AB InBev’s US marketing boss on how the SAB Miller takeover will influence its advertising

AB InBev, one of the world’s biggest brewers, has had a tumultuous year. Besides moving to acquire rival SAB Miller, the alcohol behemoth is battling declining global lager sales and an upsurge in interest in craft beer. But the company’s VP of US marketing Jorn Socquet remains bullish about the future.

To many consumers, AB InBev might not mean much. However, it owns some of the world’s biggest brands, including Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s. Last year, it announced it would be acquiring rival SAB Miller in a $100 billion-plus takeover to strengthen its position within the market and become “the world’s biggest brewer”.

The beer market has faced difficult challenges in the last decade. However, figures from Euromonitor show that overall beer market sales in the UK are now increasing, after falling steadily from 2009 to 2013. Overall volume sales are expected to hit 4.83 billion litres this year, rising to 4.89 billion in 2016. Meanwhile, craft beer has become increasingly popular among the masses. According to CGA Strategy figures, the total value of the craft beer market currently stands at £665m and has grown 55.2% year on year from April 2014.

Speaking to Marketing Week at Cannes Lions festival, Socquet explained how he has seen the company change in his 11-year tenure.

Has the company’s approach to marketing changed?

Marketing has gained importance within AB InBev. We’ve been traditionally an extremely strong sales-orientated organisation. Over the last 10 years, we’ve appreciated the importance of marketing significantly more. We have put more time in recruiting better marketers and in building stronger relationships with agency partners.

Internally, we have put significantly put more time in to developing our marketers. As of recently, we have a global management training programme for bright, young and ambitious individuals. Initially we had very few of those come to marketing, but now we’re inviting them to come to the marketing function as well so we have lots of eager talent.

This year, a lot of the company’s activity seems to be based around health. Why this focus?

It is a genuine obsession of the organisation. If you look at our publicly stated goals, responsible consumption has always been part of it. With the pending acquisition, we will not only be the biggest brewer in the world, but one of the world’s top five companies. It is up to leaders [such as ourselves] to make the world a safe place. 

If you look at the alcohol industry, we need to make sure we get this done.

As a company, putting your money where your mouth is and bringing out a message of responsible consumption, very few organisations would do that. Responsible drinking campaigns, such as our Super Bowl campaign with Helen Mirren, also have a positive effect on brand equity and affinity.

What is your view on the current state of marketing?

We’re still pretty shy as an industry. What you don’t know, you fear, and I’m very proud of my connections and teams around the world in regards to playing with new media. We were the first alcohol brand on Snapchat, but I do believe there is an opportunity for the marketing world to embrace [new technology] more.

I’m a consumer too, and when I watch TV and I get interrupted by four minutes of advertising, I still struggle to see anything that really inspires me and grabs my attention. That is something that is very concerning to me. We have to move away from the model of interruption to the model of gaining and retaining attention.

“Attention is a very expensive currency around the world and I don’t think we as marketers appreciate it enough.”

Jorn Socquet, VP of US marketing, AB InBev

How successful are marketers when it comes to using data?

You have data at your finger tips. Yet the marketing industry relies on these mandated research projects that take four weeks to collect data, two weeks to do the analysis and then make schedules meet, and then after eight weeks you finally get an answer to your question. That’s outdated, we need to move into an era where you’re not respecting every little bit of the research.

“You might be making mistakes on the margin of error, but I believe the speed of which you get data and make decisions is more important than accuracy of the answer you get.”

Even if you’re off by a little bit, how much would it change your decision? That’s the question you always have to ask. We as marketers are sometimes not ambitious and bold enough to make decisions because we think we already know the answer.

When it comes to agency relationships, is there a lack of transparency between media agencies and brands?

After the Association of National Advertisers report came out, I approached my agency and asked them if there was any more transparency they needed to give me, and if not we should move on.

If I look at the speaking engagements that I’ve done over the last couple of months, every time when I say I’m focusing on building a relationship of trust with agencies, a lot of non-agency partners tell me it’s refreshing to hear. Out of those conversations I’d say that level of openness probably is not at the same level within other organisations.

Our agency relationships are very amicable, but tough. When you’re in a relationship of trust, that means you’ll complement them when things are good, but also when the going gets tough you don’t pull any punches. Every agency partner that I have, knows at any time what I think of them and where their performance is sitting. The agency evaluation at the end of the year should never be a surprise.

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