Anheuser-Busch InBev won big at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, taking home 22 total Lions—the most ever in the company’s history. But the road to AB InBev establishing itself as a creative powerhouse was no small task. It started a few years ago when the company rebuilt its internal culture around real consumer needs and the power of creativity. Overseeing that process was Jodi Harris, the company’s first-ever global vice president of marketing culture and capabilities. We talked with Harris to learn more about how she and her team implemented that culture shift, how the company empowered its employees, what it’s learning via social listening tools and a trend CPG marketers should embrace post-pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does your role as global vice president of marketing culture and capabilities entail?

In 2017, I was the head of US consumer insights and at the end of that year, my boss Marcel [Marcondes] and I discussed revamping something in the US market where, at the time, creativity wasn’t thriving and our employee engagement was quite low. We were going through several different transitions at that time. You could tell people weren’t feeling valued.

So we created something called Marketing Culture and Capabilities. In order to get to the capability building, you have to start with creativity, so we started implementing programs in the US which had never been done before. We didn’t have a town hall for marketing. We did something instead called the “Spark Session,” which was about building confidence, not just in the whole marketing team, but also the senior leadership team, myself included. Slowly but surely as we started opening ourselves up to things, more and more people wanted in. Because it wasn’t everybody at first, I’d say maybe a third of the population were early adopters. By the end of the two, three years, everybody wanted in. The results went from 62 or 64 in engagement to an 80 in two years. It was nuts.

When you believe in the people around you and you’re going to invest in them and their capabilities, then the world is yours. We started feeling that momentum and then we decided to take it global. 

Pedro [Earp], who is good friends with Marcel, is now my boss. We all believe in this so much that not only is it a global role, there’s now a global marketing culture and capabilities team. Every market has at least one person who’s dedicated to driving capabilities, creativity and this culture shift that we’re going through. We actually realized that we’ve got a lot of internal experts. 

What was it like scaling that culture change globally? 

We have a responsibility to make sure our employees are equipped with the right tools and resources to go further. The first thing we did was partner with the General Assembly to get the resources with our online programming that we can start to embed into our marketing team. It wasn’t just the online content. We actually supplemented it with twice-monthly Zoom sessions, and because we’re able to grant live access to these sessions and also the online program, everybody participated. It was incredible. We had over 1,500 people around the world dialing in to these sessions or re-watching the videos online. 

The other great thing is, we never really understood where we sat versus other companies but through the General Assembly program, they have a benchmark for CPGs. We were falling slightly below the CPG average in the beginning of the year where we assessed ourselves. One full year after the program, we surpassed average and we’re on par with digital natives now. So again, another sense of pride and courage is that the teams took these tools and ran with them so fast. That’s where we started getting a lot more intellect on just how to use data properly and how to set the right KPIs.

It’s not just these vanity measures. We also built our own programming as a part of our old marketing excellence program. Now we have everybody in our marketing academy. It’s been a huge, huge success for us.

Did the company launch any programs during the pandemic to strengthen employee bonds? 

The creativity and agility from working together during the pandemic was game-changing. We created a global cross-functional task force to run our agile program called “Ideas of Good.” It was designed to engage our colleagues all over the world to generate, pitch and execute ideas to address critical community needs during the pandemic.

Many of these needs were common around the world, which made our teams excited to learn from each other and empowered them to quickly adapt for action in their markets. Within the first 90 days of the pandemic we launched 100 new initiatives to help people.

Our Tienda Circa program is a beautiful innovation that was born from Ideas for Good. It supported small business owners with the technology to deliver beer and other goods in an effort to stay open during the pandemic. Never before have we seen the power of ideas from our own colleagues make a real difference in people’s lives.

What is AB InBev’s takeaway from winning the most Lions this year in company history?

This year’s Cannes results for AB InBev really solidified the power of our culture. We have a true culture of ownership, and we saw that come to life over the past year. Our teams never gave up. They delivered their best work because they’re invested in the work and the people it impacts. I’m so proud of what we accomplished together.

The actual journey started seven years ago with our previous CMO who created an internal awards program called Creative X, which we still run today. It’s just gotten so much more powerful and has been a great proxy for all of the other festivals. One example of this is Tienda Circa, which was an incredible win for us at Cannes this year. In fact, it was our first Grand Prix for our internal agency draftLine. It was also the first time that creativity pushed beyond marketing and really brought a commercial aspect to it. It solves a real need that you’re not going to find in a research report.

How has draftLine been impacted by the evolving needs of the company’s marketing teams amid the pandemic?

