The mud is thick and sticky, the kind that threatens to pull off your boots when you step into it. Flecks of it are splattered on the Victorian-era dresses and suits being worn by two dozen extras. It’s a dreary, drizzly day in mid-January, made grayer by plumes of smoke from a noisy fog machine, and these actors have spent hours wandering in and out of this gummy scene for the first wide shot from director Chris Sargent during the three-day production of Budweiser’s 60-second spot for the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
“The first thing everybody said to me is that, typically, period pieces are fucking terrible,” says Sargent. “They stand out in advertising. The suspension of disbelief is gone because you’re watching TV—and as soon as you see it, you know it’s a commercial.”
But his ad, he insists, will be different.
We have been invited to document the making of the latest in a string of attention-grabbing spots by long-running Super Bowl advertiser Budweiser, and are sitting in the back room of the Living Cornerstone Church, which is being used as a makeshift wardrobe closet, just outside New Orleans. A wooded area down the road stands in for St. Louis, Bud’s hometown.
Sargent has been tasked with telling the story of the Anheuser-Busch InBev brand’s co-founder, Adolphus Busch, and his 1857 journey from Hamburg, Germany, to the city that would make him famous. Mood boards plastered with stills from The Revenant and Peaky Blinders help Sargent create a gritty, compelling short film that will be seen by more than 188 million people, per National Retail Federation projections. It’s the American Dream writ large—an immigrant landing in the United States with the vision and determination to create the world’s largest brewer.
The ad, dubbed “Born the Hard Way,” isn’t just an opportunity for Budweiser to tout its heritage; it will also introduce the brand’s new marketing messaging for the year and likely longer. Bud needs to position itself in a way that will resonate with consumers in the U.S.—especially craft beer-loving millennials—as it aims to grow market share and return to its former “King of Beers” glory. In the third quarter of last year, the most recent period for which financial results are available, Budweiser’s sales to retailers in the U.S. declined by mid-single digits, while estimated market share was down 20 points.
UPDATE: Here’s the final ad:
Does a single Super Bowl spot have the power to turn around a brand’s fortunes? “There’s a reason why craft beer has been kicking their ass for the last 10 years,” says Matt Simpson, a beer industry consultant who attributes Budweiser’s sales falloff to the quality of the product versus that of craft brewers—a number of which, as it happens, have been acquired by parent AB InBev over the past few years. “Marketing that tugs at the heartstrings will be more effective for Budweiser,” says Simpson.
Bud says this is bigger than just the Super Bowl.
“Setting us up for the next few years, that’s really more important than winning any popularity metric” for a spot in the game, Ricardo Marques, vp and the ranking executive for the Budweiser brand in the U.S., says over breakfast before our visit to the set. Marques, as he usually does, is wearing Bud-branded duds—today, it’s an olive green baseball cap with an embroidered Budweiser logo. He took the reins of the brand last year, just after the Super Bowl. “Of course, the thing that really fires me up and fires up everyone that works on our brand is to drive the commercial performance,” he says between bites of his omelet. “Ultimately, this is what it is all about—driving our commercial performance, setting us up for the long term and making sure that we have an impact in the short term in terms of sales, brand health and buzz around the brand.”
He adds: “You’ve seen performance of the brand for the past couple of years. We’ve been gaining momentum. We got it right with [the 2015 Super Bowl spot] ‘Brewed the Hard Way,’ and we want to continue that sort of momentum to make sure that we get the brand back to a healthy-growth pace. We believe that that’s possible.” (Marques declined to share sales targets.)
Naturally, growing market share and setting the foundation for a marketing strategy for years to come don’t come cheap. According to those familiar with campaigns of this scope, Bud’s ad likely cost $2 million to $3 million to produce. Beyond that, Fox, which will broadcast the game, is charging a record $5 million-plus for a 30-second spot—making it conceivable the brand will invest as much as $15 million in its minute-long ad. And that doesn’t take into account the exclusive rights for alcohol advertising AB InBev has secured.
Marques would not talk about the cost of participating in the game, only to say: “I can tell you that it is a special campaign on all levels, including investment. Financially, if you think about it very rationally, it’s one of the few platforms that allows you to talk to such a large, captive audience in a live broadcast, so it makes sense.”
