Corporate purpose

Budweiser brought its corporate vision to life when it launched Save Pub Life

Pub Life
Shortlisted: Best embodiment of corporate purpose
CovidComms Awards 2020

When Maeve Atkins first heard of Budweiser Brewing Group’s plans for Save Pub Life, the external communications lead for the UK and Ireland assumed her involvement would amount to a great story for the trade drinks press. But the reality was somewhat different.

‘It was so much more,’ she recalls. ‘It was a big, corporate reputation story. It was also a corporate story. We worked with pubs every day so we could identify those who needed the most support or a lot of support. But then we also needed people to buy gift cards and save pub life, so it was a consumer story.’

Budweiser has a long-standing corporate vision: to bring people together for a better world. In fulfilling this vision, it champions Britain’s iconic beer culture and celebrates the contributions that pubs make to our communities.

Save Pub Life was the brewer’s response to the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, when all pubs were forced to close their doors. Save Pub Life allowed consumers to buy gift cards to spend at their locals when they reopened. Budweiser would match those payments up to a combined value of £1 million.

Thus, a regular buying a £20 gift voucher would have that amount to spend at their local when it re-opened, while the pub received £40. The voucher did not have to be used on beer: it could be spent on anything, even food.

Budweiser has a long-standing corporate vision: to bring people together for a better world

To facilitate the scheme, Budweiser set up a website which allowed any pub – regardless of whether they sold the brewer’s drinks – to sign up, as well as any restaurant. ‘We wanted to make it really easy for pubs,’ adds Atkins. ‘We weren’t setting them up like we would suppliers, say. Anyone with an email address could sign up as a pub. We verified them, obviously, but they didn’t have to do anything else.’ The only real requirement was that the pubs had a Stripe account to facilitate payments.

But time was of the essence. There was a period of about a week after lockdown was announced, when pub staff were still turning up for work to close the premises down, deep cleaning them, putting kegs away, dealing with existing food stores and cancelling future ones. ‘Our in-house creative agency talked about being able to launch in three weeks at a sprint, and we said That’s great but we’d love it if we could launch this next week. Because this was a weird time when pubs had not totally closed. People were still there, so they could sign up and then once they had closed the pub and gone on furlough, could still receive our gift cards. It was a real team effort to get the site up and running in a week; it’s amazing the team was able to do it so quickly.’

Prior to launch, Budweiser populated the site with pubs with which it had a relationship to ensure that, once the PR campaign kicked off, early visitors would not see a lot of blank pages. Atkins even contacted some of her local pubs to encourage them to sign up. Her colleagues were similarly proactive. ‘It was a really holistic thing, that everybody at the company was really excited and onboard with,’ she explains. ‘I’m not British, but I love the British pub scene so much. It’s the best thing about living here. It’s so different from anywhere else in the world.’

A media campaign to raise awareness of Save Pub Life secured 84 pieces of coverage across national, regional and trade press, including a Sky News interview with Paula Lindenberg, president of Budweiser Brewing Group UK. Crucially, more than 90 per cent included links back to the site which was vital to the initiative’s success.

‘As soon as it launched, people could contact us and say This is my favourite pub, can you set them up on the site please? We would then email the pub, telling them that somebody loved their establishment and wanted to buy them a gift card and explained how they could sign up,’ says Atkins. ‘But they didn’t need their customers to write in: they could just email us to register.’

We wanted to create different moments in the media. So we did a bit of tried and trusted consumer research about what people were missing about the pub

While customers had to wait to spend their vouchers, pubs received their matched payments at the time of purchase. The monies could be spent as they wished: there were no restrictions. ‘It helped pubs who had no real cash flow at that time. We talked to pub owners who said they had bought all their beer for the re-opening weekend with the money they had made from Save Pub Life. Some bought PPE for staff or even gifts. It was cash, which was they needed,’ says Atkins.

Many pubs also did their own PR. They had established Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts, and loyal customers. Often, they had contacts with local newspapers. Budweiser offered best practice advice on how to make the best of these assets to increase the sale of gift cards.

