The first problem Michelle St. Jacques had to tackle when she stepped up as chief marketing officer of Molson Coors in February last year was a doozy: A spate of Super Bowl attack ads from chief rival AB InBev's Bud Light had just aired, needling Molson Coors' core brands for using corn syrup in their brewing process.
A widely publicized battle ensued between the biggest names in beer, spurring a federal lawsuit that stretched on for more than a year. The situation immediately threw St. Jacques, who had just secured a dream job and become the company's first female CMO, for a loop. But during a virtual talk at the Association of National Advertisers' Masters of Marketing conference Thursday, she said the experience ultimately proved more instructive than disheartening.
"It inspired a new marketing vision and a mindset that we dubbed, 'fast, messy, awesome,'" St. Jacques said of her early battle with InBev, which led her to enact an aggressive response that included parodies of the Super Bowl spots and tech-enabled bar taps that dispensed free beer every time a Bud Light ad went negative.
"It got people talking about our brands again, putting [them] back in culture. We drove five times more PR impressions in 2019 than 2018," St. Jacques said.
St. Jacques explained that the adversity she experienced at the outset of her job led her to develop a five-point marketing playbook that would let her organization better navigate tumult. It was a prescient idea that's paid out in 2020, as Molson Coors has grappled with a pandemic that's shuttered bars and restaurants and upturned marketing plans, including a large Coors Light campaign that was set to run around March Madness.
Even as it continues to weather headwinds related to COVID-19 and competition in emerging categories like hard seltzer, Molson Coors has made some gains where it counts: Off-premise sales by volume of Coors Light were up 8.2% in 2020's first half, while Miller Lite was up 9.4%, according to slides St. Jacques shared. The gains can be partly attributed to an aggressive approach to marketing amid the chaos.
"Marketers think that when times get rough or the unexpected hits, that's when you batten down the hatches and go back to tried-and-true product attribute marketing," St. Jacques said. "We thought the exact opposite to be the case."
A five-point playbook
The marketing playbook St. Jacques and her team developed after the InBev spat, which she called an "in-depth survival guide to chaos," largely centers on staying active rather than sitting still in the face of new challenges. Among the five tenets that make up the guide — commit to action, do something, find trusted partners to work with, keep moving and double down on creativity — the last is the most important, the executive said.
At least this year, Molson Coors has held true to the doubling-down credo, running a marketing blitz since the pandemic shut down large parts of the U.S. in the spring.
"All in all, we've launched 30 new campaigns since March, and the vast majority of these didn't even exist back before the pandemic started," St. Jacques said. "The good news is, it's resulted in stronger brands."
But the necessity to "do something," and quickly, has also been heightened at a time when plans can be upturned on a dime. After scrapping the March Madness push, Molson Coors pivoted focus to a virtual tip jar campaign from Miller Lite that supported bartenders who were out of work. The effort went from the conceptual stage to a shoot within 48 hours, per St. Jacques, with an ad filmed by a lone cameraman in an empty Chicago bar. The video went live on social the day before a lockdown order was imposed in the city.
Out of 55 ads across alcoholic beverage categories that ran in Q2, Miller Lite's was the most effective, according to an Ace Metrix analysis cited by St. Jacques.
As the pandemic wore on, consumers grew weary of being homebound, and Molson Coors' campaigns shifted to try and provide reprieve. Demand for fun and escapism was on the agenda, and aligned with a broader "Made to Chill" refresh Coors Light has undergone under St. Jacques' purview.
Coors Light developed several tongue-in-cheek efforts that played off the dreaded "new normal," including a beer giveaway to help people through "sucky times" and a vacation contest that sent winners to the scenic locations they grew sick of seeing as virtual Zoom backgrounds.
"In Q2, Coors Light had a strong improvement in consideration and household penetration for people 21 to 34 years old," St. Jacques said. "We hit our highest [market] share ever of premium lights."
Miller Lite's marketing has towed the same line, as the brewer introduced a "cantenna" that doubles as a way to stream live sports and a warning against piracy, as well as '70s-themed timeshare rental that harkened back to the decade when the label was founded.
Molson Coors has also forged ahead on new product launches, earlier this month introducing Coors Seltzer to the highly saturated hard seltzer category. The debut campaign for the beverage preserves its sister brands' "chill" positioning, while layering in an element of environmental activism and encouraging consumers to chip in.
"Coors Seltzer has a clear point of difference with our competitors — we're the first hard seltzer with a mission," St. Jacques said.
With other new offerings on the horizon, including a partnership with Coca-Cola to bring Topo Chico Hard Seltzer to the U.S., St. Jacques said she is sticking with her team's playbook. It's not a cure-all, particularly for a beer category that was in dire straits well before the pandemic and has been further rattled by the blow to on-premise consumption. But learning to live with disruption and react on a shorter time table than in the past is an important lesson for all of today's brand stewards, according to St. Jacques.
"As marketers, we really want to make sure that everything sometimes is tied with a bow," St. Jacques said. "But I think getting comfortable with the messiness is really important — being comfortable that you may have a plan one day, and then you have to shift completely the next."