How Sports Fueled Michelob Ultra’s Growth During Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, like many brands and organizations, Michelob Ultra needed to figure out how to pivot during the uncertain times.

The brand doubled down its efforts investing heavily in encouraging healthy and active lifestyles—especially at a time where activity was limited with stay-at-home mandates in place—while also broadening its category approach into the sports world.

“Sports, in particular the NBA, have been a crucial pillar in our strategy and that approach in terms of bringing our brand to more fans in a relevant way, bringing our brand into different markets and parts of the country, and bringing our brand into different occasions, namely sports viewing,” said Ricardo Marques, Michelob Ultra vice-president of marketing. “It’s been instrumental in helping us accelerate the momentum of the brand.”

After growing 16.2% in volume in 2019, Michelob Ultra accelerated its growth by 22.2% in 2020 despite the pandemic’s limitations. Trailing only Budweiser ($7.2 billion), Michelob boasted $3.1 billion in U.S. sales last year, with sports playing a major part.

Michelob Ultra’s first major foray into the world of sports—save for previous commercials during the Super Bowl—was as the official beer of Capital One’sCOF The Match: Champions for Charity, a charity golf event pitting Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. The May 2020 event, which raised $20 million for Covid-19 relief efforts, was just the beginning for Michelob, which expanded into sports further through brand partnerships with athletes including Serena Williams, Jimmy Butler, Alex Morgan, Anthony Davis, Brooks Koepka and Nneka Ogwumike.

Ahead of the NBA Restart last July, Michelob Ultra was named official beer partner of the NBA. The brand didn’t just rest on its laurels with its new multi-year partnership, but instead played an integral part in making the league’s bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando feel and sound as close to a full arena as it could.

Together with MicrosoftMSFT, a 17-foot video board was erected to bring 320 fans “inside” the venue virtually for each game as part of the Michelob Ultra Courtside. Fans, players’ families, contest winners and even celebrities popped up on the screen to show their support of the league’s restart in the promotion that not only gave fans the ability to be closer to the game despite physical limitations, but that gave the players a high-energy in-venue experience.

“It was huge, they did an incredible job,” said Miami Heat all-star forward Jimmy Butler, who showcased his singing abilities in Michelob’s TV spot to celebrate the NBA Restart. “A lot of my family and friends were actually on the screen, and I could really say that they enjoyed that experience. When I talked to them they were like, ‘Yo, did you see me on the screen?’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m sorry, I wasn’t staring up at the screen. I was trying to make a basket.’ 

“It was so cool with them not being able to be there yet still be there. It was an environment and a thing that so many wanted to experience. From everybody I talked to on my side, it was an unreal experience because it was so different and a first-of-its-kind so everyone was locked into it.”

For Marques and Michelob Ultra, Michelob Ultra Courtside was an extension of the brand’s messaging: It’s only worth it if you enjoy it.

“We have what we believe is a very unique angle and point of view,” he said. “The approach we’re taking is a very people-centric one. Michelob Ultra Courtside was born not because we wanted to make another ad, but because we were literally investing in creating an experience that would be meaningful to people.”

Michelob Ultra’s investment in sports continues to expand in 2021. As bars and restaurants reopened ahead of the summer, Michelob Ultra teamed up with Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt to encourage people to head to the bar after a run or workout on July 24, offering to cover their drink as part of Bolt’s “running tab.”

Peyton Manning’s enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August inspired Michelob Ultra to create a bronze “Smiling Peyton Bust Tap Handle” for use in bars in meaningful Manning locales including New Orleans, Indianapolis, Denver and Knoxville, Tennessee.

And to honor Women’s Equality Day on August 26, Michelob Ultra announced it would commit $100 million over the next five years to increase visibility for women’s sports and female athletes. The brand will allocate 50% of its lifestyle media towards women—a 40% increase from where Michelob Ultra is today—and add to its roster of female athletes and influencers while ensuring they are equally part of the brand’s creative and advertising.

While Marques wouldn’t provide any details on what’s next for Michelob Ultra, don’t be surprised to see and hear more from Butler as the NBA starts its 2021-22 season in mid-October.

“We have very exciting plans and ideas. You’ll definitely be hearing more about Jimmy Butler and Michelob Ultra in ways you didn’t think were possible,” he said. “The NBA is a tremendous partner. We always say ‘partnerships not sponsorships,’ and they’re the epitome of that. We’re incredibly excited in terms of where we’re going to take the point of view of this brand into the NBA and beyond. A lot more to come. I think we’ve only seen the beginning.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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