Challenger Brands Should Raise a Glass to AB Inbev

March 7, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

How does a company become the world’s largest brewer and, for at least the last two years, the world’s most dominant creative powerhouse? For AB InBev, it starts with thinking like a challenger brand.

On February 22, AB InBev — the owner of Budweiser, Stella Artois, Corona (outside the U.S.), and a huge portfolio of regional brands around the world — was named Cannes Lions 2022 Creative Marketer of the Year. According to Ad Age, “the award … honors the brewer for its body of Lion-winning work over a sustained period of time, as well as a reputation for producing brave creative and innovative marketing solutions.”

The body is significant.

Last year, AB InBev won 40 Cannes Lions including two Grand Prix, two Titanium, nine Gold, 10 Silver, and 17 Bronze. That’s an extraordinary year, no matter what business you’re in.

For challenger brands who clearly don’t enjoy the financial depth of a company with 400 beer brands and more than $46.8 billion in annual revenue, it would be easy to dismiss the brewer’s success as a matter of opportunity, resources, and scale. But that would belittle the real reason they were just named Creative Marketer of the Year.

Their thinking was extraordinary.

Thinking Big Starts With Thinking Small.

In 2021, two of AB InBev’s awards at Cannes included a pair of Grand Prix Lions for Creative excellence in eCommerce and PR. The first was for “Tienda Cerca,” a program the company created to help Latin American corner stores suffering during COVID. They didn’t just lament the impending drop in sales. They didn’t send best wishes to their partners struggling to survive without a robust online presence. Instead, AB InBev created a FREE online platform for food and drink delivery. Then they extended that platform to more than 400,000 corner stores. It was a lifeline that literally kept tens of thousands of small companies afloat.

The second Lion for PR was awarded to AB InBev for its “Contract for Change” effort to support certified organic farming. In America, becoming certified is expensive and time consuming and, not surprisingly, only 1% of U.S. farmland acreage is certified organic. For its Michelob Pure Gold product to be successful, the brewer pledged to purchase crops from farmers during their three-year transition to organic farming. “Contract for Change” provided the marketing and PR to support that effort.

It’s no surprise that AB InBev created great work. Their Budweiser work alone is legendary. What I love about their new thinking is it runs deeper than simply selling beer to thirsty consumers.

The new work uses the power of creativity to solve real problems. When our ideas are doing that, how can you not call them “the best?”

Even Category Leaders Can Think Like Challenger Brands

Even though AB InBev is the very definition of a Category Leader, their work rewarded at Cannes represents the potential and opportunity that’s available to every challenger brand. Granted, AB InBev is a behemoth. But Michelob Pure Gold is most certainly a challenger brand. And like most challenger brands, MPG looked at what everyone else was doing and zagged to open water. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. What about the farmers? The land? What about the shortage of certified organic growers? Those aren’t issues for advertising to figure out. Or are they?

Often, underdog thinking has to find a way where there is no way. Sometimes that means thinking that is just more simple and clear. Other times, challenger brands step up and fill a need that their competitors either failed to see, or simply chose to ignore. In both of the InBev Cannes Lions examples, an impressive depth of thinking paired with a sincere commitment to support struggling stakeholders in their supply chain ultimately helped catalyze their sales with consumers. But it took thinking bigger than simply selling beer.

For Challenger Brands, Creative Thinking is The Great Equalizer.

For years, we’ve leaned hard into the idea that creativity can come from any department and any person in the agency. The same holds true for our industry. Big thinking and revolutionary concepts aren’t proprietary to big agencies and category killers.

Great ideas can come from any person and any agency, studio, or group. They are the ultimate equalizer.

Outthinking the competition is where challenger brands and their agencies can always punch above their weight. It starts with pushing to find a compelling insight and leveraging that insight to connect with consumers through captivating storytelling. Challenger brands can move quicker, act more nimbly, and fly under the RADAR going places bigger brands can’t or won’t. (Hello Blockbuster!) But it also takes grit, hustle, and a commitment to think like a challenger brand in everything you do.

AB InBev is light years from what you’d consider a challenger brand. But looking at their track record at Cannes over the past 36 months, it certainly didn’t stop them from taking a page out of the challenger playbook.

It’s a stark reminder to every challenger brand in every sector of business that sometimes even category leaders think like the underdog. When that happens, you’re only saving grace is to work harder, dig deeper, and think bigger.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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