The pandemic validated our internal creative agency. Starting in 2019, we brought our creative center in-house to stay more connected to consumers and move at the pace of culture. We saw this in action during the pandemic as circumstances changed from one day to the next. draftLine allowed us to stay reactive to, and in some cases anticipate, these shifts in consumer needs and behavior. For example, in the first eight weeks of the pandemic, the US team worked on 500 pieces of creative, and they’ve launched over 30 campaigns so far during COVID-19.

Part of AB InBev’s success is rooted in listening closely to the consumer and leveraging culture as a primary source of consumer data. What tools are you leveraging to this aim?

In the beginning, we didn’t leverage social media in the right way. We had all our social listening tools, but it was really about what were the big trends and fads, and underneath all of that was a bevy of insights of how people are feeling and what they’re liking and not liking and the different dialogue.

One great example of this is the Natural Light brand. One of the team members was running the digital platforms and he started interacting with college kids—of legal drinking age of course—about Natty Light and about college life. One of the things that college students are worried about so much is student debt. Once we started conversing with them and speaking their language, we were discovering new terms. We’d find out what a certain word means. We’d say, okay, that’s the new word to use? Got it. That’s how we were interacting. We’d be one of their friends because we had to become part of their circle. That’s how you realize what’s really important to them. From there, we developed programs around college loans and paybacks. We had students send us their resumés and we’d post the best one on a NASCAR car.

That’s one bigger example, but how we stay on top of that is through really interacting with the consumer firsthand, whereas before it was always in focus groups or waiting for the quarterly brand health report to come out. We still all have that information because it’s important to have, but for us to get much closer to the consumer, we had to interact with them. In the US, we have a big online community with more than 6,000 people that we can interact with whenever we want. 

AB InBev is diversifying its outreach to attract more than just the male gaze. Has the change been effective? What are you learning?

Diversity and inclusion are priorities for the company and for the industry. There are a lot of wrongs that we’re correcting in the marketing industry, the inappropriateness of some advertising from the past. But that stays in people’s minds and it’s a mental asset you’ve got to try to break. We do that with more provocative angles in creativity to get people to think a little bit differently. There are a couple of programs that we’re really proud of, like the work that Budweiser has been doing to promote equality, and of course, the angle that we’re taking is in sports. 

In early 2019, we started a program where we re-corrected some advertising out-of-home from the 1950s to today. That was the first time we realized that people are responding to this, the industry is responding to this, this is interesting. This is actually a valid place where we can have a voice and we should have a voice because of the history. And at the time, Monica [Rustgi] was our first vice president of marketing at Budweiser ever. So it just goes to show you the changes you can make when you understand it.

Then it carried on like a hot fire. People started to understand that there really is a divide out there. We started educating people and started doing that with all areas of inequality. 

We’ve done some work with women in football in the UK. I think the Future Sponsor campaign was awesome. We’re really proud of it. It’s not this one-off campaign, it’s an actual program.

In terms of the brands and championing it, we still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. In our Creative X program, it’s the awards, but it’s also our creative center of excellence. We have huge D&I requirements. For our council meetings, when reviewing the work or helping promote the work. It’s a very diverse group of individuals. We have certain standards where advertising doesn’t go out if it doesn’t meet certain criteria and that’s all fed into our D&I for the company. 

I’m very honored to sit on the D&I counsel for the company. As a woman, as a marketer, as an American, I feel like I have a unique voice in that—from helping to write the D&I statement that we put on as a company and some of the new regulations to working with the team to create new benefits packages. 

During the last 12 months, have you seen a change in the seriousness with which CEOs and CMOs consider corporate social impact?

At AB InBev, we’ve always been defined by our purpose to bring people together for a better world. That mission was certainly heightened during this time of crisis, but more than that, the pandemic showed us the true extent of the impact we make—farmers, bar and restaurant owners and customers, small businesses and more.

Our global program with Stella Artois is a good example of how we supported bars and restaurants with resources and infrastructures to bring people together again, safely. That impact inspired us all—at every level of leadership—to keep innovating and reimagining our business in the communities where we live and work.

Something our CMO, Pedro Earp, has championed is a shift in focus—away from creating ads, and toward building consumer solutions, regardless of the tool. It’s clear that social impact will become ever more ingrained in everything we do.

What’s one trend marketers will face or need to embrace as they return to the “new normal”?

I think one of the big changes that we’re seeing, and it’s a behavior change we’ve been seeing for a while, is the moderation trend, mainly for beverages. It’s awesome. It comes down to health and wellness, especially the younger generations that aren’t taking life for granted. It really is about taking care of our planet, ourselves, our communities. 

The value equation has shifted. We’re seeing it with our no-alcohol portfolio, with our low alcohol portfolio. You see it in the US with the hard seltzer market. There’s a shift that’s been coming for a while, but it definitely has been exacerbated by the pandemic.