The initial response was strong. ‘We sold over 20,000 gift cards in that first wave of Save Pub Life [funnelling £1 million to 1,600 outlets]. We got a lot of media coverage and a lot of pubs signed up. But then the pandemic was still going on. And people weren’t looking to Save Pub Life as much because they weren’t in the news,’ explains Atkins. ‘We wanted to create different moments in the media. So, halfway through the programme, we did a bit of tried and trusted consumer research about what people were missing about the pub. But we also asked them, in terms of health and safety, what they wanted when they went back to their locals.’

The survey, which was conducted before any official guidance for hospitality venues had been released, found that more than a third of pub customers intended to visit their local within one week of lockdown lifting. But they also wanted plastic screens at their pubs, table service and readily available hand sanitiser, and two in five said they were more likely to return if staff wore face masks. Many also supported limits on the numbers allowed in a pub at any one time. ‘It was a good media hook, because it was helping people envision what a pub could look like when it reopened,’ says Atkins. ‘But it also helped our strategy.’

The next phase after closing was, obviously, reopening. Budweiser turned its Save Pub Life website into a place where pubs could access information and support. The survey’s findings formed the basis of advice on how pubs could reassure customers after their safety. While the brewer would usually offer only pubs that stocked its drinks items like glasses or branded collateral, it now also extended access to those pubs signed up to Save Pub Life that didn’t stock Budweiser – thus securing brand presence at re-openings while also demonstrating its support for the sector.

‘We offered branded face masks, reduced price PPE and takeaway cups. We created an app for mobile ordering.’ Smaller pubs that were not part of a larger group and might not have the ability to create their own, could customise the app, allowing customers to order from their phones sitting at their tables. Budweiser even created mobile outdoor bars for pubs who might not have beer gardens, and were serving drinks in unusual locations, such as their car parks. Promotional deals were also struck with BT Sport and Opus Energy. Press releases promoting this new initiative were sent to trade media.

‘Pubs just needed to go onto and they could order everything they needed. We wanted to show our support at their re-openings,’ adds Atkins. On 4 July – re-opening day – Lindenberg visited the Thatched Tavern, a 400-year-old pub in Ascot that had benefited from Save Pub Life and whose owner had helped Budweiser with media, with Sky News to watch customers enjoying their first pints and see the safety measures in action. For Budweiser, this positioned the brewer as a trusted partner that went above and beyond for its customers.

At this point, the website stopped selling gift cards, because the pubs were open and customers were spending them. But then lockdown two occurred in November. ‘We re-opened the site. Any pub could sign up again, but while the mechanic for the first lockdown was buy a gift card, Budweiser will match it and that matched money will go to the pub – so you bought a gift card for £20 but the pub got £40 – the mechanic changed for the second lockdown,’ explains Atkins.

There was a Christmas twist. Customers could buy a gift card for a friend at their chosen pub, and Budweiser would send the purchaser a gift card for the same value to be used at the same pub. ‘Our corporate purpose is to bring people together, and the goal was that people would use these gift card and get together. It was about sharing a beer with loved ones at Christmas,’ she adds. The average value of these cards was £33, and – all told – £500,000 was spent on these cards, including Budweiser’s matched contribution.

‘Loads of pubs had never offered gift cards before because they were a bit annoying logistically to manage, especially for local pubs, but these were so easy. They were sent to customers’ phones. And for the Christmas gift cards, one of our big missions was to promote responsible drinking and so we put images of Budweiser Zero and Stella Artois Alcohol Free on them instead of our normal beers. It was a nudge to people when they’re at the bar and choosing a drink to choose a low or no alcohol option, or just to recognise that they had a choice.’

The Save Pub Initiative has impacted Budweiser’s corporate reputation both with consumers and customers. ‘We track our reputation, and saw some uplifts in favourability,’ she explains. ‘There’s also an annual survey of pub operators, where they rank their suppliers on a number of measures, and I know we have improved in many of them – and are also at the top of many of them.’

For Atkins personally, Save Pub Life has made an impact. ‘I think it is my favourite project in ten years’ working in PR because it brought in a little bit of everything,’ she concludes.