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On March 11, 2020, the NBA indefinitely suspended the season after a player tested positive for Covid-19.
It was a frightening moment that sent shock waves across the nation. Other leagues quickly followed the NBA, leading to a standstill across professional sports. Countries around the world were imposing strict and immediate lockdowns on all facets of life. Simple activities like grabbing a beer and watching a game suddenly felt out of reach.
As sports leagues looked for ways to restart their seasons, the only viable option seemed to be forbidding fans from attending.
It was during this time that Ricardo Marques, Michelob Ultra’s vp of marketing, and I got a WhatsApp message from FCB N.Y. co-CCO Gabriel Schmitt: “What if we could bring fans—not cardboard fans, but real fans—virtually into an arena?” As daring as that sounded, it took us 30 seconds and we were in.
We soon discovered that the NBA and Microsoft both had their own plans to restart the season. But it wasn’t until we all teamed up that everything came together and Michelob Ultra Courtside was born.
A whole new game
As excited as we were, we were not prepared for how enthusiastically the fans embraced our idea. The debut of Microsoft’s AI-driven Together Mode not only gave fans the opportunity to attend NBA games virtually, but it also democratized the coveted courtside seat, bringing an energy to the arena that made the experience better for the viewers at home and for the players. The scene was like something out of a movie: 17-foot video boards wrapped around the court, exclusive camera angles, 120 contact microphones embedded under the floor.
To get these tickets, fans had to scan a Michelob Ultra bottle. This wasn’t a stunt, and it went on throughout the season. At every halftime, we hosted a special Q&A for courtside fans with celebrities, NBA legends and more, driving a ton of social conversation and creating a series of truly memorable moments.
Through the season, we saw Michelob Ultra’s volume performance accelerate to over 32% versus the previous year, social conversation was at an all-time high and brand health indicators moved across the board. We brought Michelob Ultra to a new fan base in new parts of the country with new beer occasions and a cultural moment of unprecedented scale.
Michelob Ultra Courtside taught us lessons that will forever influence our way of marketing:
People, not targets
Michelob Ultra Courtside was inspired by a genuine focus on people. It all started with a deep desire to improve the viewing experience for fans and to bring that joy to the players. Being people-centric is the only way forward.
Actions, not ads
It can be tempting to make yet another inspiring spot, but at the start of the pandemic, we decided to stop just talking the talk and instead started walking the walk across our entire portfolio of brands by focusing on meaningful, solution-oriented actions.
We couldn’t be prouder of our partnership with the NBA because it demonstrated the power of working together to create something that goes beyond sponsor relationships. The power of true partnerships cannot be understated in the hyper-connected, volatile world we live in today.
Our partners at FCB N.Y., along with FCB worldwide creative partner Fred Levron, showed us once again that creativity and innovation are indeed the solutions for the challenges we face daily. I love that this was a proactive idea. They didn’t wait for a brief. They understand our brand, they live and breathe our business, and they are constantly looking at how we can impact culture.
Agility and ambiguity
What made this process so exhilarating was that we built the plane as we flew. More than ever, our teams need to be ready to adapt to the ever-changing reality. Today, we keep our finger on the pulse of culture by operating as a newsroom across our brands. But to truly create something unique, we need to trust the vision and be able to navigate through the ambiguity of building something entirely new.
We now have a great opportunity, not just in business, but in life. Let’s get better, not back to normal.