How Budweiser Created an Epic Immigrant Story to Reclaim the Super Bowl Spotlight

A timely tale aimed at recrowning the King of Beers

Sam Schweikert stars as a young Adolphus Busch in Budweiser’s Super Bowl spot for 2017.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BLACK

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.

Does a single Super Bowl spot have the power to turn around a brand’s fortunes?

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BLACK

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.”

"Every year, no matter what idea it is, there's always a moment of, 'Oh, crap—how are we going to pull this off?'"
-Scott Hayes, global creative director for Budweiser at Anomaly

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BLACK

“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.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BLACK

Setting the Stage

In early January, before production on the spot began, Budweiser brought together all its agencies—Anomaly (creative), MediaCom (media) and VaynerMedia (digital)—for one final meeting at its new offices in New York, where its marketing team is based. There, Laura Rowan, group strategy director at Anomaly, does a final, dramatic reading of the script, and we are there to listen in.

“This is the story of the original self-made man, one of the founders of the American Dream, making it the hard way, and his path that all came after him followed,” Rowan says to introduce the story, which follows Adolphus’ difficult journey and ends with him meeting and having a beer with the company’s co-founder, Eberhard Anheuser. “We then see the words appear: ‘When nothing will stop your dream, this is the beer you’ll drink.’ We end with the Budweiser logo and [tagline], ‘This Bud’s for you.'”

This group, made up mostly of women, justifies each of its decisions behind the campaign. Why focus on Adolphus’ story? (It tested well.) Why create a 15-second teaser? (“Additional assets are required for a successful launch,” goes a PowerPoint slide appearing on the wall behind Monica Rustgi, senior brand director for Budweiser in the U.S.) Why release the commercial before the game? (When it comes to ads, as we all know, the Super Bowl now starts weeks before kickoff, with marketers releasing spots on YouTube earlier and earlier to maximize buzz and their investments.)

Sam Schweikert, who portrays Adolphus Busch, photographed on location for Adweek.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BLACK

“MediaCom actually innovated what’s now taken for granted as ‘the’ way to promote a brand invested in the Super Bowl: that is, it’s not about just game day anymore,” Andre Rivera, MediaCom managing partner and account leader for AB InBev, relates in an email. “We plan for a four-week period, not a one-day shot.”

Rivera adds: “It’s safe to say that more time is spent in creating a great consumer experience today. We don’t think about it as digital buying versus TV buying—that’s old thinking for us. We understand Budweiser’s target consumer and how they behave, and then we look at all the tools we can use to create the best, most integrated experience.”

As for VaynerMedia, on Super Bowl Sunday, when the Atlanta Falcons meet the New England Patriots in Houston, the agency will have a team of 12 at Twitter’s New York base, ready to respond to any and all tweets. “We know that when attention isn’t on the TV screen, it’s on the second screen, and more specifically on social sites like Facebook and Twitter,” says Joe Quattrone, svp at VaynerMedia. “So we need to make sure that content is being shot and produced with these digital formats in mind so we can adapt for a mobile-first world.”

According to Budweiser’s research, 82 percent of Super Bowl viewers use mobile and social throughout the game, while 80 percent of ad-related searches during the game are done via mobile. Says Quattrone, “It’s critical that we’re involved in the strategy planning at an early stage so that we can ensure the campaign has legs on social and digital platforms in order to have the most impact.”

A Historic Tale, Suddenly Topical

Preparing for real-time commentary is, of course, essential in these times, especially when it comes to potential landmines.

Even before President Donald Trump sparked nationwide protests and global criticism with an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, the Budweiser team knew that immigration would be a contentious topic for a Super Bowl ad.

“It’s true, Adolphus Busch made an incredible journey to this country, and that’s really what this is about. It’s about his vision, his dream, everything that he doest to achieve that,” says Budweiser vp Marques “Even though it happened in the 1850s, it’s a story that is super relevant today. That’s what we’re honing in on; it’s the pursuit, the effort, the passion, the drive, the hard work, the ambition, that’s really what this is about more than anything else.”

In other words, yes, it’s a relevant story for today’s political climate, but not one intended to convey a political message.

“There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country,” he says. “We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.”

The brand will have similar—if more tweetably brief—responses prepared in advance of the Big Game, when the marketing team expects to see its spot spark a lively conversation.

That’s a Wrap

Following the shoot in Louisiana, editors from Artjail and Saints Editorial will spend more than 100 hours in postproduction, weaving together shots and adding a tiny bit of CGI. Budweiser needed a rough cut by Jan. 17, ahead of finalizing the creative by Jan. 19 and sending it on to Fox by Jan. 27. “There’s a borderline ridiculous turnaround,” Hayes points out. “But you just do it.”

The ad serves as a salute to all who have come here to fulfill their dreams in the face of adversity.

While Budweiser already had an idea of what the ad would look like, having created and tested an animated version before the shoot, Marques “can’t wait to see the first cut. We’ve put in all of this effort throughout all of these months and we’re very close. We’ve started seeing some snippets coming out, and I just want to see it all together.”

Adweek was allowed to see a rough edit, complete with swelling violins, and what emerged is a captivating ode to the struggle of the immigrant. The beautiful short film serves as a salute to all who have come here to fulfill their dreams in the face of adversity—even if that struggle includes, like Adolphus Busch as portrayed in the version we saw of the ad, raw xenophobia in the form of insults like “Go back to where you came from!” and even being spat on. (Some of the imagery mentioned may not be in the final edit.)

It will undoubtedly go down as one of the most epic, moving and memorable ads in Budweiser’s long and storied history of Super Bowl spots.

This story first appeared in the January 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.