WFA President Chris Burggraeve talks media neutrality and connecting with consumers


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The following article appeared here in the Asia Media Journal, March 4 2011:

“I get asked a lot: 'Do you have a digital strategy?' My answer is no.”

As global CMO of one of the world's biggest brand owners, beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), Chris Burggraeve has some firm views on where digital media belongs in the marketing mix.

It was just a few years ago that MNCs and their agencies were proposing that digital should lie at the heart of a communications plan, an idea that seemed liberating at the time, after decades of media strategies dominated by print and TV.

Marketers are now refining that confidence, Burggraeve says, increasingly paying more attention to people before thinking how best to reach them.

“In our company, we don't talk about having a digital strategy or a social media strategy, or a print strategy or a TV strategy for that matter,” he explains, speaking in an interview with Asia Media Journal. “We use the word 'media' less and less and less.

"The word we prefer, to put it in the minds of all our marketers – particularly the guys who allocate the dollars to bring the brands alive in the market – is 'connections'.”

These brands include some of the biggest in the world. In AB InBev's 200-beer portfolio, 13 earn more than US$1 billion in retail sales each year – making the brewer one of world's top five FMCG companies, having grown quickly through a series of sizable M&A deals.

Building brand health
No particular channel is favored when it comes to marketing these brands, though AB InBev's emphasis on connections does put some in a different light, underscoring in particular the interactive benefits of digital and social media.

There is no specific country or media strategy for China for example, but AB InBev's China marketers are spending more time online, as they explore different ways to interact with consumers.

“Traditional is traditional, and we will use it to our advantage if and when we can, but let's think zero-based,” Burggraeve says. “Let's go where the consumer loves to be and understand that medium the best. We spent an inordinate amount of time online and in social media to ensure we can grow with them as it explodes – and it has exploded.

"The learning we have is that digital helps us build brand health the way we want, potentially in a much more cost-efficient manner than traditional media could give us.”

Burggraeve is also the current president of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), and the opportunities presented by social and digital media is one of the main topics up for discussion at the WFA's forthcoming conference in Beijing.

Home to the world's largest internet population, China has a vibrant social and digital media ecosystem, while stimulating domestic demand for goods and services is a core plank of the Chinese government's next five-year plan – a move that will shine the spotlight on advertising and marketing, a relatively under-developed discipline for many Chinese companies.

“There is a recognition of the importance moving up the value scale, in order to ultimately generate wealth for China,” notes WFA MD, Stephan Loerke.

Big strategic bets
As the largest and fastest growing beer market in the world, China is also critically important for AB InBev – “our biggest strategic bet within the country portfolio we have,” Burggraeve says – and the marketing challenges faced by his marketing team there are of increasing interest to brand managers elsewhere in the world.

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The concept behind social media initiative Bud's Music Kingdom is now being exported to Russia for example, after the campaign – which encouraged direct audience participation – became a big hit in China.

Three beers in particular spearhead AB InBev's China ambitions: Budweiser, one of the brewer's three main global brands (alongside Stella Artois and Beck's), guided by strict marketing guidelines laid down by global HQ; and two local powerhouses, Harbin and Sedrin, where marketers have more freedom to both set their own branding objectives and achieve them. Processes and tools remain the same worldwide.

Connections embrace a range of touchpoints that go far beyond media, interactive or not, including two that Burggraeve feels are the most important of all: packaging and the retail outlets where the beer is bought, often the final points of contact before consumption.

“The little shop on the corner or the restaurant where people go is an important beer occasion,” Burggraeve notes. “That is one of our key points of connection, and the marketer's responsibility. He works very closely with the sales guys to ensure we have that point of connection well done and executed.”

TV's illusion
This consumer-centric approach has ramifications for all media owners, particularly TV channels established as the default centerpiece for marketing plans. TV airtime is expensive, and Burggraeve encourages his marketers to develop separate plans with and without TV to see whether the money can be spent in a different way.

The abundance of TV data, in the form of GRPs and CPMs, has helped create an “illusion” of effectiveness, because they still don't prove that someone has seen or was influenced by an ad, contends Burggraeve – himself a classically trained marketer with stints at Coke and Procter & Gamble – presenting a challenge for broadcasters as well as advertisers to realize the medium's true value for brands.

“We are looking at TV much more critically than we ever done before, as part of organizing around people, and saying: 'What is the role for television in the connection mix for this particular brand?” Burggraeve says.

“The opportunity cost of TV has gone up substantially. What can I do with the money that I wouldn't do on TV, and can I more demonstrably get a return, and measure that faster and better in different ways? It's up to the TV media owners to find ways to prove that their medium deserves our funds.”

Source: Asia Media Journal, March 4 2011

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