AB InBev plots strategy to make the company as famous as its brands

The brewer’s northern European marketing boss discusses how to build the company’s brand, restructuring the marketing teams and why the unique pressure is how it attracts top tier talent.

Budweiser

Ask most people if they have heard of AB InBev and you’re likely to get a blank stare. So much so that Tatiana Stadukhina, the company’s marketing director of northern Europe, finds herself saying she works at one of its brands – Budweiser or Stella Artois – rather than the brewing behemoth.

“At airport security if they ask where I work and I tell them AB InBev I’ll often get a blank stare but if I say Budweiser they get really excited. When people ask where you work it is often easier to say one of our brands,” she tells Marketing Week.

However, AB InBev is now looking to raise the profile of the company, not just its brands. Following in the footsteps of companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, it is developing a plan that it hopes will make AB InBev “famous”.

“Currently [our] brands have more meaning to consumers lives but we’ve been discussing about making AB InBev famous. It’s great we have a personal connection but we are exploring ways to take that to a higher level like P&G and Unilever, [so AB InBev] is known at a top level,” Stadukhina says.

The plan is still in early days but ambitious new sustainability goals released this year —promising all purchased electricity from renewable sources; and a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 — are part of a goal to develop clearer brand purpose and a platform to communicate with consumers.

Under pressure: The testing culture of AB InBev

Stadukhina has been the top European marketer at AB InBev for six months after being promoted from Stella Artois’s director of Europe, a job which she was doing alongside her current position for a couple of months.

She moved to AB InBev from Unilever in 2014 to take on the role of global innovations manager and within a year was promoted to director of global innovations. Based in New York Stadukhina spent two years analysing growth across markets before before moving to Europe to head up Stella Artois.

Stadukhina admits that the new job has been difficult at times, but that the pressure is something all staff have to learn to handle from day one. And she is adamant that this pressure is at the core of what makes AB InBev so successful and helps it attract top talent.

“At AB InBev the culture is you get given roles to stretch so I think it’s fair to say at most points in time I feel very uncomfortable but really excited,” she explains.

Currently our brands have more meaning to consumers lives but we’ve been discussing about making AB InBev famous.

Tatiana Stadukhina, AB InBev

“I remember when I was getting interviewed back in New York for the global innovation role and our chief marketing officer Miguel [Patricio] told me a phrase that I now tell interview candidates: ‘by the time you get through all these rounds we know that you will be successful wherever you go but you will only be truly happy where you meet the culture’ and I think that’s so true.

“The culture is the reason I am at AB InBev as it’s so different from a traditional company where you follow a specific timeline and path. The word that sticks out is meritocracy – you’ll see people get jobs based on potential not experience so theoretically you’ll take somebody from a brewing line and have them run digital.”

However, you’re not simply left to sink or swim, she adds. “You’re given so much to learn and stretch but with the support around you to succeed and right at that point where you get a little comfortable you’re given the next challenge but it allows you to grow and experience so many different parts of the business.”

Stadukhina believes the best way to attract talent is through internships and trainee programmes so people are are exposed to this culture early on. She explains: “It’s a chance for them to experience our culture and for us to see if they’re a good fit. We find we get a lot of great new talent because they love the pace and ability to have impact very early on.”

This attitude is something Stadukhina has herself and she is brimming with ideas to galvanise the marketing teams and explore new ways to “delight” and “surprise” consumers. She has two main goals: firstly “to make the biggest impact” in both the business and the market and  secondly to ensure that AB InBev brands are “more culturally relevant”.

“The challenge has to be in this role what’s the most impact I can make. This will be getting closer to the business as a marketing team so that we are getting closer to the consumer. It’s about threading the DNA of our brand through everything, not just marketing, but through sales and commercial,” she says.

Bringing marketing closer to the business

One way Stadukhina has done this is by moving the marketing team. Marketing used to be based in central London so it was close to its agencies, but is now located in its Luton head office with the rest of the business. “In a market which has such strong global brands as well as local jewels, it’s all about understanding how they all integrate and talk to different consumers.”

This agenda has also influenced how marketing works with the rest of the business. The team now attends weekly meetings so marketers can see the business impact of their work.

“We have once a week meetings where all parties are present which really helps get the structure and the flow going and you already see the results where the marketing campaigns aren’t just living in a universe of the marketing word.”

AB InBev’s marketing team is structured by brands, with innovation sitting separately. It also plugs into central teams, including ‘group connections’ that deal with areas such as media buying and the ‘insights’ team, which is “paramount to every single strategy and campaign”.

Stadukhina says that keeping teams tight is in AB InBev’s nature: “We joke it’s the largest start-up in the world because there is definitely that culture where teams are really lean.

“It’s interesting to see a really large company act in a small way and I think it gives AB InBev a bit of an edge. There’s a lot of process that are purposefully setup to try to avoid some of the bureaucracy and complexity.

“More and more we are trying to work out the best way to shape our teams so that they are much more agile and when hot topics come up we can lean into them. We’re asking how do we react quickly? It’s utilising our own teams as well as our agencies to be able to talk about these cultural moments,” she says.

Finding new cultural moments is also key. In 2017, AB InBev implemented a new business model, dubbed the Category Expansion Framework (CEF), across all markets with the aim of getting deeper analytics around growth. The framework, which it adopted from SABMiller following a merger between the two companies in 2016, aims to grow the global beer category by spotting new occasions and consumption opportunities.

The beer market has struggled for growth in recent years, with lager sales in particular stagnating as consumer tastes shift to craft beer. Despite this AB InBev is performing well; its latest results were the best in three years, with core profit rising by 21% on a like-for-like basis.

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

Stadukhina is incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunities for the company, saying: “[CEF] is a really interesting way to look across geographies and the different demographics to see the different segments that pop, what we’re in and what we’re not, and being able to deep dive into those issues.

“For the UK specifically we’d be looking at the positioning of our portfolio and understanding are there other moments and opportunities of white space that we can continue the growth trajectory in. Looking at new occasions, for instance how big is food and alcohol pairing and within that beer and within that how our specific brands should own those occasions.”

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