Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Apr 16, 2013

Q&A: AB InBev's Vivian Yeh on digitally marketing beer brands in China

SHANGHAI - Vivian Yeh, the Asia-Pacific director of digital marketing behind Anheuser-Busch InBev's acclaimed Belgian-Brazilian beer, shares some insights into her job.

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What digital ambitions does AB-InBev have in China?

We want to project a leadership image in terms of digital marketing in the industry; we feel we have been doing well for the three years in partnership with our digital agency Isobar. In 2010, we were the first in the beer category to use augmented reality in our campaigns. Our digital adspend in Greater China has increased 10 times over the past four years, ranging from a 10 to 30 per cent hike in digital investment for different beer brands.

Can you give us the low-down on digital marketing for your beer brands?

In China we have a total of 30 brands, but really our focus brands are Sedrin, Harbin, and Budweiser. Not forgetting our super premium brand Stella Artois, with a 'super premium' target segment such as expats or overseas returnees, making us active in digital marketing in order to reach them. Stella Artois' overall adspend is small as we mainly engage in word-of-mouth marketing, as the power of persuasion is stronger in this aspect. We rely a lot on key opinion leaders.

Research from our digital agency Isobar shows that in China, 30 per cent of all netizens are social-media commentators, with the rest as forwarders or retweeters. What this means for social-media marketing is that you can easily seed original content online as a trigger for commentary in China, compared to in other countries. This supports our strategy.

From the big picture, for digital marketing this year we are looking at social, mobile, and online video, though the focal points for each brand will be different. We do more social and mobile for Budweiser, with music sponsorship as a brand vehicle, gamification and sports marketing for Harbin's generally younger consumers. But Sedrin's strategy for its regional beer portfolio is still in the works, and we're planning most of our efforts in Jiangxi. The budget is RMB10 million (US$1.6 million) just for one province. This amount is just for social, not including online video media rates or digital production. As for e-commerce, the furthest we are able to go into e-commerce is via partnerships with online supermarkets like Yihaodian, as it doesn't make sense to set up online stores selling only beer.

How do you balance the less-regulated environment of digital marketing with the promotion of responsible drinking?

We have always done responsible drinking campaigns with 'positive propaganda' to emphasise the consequences. At that time, collecting badges on social media was the rage, and we made use of this phenomenon. In fact, we have always used a relaxed manner to gently remind and incentivise consumers about the need for responsible drinking, such as using pretty valet drivers to drive you home in our 2011 campaign for Budweiser. This year, we improved on the campaign with a mobile app that gives you access to making appointments with these valet drivers, which rewards you with a 15 per cent beer discount at the same time.

Guidelines for our product category state that we are not allowed to advertise on traditional television (no drinking shots in our commercials, etc.) and this gives us more reason to expend efforts in digital marketing. We can show drinking shots in our online adverts without fear of breaching regulations. Still, we are very careful, we won't sell products blatantly or directly with digital marketing, but use it more as a platform to transmit a brand message or slogan. For example, Budweiser is 'The King of Beers', Harbin is about the 'Coolest beer experience', while Sedrin is about friendship. So, the risk of promoting irresponsible drinking behaviour digitally is very low, and it is also not the task of digital marketing to quash such behaviour.

How about quashing competitors and challenges in the Chinese beer market then?

We face different competitors in different provinces. In Fujian, it's Yanjing Huiquan Beer. Nationwide competitors include Tsingtao and Snow Beer. What's interesting is also our positionings for our brands are different in the West versus within mainland China. For Budweiser, it's considered a mass brand, but it's more high-end in China. Because of this, we can't simply transplant culturally different foreign ads into the China market. For instance, we saw a foreign beer ad that had people in the local community bring their own tables to a drinking session, and through the mass gathering of people and tables, depicted the idea of friends sharing beer. When we tested this idea for Sedrin, we got very low scores because the target audience didn't feel the relevance of it. What's the big deal with putting many tables together and what has it got to do with friendship?

Our continuous challenge in digital marketing is measurement, since our digital budgets are increasing every year. How much of the favourable results for brand health can we attribute to digital? Traditional post-campaign research does not track the digital components beyond questions like 'Have you seen this ad online?' I may have to recruit an online research agency specifically for this (brand buzz and online engagement statistics). In addition, content on social media may not be interpreted as 'advertisements' as well.

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