How A-B InBev Uses Digital for Regional Focus and Global Scale

CMO Chris Burggraeve on Resisting the Lure of TV, Dealing With Global Digital Giants and Avoiding Commercializing in Social Media

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Chris Burggraeve's vision for the future of marketing goes beyond figuring out how to get the world to drink more beer as CMO of A-B InBev, the biggest global brewer. He donned a second hat a year ago when he became president of the World Federation of Advertisers.

Chris Burggraeve
Chris Burggraeve

Since then, he has been involved in efforts that range from helping emerging markets like China create their first ad-ethics codes to Project Reconnect, a research effort with consumers in Brazil, China, the U.K. and the U.S. to help define how brands should behave online. China, where the WFA held a global conference in April, has been a big focus, and the group just welcomed its first two corporate members from that country.

Few marketers are more experienced than Belgian-born Mr. Burggraeve. Before joining A-B in 2007, he was group marketing director for Coca-Cola Co. in Europe and worked for Procter & Gamble in brand management and innovation.

Frederic Colas, chief strategic officer of digital agency Fullsix, is spending a year interviewing top marketers in partnership with the WFA and Facebook. Here is an excerpt from his talk with Mr. Burggraeve, which will be available later in full at Mr. Colas' CMO World Tour site along with his conversations with other marketers about the impact of the digital age. He is on Twitter @fredcolas.

Mr. Colas: Are there still barriers to using digital media?

Mr. Burggraeve: The barriers have gone down substantially. I think the barrier is more macro-economic. It's such a fragile new capability that if the world turns tough -- and it was tough in 2008, 2009 for everybody—people turn to what they know. The whole generation of managers that is there now, including myself, have been trained in the TV society and people go back to what they know. Show me the ad. That's something we have to resist and say, OK, let's not go back to the good old days. For us, TV is very important but it must be done differently than we did it before.

Mr. Colas: How does your focus on digital channels vary by region and brand?

Mr. Burggraeve: We have about 250 brands. Within that portfolio we focus on a number of brands that are making the difference. We call them the focus brands and what I have asked each focus brand to do is to think how to use digital in the smartest way. Some lend themselves more naturally to it than others, but everybody discovers a clever way to use it in the connection mix.

Mr. Colas: For instance?

Mr. Burggraeve: In New York and Toronto, on Stella Artois, we invited selected trendsetters to become ambassadors for the beer brand by giving them early insights, information and other incentives. We measure side by side -- this is my P&G training -- whether the behavior and attitude are different and significant enough to warrant the investment. And the answer is yes. They love the brand more, they are more loyal and they talk about the brand around them. They are the most powerful sales force we have. So we are scaling this.

Mr. Colas: Does A-B InBev specify levels of digital spend?

Mr. Burggraeve: Nothing tells me that 5% or 10% of the budget, or 30% or 100%, is magic. That's why I'm saying we are very careful about outcomes and not about the means to the end. Digital helps us to connect with consumers in ways we couldn't before, but as a marketer, what I'm obsessed about is to track brand health on a monthly basis and how we achieve that is irrelevant.

Mr. Colas: Is A-B InBev making global media deals with digital media players?

Mr. Burggraeve: Yes, with Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Within the 18 focus brands, we have three global ones and if we can use our scale as a global company and leverage their scale as a global company in a no-barriers technology world, why wouldn't we? For example, for the FIFA World Cup, we worked with not only ESPN as a global sport carrier, but also with Microsoft, with Yahoo, and also with others to take over entire home pages around the world. [These deals] can be complex to put together so the message needs to be simple.

Mr. Colas: Is it getting easier?

Mr. Burggraeve: The negotiations are increasingly better. The digital giants have started to organize themselves better and understand that if they want to cater to the needs of global companies, they need to have global account directors, global structures, decision centers that are easy for us to reach, and the authority to make things happen in their local countries.

Mr. Colas: What is the role of brands in social-media environments such as Facebook?

Mr. Burggraeve: What most brands are learning is you don't use it as a push medium. Brands are allowed to be there as long as they play to the rules of the environment, that 's the way we like to treat it. If we start to use it for blatant commercial purposes, then the self-regulation mechanism of that community will push the brand out very quickly.


During his CMO World Tour, Frederic Colas talked to CMOs about their personal digital media use. Here are a few excerpts:

Joao Ciaco, Fiat's director-advertising and marketing for Latin America and president of the Association of Brazilian Advertisers, blogs at and live tweets from ABA meetings and World Federation of Advertisers conferences.

"I have four phones," he says. "BlackBerry is essential because that is the way we communicate inside the company. I have the iPhone much more because of the apps. And I have to understand Android."

Mr. Ciaco now travels with an iPad rather than his laptop. He uses LinkedIn, Orkut and Foursquare, but says his most important social-media brands are Twitter (followers: 2,050; following: 100), then Facebook.

"When I pack my suitcase, I use my Twitter and ask, 'How is the weather over there?'" he says.

Johan Jervoe, global VP-marketing and sales for Intel Corp. and a former VP of global marketing at McDonald's Corp., is a keen BlackBerry user and has a MacBook Pro. His most surprising digital device: a Bang & Olufsen phone, mostly a show of support for the only global technology brand from his home country, Denmark. He has about 100 Facebook friends, dating back to his high school days in Denmark.

"Just meeting somebody at a dinner party and then all of a sudden [become] a Facebook friend, I don't agree [with] that ," he says.

As a heavy traveler -- and living far from Denmark -- he relies on Skype to keep in touch with his parents and texts with his wife and daughter.

Julia Goldin, global CMO of Revlon since September 2010 and formerly deputy CMO of Coca-Cola Japan, loves her BlackBerry.

"I used to play the piano, so I'm very good with buttons," she says.

She's about to get an iPad, and uses Facebook to keep up the connections forged during her very global life.

"So for me it's professional as well as personal," she says. "If I'm interested in something, I will go on Facebook and actually see how brands are communicating, how they are connecting with their consumer."

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