Influencer campaigns play a key role in our marketing mix: Vineet Sharma

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Marketing alcohol has always been difficult in India, a country with a restrictive regulatory environment, a task that has become more difficult as the whole country has shut down during the pandemic. But AB InBev, the multinational alcoholic beverage company, was quick to change gears, said Vineet Sharma, its vice president, marketing, for South Asia. AB InBev has introduced brands such as Budweiser, Corona, Hoegaarden and Beck’s Ice to the country. AB InBev has started to adapt its marketing activities to appeal to customers who have started having drinks at home instead of going to bars. This included virtual concerts and increased engagement via social media, Sharma said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

How has the business changed for AB InBev?

We had a very aggressive growth path, but covid-19 was definitely kind of a hole in our plans. Our focus then shifted to making sure our brands were still relevant in the lives of people who stopped dating. We had to bring a lot of experiences to people. One of those experiences was our two-day BudX music event. We made sure to create an “in-home” version of BudX.

Are Consumers Buying More Premium Alcohol?

India continues to witness a strong trend towards premiumization as the market matures, fueled rapidly by the growing number of urban millennials. With several lockdowns and surges of covid-19, there has been a strong shift towards in-home consumption, with consumers buying more at small intervals. Additionally, convenience became a key decision factor as people shifted from bottles to cans, which are easy to transport, store and drink.

Is Home Alcohol Consumption Here to Stay?

With the gradual opening of the country, we see a hybrid version continuing. As people gradually return to on-premise points of sale, many consumers continue to use in-home experiences.

With a few states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, and Maharashtra embracing the e-commerce and home delivery model for alcohol, we see a significant opportunity to work with more state governments to unlock these channels within the existing regulatory framework.

Are regulatory challenges hindering advertising and marketing in India?

Yes; regulations in india, especially in the alco-bev space from a business perspective, are certainly among the strictest in the world. But we believe we always follow the line all the way to the tee.

What success metrics do you use for social media marketing of alcohol?

A large portion of our significant spending is spent on digital media due to current regulations. Digital marketing in India has helped us to be much more specific in our media targeting and to know exactly who our audiences are.

It is an evolution of consumer behavior in India. People demand high standards from the brands they love. Today’s consumer is much more aware, and the days of one-way communication between brands and consumers are over. Today it’s transparent two-way communication and when brands speak to consumers, consumers respond. This is, I think, great because then you get the real pulse and a real time voice of the consumer. You don’t have to wait a month for different resources to tell you how your campaign went.

Consumers also expect brands to have a point of view, and I think being authentic is key to such conversations.

Is working with influencers useful?

Campaigns led by influencers have become an integral part of our marketing mix. In 2016, when this trend started, we invested in spokespersons and “cheerleaders” for our brands. They increase our potential notoriety because we cannot reach every person and even if we do, it will be very expensive. Very profitable point of view, influencers certainly help us increase the potential reach of the brand.

Do they also help you build trust in your brand?

They help us build a lot of credibility and strengthen the brand’s message. But it’s important that it’s not a short-term stint with influencers. Building a long term relationship, co-hosting lots of campaigns and organizing their brand message with them is extremely important. We work long term with many lifestyle and alco-bev influencers who help us ensure that people are not just brand advocates, but brand loyalists as well.

Interesting campaigns to come?

We are very clear that we want to develop our brands here in India. Budweiser, which has been a flagship brand, is very supportive of music and football. Locally we are seeing the emergence of football and live sports viewing and with the English Premier League season underway we will continue to build on our longstanding association.

Are you also focused on India’s favorite sport, cricket?

We have an upcoming cricket campaign centered around the Cricket World Cup.

We have a brand of beer called Beck’s. It’s a youth-focused brand, and while we’re not too big in sponsorship like many of our competition, we play more of a tactical role — digitally.

We make sure our content speaks, rather than spending on sponsorship.

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