Anheuser-Busch, a Titan of Sports Ads, Launches Streaming Sports Series That’s Commercial-Free

One of the nation’s most colorful sports advertisers says it plans to launch its own sports-talk show because consumers are growing wary of the commercials that have helped it capture so much attention over the decades.

Anheuser-Busch and Panay Films will launch “Not A Sports Show,” a six-episode series that features host and comedian Lil Rel Howery chatting with athletes like former Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce, snowboarder Shaun White and Los Angeles Sparks WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike. The program can be watched via Ficto, a free streaming-video service. The show will not be interrupted with beer ads, but the host and his guests hash things out at a bar filled with dozens of A-B beverages, and even drink some of them as their conversations progress. New episodes of the show, produced with Stampede Entertainment, are slated to debut Thursdays in April.

The giant brewer isn’t walking away from running ads with colorful figures like the Bud Knight or a group of animated frogs, says Spencer Gordon, vice president of digital for Anheuser-Busch. Yet the company is eager to find ways to communicate with consumers increasingly able to avoid seeing ads.  “I think this is where consumers are going. People are paying to skip ads and we are in advertising,” he says, in an interview — and the recent coronavirus pandemic has intensified the trend. “From that perspective, we really do want to make sure we are part of the fun and not part of the interruption.”

Any move by the maker of Bud Light, Michelob, Stella Artois and Bud Light Seltzer is not to be ignored. The company spent approximately $320.5 million on TV advertising in 2020, according to Kantar. Advertising for beer and ale was worth nearly $86.5 million to Walt Disney’s ESPN last year, according to data from Standard Media Index, and around $6.7 million to Fox Corp.’s Fox Sports 1. Asked what sports outlets ought to think of the programming maneuver, Gordon says TV executives should realize the company “wants to do more in the sports entertainment field,” adding: “It shows the passion we have.”

Anheuser-Busch is just one of several big advertisers testing new methods of reaching consumers while many of them flock to new venues for their favorite programs. Simply put, streaming-video hubs like Hulu, Peacock, and Pluto are luring customers by running fewer ads every hour. NBCUniversal’s Peacock, for example, allows just five minutes of commercials every 60 minutes. And then there are premium services like Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus that do not allow any kind of advertising at all. With that in mind, marketers ranging from KFC to Pepsi are putting new emphasis on crafting programs, virtual experiences and other forms of content — the stuff a fan might decide to watch as easily as they might start a new binge on a streaming service.

Some of those dynamics drove Anheuser to choose Ficto, rather than attempt to place a new program on a bigger outlet. Ficto will provide specific data about the audience watching “Not A Sports Show,” says Mike Esola, the service’s CEO. “We have the ability to figure out what time of day different subsets of people watching something, how long they are watching, when they click in and click out,” he says. “That’s very, very valuable when it comes to advertisers.”

This isn’t the first time the beer company has tested its hand at programming. In 2007, Anheuser launched a venture it called Bud.TV, a hub for streaming content that included comedy, sports, news, short films, and original programming. By 2009, however, it shuttered the venture, citing an inability to meet audience goals and challenges to gathering audience spurred by age-verification requirements. In 2005, Anheuser teamed up with digital-marketing agency JibJab, known at the time for crafting funny videos that went viral. In recent months, the brewer has sponsored a series of live-streaming concerts.

There’s good reason to keep trying. “Trends are changing left and right. One trend that we see that is not changing is the fact consumers are really looking to skip ads,” says Gordon. “We are thinking about everything we can do to be relevant to them.” To get the word out about the show, Anheuser will tout the new program via its beverages’ social-media channels, says Gordon, and expects to work with the athletes who appear, as well as their teams and leagues.

Viewers may not perceive the program as promotional. The show aims to get athletes talking about their lives off the field and court, a deliberate effort to stand apart from what sports fans might see elsewhere. Sports die-hards “don’t always get to see anything but measured responses to what’s happened, in press conferences after a basketball game,” says Jared Iacino, senior vice president and head of film and television production at Panay Films. “For us, it was really important to dig below those layers and get kind of into the core of who these athletes are as people.”

Anheuser brews do get screen time. The company assigned different beverages to each episode, depending on which athlete was appearing. Football players might drink Bud Light, which has long been associated with the NFL, notes Spencer. Paul Price drank Budweiser, a bid to emphasize the fact that viewers are watching an icon on screen. Shaun White was paired with the organic Michelob Ultra Pure Gold.

“Our brands are prevalent in the show, but it’s definitely not the focus of the show,” says Spencer. “We don’t’ advertise the product or say, ‘Here’s a Bud Light’ or ‘Here’s a Budweiser.’”

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