In nine years at Anheuser-Busch InBev, Alexis Smith has worked in two countries on multiple brands spanning duties like brand management, sports and entertainment marketing and sales. Last year, she took a human resources role, even though she had no formal HR training or experience. Smith, 31, represents the typical AB InBev employee: Young, ambitious, and learning on the fly at a breakneck pace.
For the 200,000 employees at the world’s largest brewer, the high-paced culture has obvious upsides, like an ability to advance at a quicker pace than at other packaged goods behemoths. The downside is the risk that high-stakes jobs are handled by ill-equipped, inexperienced people, according to people familiar with the brewer.
But in a new U.S. employee recruitment campaign, AB InBev is accentuating the positives as it seeks to lure its next crop of eager employees into a beer industry that is fraught with challenges, including fighting off competition from wine and spirits. The campaign, called “We Are All Brewers,” includes multiple digital videos featuring AB InBev employees. The agency is Huge of Brooklyn, which won the assignment in a competitive pitch. The campaign will get paid support on social media.
One video features Stephanie Danner, a senior retail sales director in Los Angeles. “At a lot of companies, especially big established ones, they treat your career like a ladder, and you have to wait for the next person to get a rung up before you can,” she says in the video. “At Anheuser-Busch your career is much more of a jungle gym. You can jump around, bounce around between functions, departments and even locations,” says Danner, noting that she studied economics and French at University of California Berkeley and now is in charge of all sales for California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.
The campaign is overseen by Smith, a Canadian native who early last year was named director of employer branding and digital, which is part of the brewer’s HR department, known internally as the “people team.” She was previously senior brand manager for Michelob Ultra for six months after serving in the same role for Natural Light for three months. She moved to New York for those roles after working in various jobs for the Canadian division, known as Labatt Breweries.
The brewer launched the campaign after research revealed that it had an awareness problem with potential recruits, Smith says. While the maker of Budweiser and Bud Light spends millions of dollars advertising its beers,”we haven’t really put the focus on marketing the company brand previously,” she says. “People expect companies of our size that have been around for as long as we have with a 160-year history in the U.S. to be old and stable sometimes, when it is just not the reality.”
The brewer’s culture got a major shakeup in 2008 when St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch was acquired by Belgium-based InBev, whose Brazilian managers have a reputation for financial prowess and a penchant for big acquisitions, while pursuing a culture of meritocracy. “In any company, there’s 20% that lead, 70% that follow and 10% that do nothing,” AB InBev’s Brazilian CEO Carlos Brito told the Financial Times in 2015. “So the 10%, of course, you need to get rid of … They’re always unhappy anyway and complaining.”
Frequently shifting employees into new roles is a strategy that has its critics. “They have a revolving door,” says one former AB InBev executive speaking on condition of anonymity. “They promote very capable young people into positions, but they don’t have enough experience and they struggle.” But “if you are a young person, you will get a learning experience you will get nowhere else. Because they will give you roles every other company would say ‘you are not ready.'”
“If you can stick with ABI and prove that you can operate within their culture and grow business at the exact same time, you will become minted,” said an ad agency executive familiar with the brewer. “The downside is it’s a sink or swim culture.”
In its corporate manifesto, AB InBev speaks not of a mission, but of a “dream.” The company lists principles including one stating that “focus and zero-complacency guarantee lasting competitive advantage.” Employees are referred to as “owners” who “take results personally.” The lead video in the new campaign begins, “Yes, we are a beer company but we don’t come to work everyday expecting a cold one to be handed to us.”
The videos provide “a good look inside of what we are all about,” Smith says. “We don’t need to be for everybody, but I think we need to be credible and authentic of who we are.” It’s important that “people know what they are getting into.”
Addressing critics, she says, “We have to be mindful of making sure we don’t create experience gaps. But at the same time we need to make sure we are constantly striving to innovate … And if we don’t give those opportunities for different people with different perspectives to come in and uncover those opportunities, then I think you run the risk of not being cutting edge.”
The campaign has an additional purpose of branding the brewer’s 17,000-employee U.S. division as “Anheuser-Busch,” rather than AB InBev, which is the official global corporate name. “Anheuser-Busch has higher awareness than AB InBev does,” Smith says. “Because we’ve been around for 160 years, versus eight years [for AB InBev]. So that longevity of the brand is definitely valuable.”