers in meaningful ways.” Marcondes also touched briefly on the Bud Light situation stateside.

“In times like this, when things get divisive and controversial so easily, I think it’s an important wake-up call to all of us marketers, for us to be very humble,” Marcondes said.

AB InBev is “really reminding ourselves of what we should do best every day, which is to really understand our customers, which is to really celebrate and appreciate every customer that loves our brands, but in a way that can make them be together, not apart,” he said. The words echoed comments by Brendan Whitworth, chief executive of AB InBev’s North American business, made immediately following the backlash in April.

Cannes Lions made its debut in 1954 as an advertising film festival, but over the years has evolved into one of the industry’s most important annual conferences.

Technology companies, consulting firms and legacy Madison Avenue agencies alike hold meetings and pursue deals in Belle Époque hotel suites. Chief marketing officers from around the world helicopter in to speak on panels. And rosé-soaked parties, soundtracked by top DJs, continue on until the small hours of the morning.

But in offices back home, Cannes delegates are facing slowing advertising markets, widespread layoffs and questions around artificial intelligence’s ability to replace a variety of roles across the marketing industry—sure to be another big topic at this year’s ad festival.

Marketers are also dealing with a split in consumer attitudes toward using social causes such as LGBTQ rights as a basis for advertising. Cannes Lions judging panels have in the past been criticized for favoring such campaigns above less socially-minded equivalents that shifted more product for advertisers.

AB InBev has had other marketing successes this year. Budweiser’s quick reaction to a last-minute alcohol ban at the World Cup in Qatar has been shortlisted for a Titanium Lions, one of the event’s most prestigious. And campaigns from its brands including Michelob Ultra and Corona have been shortlisted for a raft of other categories in the 2023 awards.

Cannes Lions honored AB InBev as Creative Marketer of the Year during the 2022 festival as well, making this summer’s repeat honor the first consecutive such win by any company, organizers said.

The awards body, which is owned by London-based Ascential Events, announced AB InBev’s back-to-back win in March, months ahead of the Cannes Lions festival itself and just before attention around Bud Light’s work with Mulvaney began to swirl.

“The award recognises AB InBev’s sustained creative excellence that has driven sustainable business growth—as well as their body of Lion-winning work amassed over a sustained period of time, and reputation for producing brave creative and innovative marketing solutions,” Cannes Lions said in a statement released in March.

Some marketers on the ground on Monday said Bud Light’s difficulties in the U.S. should not negate the achievements of the company’s creative success across the world.

Other delegates said they were skeptical about the company’s acceptance of the creative marketer title in light of the Bud Light fiasco.

One social-media post can now travel faster and further than an advertising campaign, said Leila Fataar, founder of cultural and marketing strategy firm Platform13. “In the spirit of fairness and credibility, I think it would be a big and the right gesture for AB InBev to give the 2023 award back, make the changes necessary and come back even stronger.”

Organizers of the festival and AB InBev weren’t available Monday to comment


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