‘International premium brands clearly growing faster than the market’: Kartikeya Sharma, AB InBev

Budweiser gets most of marketing budget; imported Stella Artois, Corona, Hoegaarden are AB InBev’s ‘bet for the future’

Jul 21, 2016 03:25:00 AM | Article | Gokul Krishnamoorthy Share - Share to Facebook

Kartikeya Sharma, marketing director for India and SE Asia, AB InBev

When he saw four women sitting at a table at British Brewing Company in Mumbai’s Palladium a month ago, Kartikeya Sharma couldn’t resists walking up to them for a chat. After all, before them were four pints of Budweiser Magnum. He found that two of them were regular patrons of the brand, while two of them were trying it for the first time on the recommendation of their friends. It is the lighter feel and unique flavour drawing people to the beer, he claims.
Across Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, if there are women in a bar drinking beer, it’s probably Budweiser or Hoegaarden, adds Sharma. He points to brands Corona and the wheat beer which lack ‘category hues’: “Women are entering the category like never before. The trend of more women consuming beer may be inconvenient to some of our competitors, but it works in our favour.”  
Rising female consumers in the category, an aspirational set of consumers beyond the top metros, increased exposure to global brands, and the inclination to pay a premium for a great experience – these are among factors that are fueling Belgian-Brazilian brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev’s confidence in the Indian market. Sharma, marketing director for India and SE Asia at the Belgium-headquartered company, has just overseen the launch of the global ‘Brewed the Hard Way’ platform in India. He underlines that this is just the beginning, in conversation with Campaign India
The portfolio
Against company revenue growth of 6.3 per cent in calendar year 2015, CampaignUK reported that three global brands’ revenues grew 12.6 pc cumulatively – Budweiser grew 7.6 pc, Stella Artois 12.5 pc and Corona 23 pc. The company’s stated intent was to focus on raising perception and relevance of ‘core’ brands, which deliver a majority of volume and revenue.
In India, the three high-growth global brands are in play, with Budweiser being brewed locally. Belgian wheat beer brand Hoegaarden, which is among ‘international brands’ in the AB InBev portfolio, too, is present in India. Alongside Budweiser is the ‘variant’ Budweiser Magnum. With higher alcohol content (6.5 per cent), it launched in 2012 as the most expensive strong beer (over 5 pc alcohol) at Rs 150 for a full bottle (650 ml).
Sharma is quick to clarify on the positioning of Magnum. While ceding that it is fuller bodied, and contains higher ABV (alcohol by volume) compared to the mother brand, he notes that the company would rather keep the focus on ‘flavour and taste’ than declare it as a ‘strong beer’ – which ‘plays to very wrong perceptions’. While India is a strong beer majority market (80 per cent of all beer sold, according to some estimates), AB InBev is not in the game to sell beer on the percentage of alcohol content, he emphasises. For the brewer, flagship Budweiser, which launched eight years ago, still sells the most in India.
At the lighter, finer expensive end of the market, are newer brands like homegrown Bira91 (billed as India’s first craft beer), and market leader United Breweries’ Kingfisher Ultra, among others. It’s not a walk in the park, as far as the competitive and regulatory environments are concerned.
When asked about Budweiser’s share of the 303 mn cases estimate of all beer sold in FY 2015’16, Sharma reminds us that it is impossible to arrive at an accurate sales number in India, given that several States do not have the data to deduce this. “Even the size of the industry cannot be accurately gauged,” he adds.
‘A bet on the future’

He suggests that based on trade publications and research data, one could estimate the total beer sales growth to be in the region of 8 to 9 per cent annually, by volume. From AB InBev sales and that of competition, he surmises that international premium beers like Budweiser and Carlsberg are growing “clearly faster than that.”
While Budweiser gets the lion’s share of the marketing spend, the imported brands Stella Artois, Corona and Hoegaarden, are being groomed rather carefully. From glassware to pouring rituals, these require nurturing, underlines Sharma. According to him, these represent the brewer’s “bet for the future.”
These brands, which were available ‘sporadically’ until last year largely in the West and North, are now in regular supply, also to key East and South markets. The conscious effort is to “get every single consumer engagement right.”
‘An aspirational India’
Budweiser is available pan-India with the exception of the dry States Gujarat and Bihar, and Rajasthan. It will be present in Rajasthan ‘soon enough’, reveals Sharma. While the major contribution to sales comes from the top metros, as it does for the category, this could be changing, outlines the spokesperson.
“The lines are blurring, and blurring very quickly, between the metros and everyone else,” explains the marketer. He lists some ‘obvious ones’ to watch out for as Chandigarh, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana in Punjab; Manipal and Mangalore in Karnataka; and Vijayawada and Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
Across metros and non-metros, he cites some trends (sic): “People don’t want to endorse something that has been around for too long. They are out there – and it’s not just on weekends. And they want to hold brands that are an extension of their personality. They know which brands are launching in other markets, and they want them here. A Budweiser Super Bowl ad from the US starts trending here in India. Consumers are seeing brands that are consistently good, and those that are sporadic.”
‘Brewed the Hard Way’   
Aligned with the category, the Budweiser brand has a play in music in a big way. It also launched its global platform ‘Brewed the Hard Way’ in India with a three-film campaign recently.
Each of the films celebrate values behind the success of three inspiring individuals: Masaba Gupta (authenticity), footballer Robin Singh (ambition) and EDM artiste Dualist Inquiry (aka Sahej Bakshi, freedom).
The brand being over 130 years old in the US has a very high level of familiarity and is synonymous with the category, explains Sharma. So when the platform was to be brought to India, the idea was to establish the values that define the brand. The protagonists were handpicked to physically manifest the values of authenticity, ambition and freedom, with a common thread of narration.
“This narrative we thought was the perfect starting point. As we go by, it sets us up to take it to the next level,” adds the marketing director.
Music to continue, ‘serious’ sport action soon
‘Music CDs’ that the ‘Brewed the Hard Way’ films advertise are nowhere close to being a revenue driver, Sharma cedes, while underlining that the brand’s association with music is here to stay. With CDs becoming obsolete, the brand might just create a platform for people to create music on, or something else, using whatever technology allows one to do, says the brand custodian. Within music, he sees the further rise of EDM.
Another area of engagement that Budweiser is known for globally is sport. It will activate its association with the upcoming FIFA World Cups in Russia (2018) and Doha (2022), and reveal some “serious” sports initiatives in 2017 in India, says Sharma.
Underlining the importance of sport, he adds, “Sport is the biggest beer-drinking occasion on the planet.” ‘Unfortunately’, in India, the most popular form it takes is T20 cricket, which is ‘quite long’, he observes.  
There is no greater reach platform than cricket for marketers, concedes the marketer, adding that the brand had to make a choice. The strategic choice to not engage with cricket was made keeping where the brand stood numerically, and after evaluating the fit to the brand. Millenial and office water cooler conversations were around soccer, not IPL, he reasons. 
The marketer adds that if the brand associated with a sport, then it would be a long-term commitment, citing the cases of baseball in the US and the FIFA World Cup. 
He surmises, “When we think we can add value to the sport (and vice-versa), we get into it.”
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