Bud’s Super Bowl spots have proved to have legs beyond the game. Its sentimental “Puppy Love” ad from 2014 remains one of the most-watched Super Bowl ads ever on YouTube.
Behind the Scenes
After nearly eight months of planning by Budweiser’s internal marketing team and its creative agency, Anomaly in New York, this is the final day of shooting for this year’s Super Bowl ad. Hundreds of hours were spent mulling how to relate the stories of ambitious people who drink Budweiser before the teams landed on the idea, in October, to tell the brand’s origin story. Thirteen scripts were considered, with No. 12 being greenlit just before Thanksgiving. After nearly two months of preparation, we’ve arrived at the last of three 14-hour-plus days of filming, produced by Anonymous Content.
The set is located on an inconspicuous patch of land off the side of the highway, behind a concrete levee alongside the Mississippi River—which accounts for the aforementioned mud. Several box trucks are lined up, filled with assorted pieces of equipment for the day’s production. Directors chairs and monitors sit under a black tent where Anomaly creatives visiting the set can watch what Sargent’s director of photography will shoot on an Arri Alexa in real time, occasionally shouting out things like “Isn’t that fucking gorgeous?” and “We could be shooting an 1800s Blair Witch Project right now.”
The mood could be described as gleeful exhaustion. Maybe that’s because the team has almost reached the end of a process filled with false starts, with most of their epic now in the can. Or maybe it’s because the night before, they managed to capture a shot of the ad’s hero jumping off the third story of what looks like a burning steamboat (it’s not actually on fire; chalk it up to Hollywood magic).
There are over 100 people here, filling a variety of roles. The crew spends most of its days watching Sam Schweikert—the boyishly handsome, 26-year-old actor who plays Adolphus Busch—repeatedly trudge through crowds of extras, ultimately being greeted by an older gentleman who encouragingly says: “Welcome to St. Louis, son.” The Budweiser Clydesdals are on set, too, making their obligatory cameo. A family watching the action from nearby waits patiently for the chance to meet these equine icons of advertising, and after about four hours, they get to do just that.
“The Super Bowl is a blessing and a curse,” says Scott Hayes, global creative director for Budweiser at Anomaly. “You have the most captive audience ever, but then that puts an immense amount of pressure on it. Every year, no matter what idea it is, there’s always a moment of, ‘Oh, crap—how are we going to pull this off?'”
This year, there’s the added pressure of telling a story set in 1857 but for a 2017 audience—and in doing so, avoiding cinematic clichés and creating more intimate moments on screen. “That’s why I’m not really doing wide [shots],” says Sargent. “Today was the first wide, and that’s because [Adolphus] arrives in St. Louis. Everything else has been tight. The production designer doesn’t like it because he spends all this time and energy and I don’t ever shoot it.”
Sargent says he wanted to avoid sending the message “Look at what money we spent!” or “Look what we did!” with “these big, sweeping shots. It’s just about the guy, so hopefully that comes through. It’s also a technique to make it feel more immersive and experiential and more like classic storytelling.”
Even so, the team has taken the time to make sure that every aspect of the spot—which features an incredible 45 shots—is as historically accurate as it can be, working with Budweiser’s lead historian in St. Louis to ensure that props like Adolphus’ notebook and bow tie would be true to the time. “If you miss those little beats [of historical accuracy], you lose authenticity,” says Mike Byrne, global chief creative officer at Anomaly. “That’s where period pieces get destroyed, because people don’t give a shit enough, they don’t go the extra mile. It’s lazy.”
Byrne notes that historical accuracy also informed the flaming steamboat. During that time period, the Mississippi River was used almost like a highway. “The river was so crowded with steamboats, which couldn’t slam on the brakes, so they would often crash into each other,” explains Byrne. And the fire is visually stunning.
That dedication to detail also explains the black thread a doctor uses to stitch up a massive cut on Adolphus’ forehead, adds Ulla Gaudin, lead makeup artist. “This is actually completely different than normal 1800s makeup, because all of these people are going to be on the boat and there’s explosions and stuff, so it’s been a lot of making them dirty, creating wounds,” she explains.