FCB NEW YORK, New York / ABINBEV / 2021
“Play games without the fans? Nah, it’s impossible. I ain’t playing.”
— LeBron James, March 6, 2020
COVID-19 sent the sports season — and beer sales — into a tailspin. As quarantine set in, on-premise sales evaporated, fans feared a “lost season” and athletes threatened not to play. While other sports sponsors divested, canceling experiential activations, pulling ads and subduing communications, Michelob ULTRA set out to save its first year as the official beer sponsor of the NBA.
Once favored for its health benefits, light beer sales are declining 3%–4% per year and have been since 2013. Michelob ULTRA particularly struggles with social badge value among young urban consumers, who are quickly adopting trendy hard seltzers. Sales growth is heavily influenced by mental availability (reach, consideration and share of voice), which is driven by brand exposure and cultural relevance.
This made Michelob ULTRA’s mission clear: Matter in culture.
While other leagues scrambled to install cardboard fan cutouts, Michelob ULTRA partnered with Microsoft and the NBA... and Michelob ULTRA Courtside was born.
Powered by the debut of Microsoft’s AI-driven Together Mode and 17-foot LED ring, the experience digitally transported fans into the NBA Bubble, from the comfort and safety of home. The experience boasted millisecond data transfers, a never-before-seen rail cam and 120 spatial contact microphones, which redefined the live watching experience.
Suddenly, empty stands that plagued stadiums became an invaluable brand opportunity. Real-time player, fan and broadcaster interaction made Michelob ULTRA a pivotal part of the season. Nightly, the brand’s stands featured first responders, adoptable dogs or unsuspecting fans, rubbing digital elbows with the likes of Lil Wayne, Shaq and even President Obama. And across 124 games and 81.5 million hours of NBA coverage, Michelob ULTRA proved its motto, “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It.”
Michelob ULTRA had a problem with young, health-minded urban drinkers. Put simply, while the beer’s better-for-you product benefits appealed to this active consumer, the brand didn’t. Gaining consideration and relevance was critical, as the brand significantly under-indexed the light beer category with men 21–49 (-49% average) and women 28–34 (-17% average).
To meet these objectives, Michelob ULTRA became the NBA’s beer sponsor, which nearly two-thirds of Americans ages 18–44 are avid or casual fans of. But this campaign needed to go beyond linear viewing, because this demographic gets coverage through news apps and social media.
When the press was abuzz with news about COVID-19’s impact on the sports season, there was a clear PR — and cultural — opportunity to innovate pandemic-era play and land in the center of culture, while delivering Michelob ULTRA’s key message: “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It.”
Michelob ULTRA virtually transported fans right back where they wanted to be… and where players needed them to be: Courtside.
To get Courtside, fans scanned their Michelob ULTRA bottles to win virtual tickets to 124 games live-broadcasted from the Orlando-based NBA Bubble (7/30/20–10/11/20). Calls-to-action across PR, in-store and digital trade, social, influencers, broadcast integrations, TVC and more led to the most visited URL in the brand’s history, with 535,000 unique fans visiting.
The magic of the campaign went far beyond the lucky fans sitting Courtside. Intensified focus on sites like Drizly put Michelob ULTRAs in fans’ hands at home in under 60 minutes and boosted eCommerce ad engagement rates by 700%. Courtside dominated headlines, from ESPN SportsCenter to Bleacher Report and from People to Fast Company, becoming the #1 sports industry topic, as influencers and celebrities made appearances all season.
Michelob ULTRA Courtside changed the fate of the brand’s business as it navigated a year rife with disruption due to COVID-19.
The campaign became the cultural phenomenon the brand needed, surpassing all expectations with 13 billion impressions and 81.5 million hours of NBA coverage. That level of exposure and relevance drove a substantial lift in all major mental availability metrics, including consideration (+4.3%), reach (+31%) and share of voice (+6%).
The result? Michelob ULTRA sales grew 32%, due to soaring cultural relevance, on-bottle, scan-to-win ticket promotions and unprecedented brand exposure. In a year when distribution (physical availability) remained flat, the brand was the industry’s biggest share-gainer. Michelob ULTRA gained +69 points of market share, towering over declines of Miller Lite (-13 points) and Coors Light (-32 points).
Today, Microsoft is applying insights from Courtside to workplaces, classrooms and entertainment venues to make them more fun, engaging and memorable.