For 36 years, spanning nine World Cups, Budweiser has been the official beer sponsor of the biggest footballing event in the world. So, for the 2022 edition, the American brand remade a hotel in Doha into what it called a “home away from home experience”. And then, two days before the opening match, Qatar’s government threw Budweiser’s carefully-crafted (and eye-wateringly expensive) plans into disarray by forbidding the sale of alcohol in or around the stadiums during the event. The dismaying nature of the situation — the abrupt contravention of a plan years in the making, the 11th-hour dismantling of elaborate setups, the financial consequences for a longtime sponsor, the public nature of it all — was aptly articulated at the time by Budweiser in four succinct words. “Well, this is awkward,” the company wrote in a tweet — which it then promptly deleted, both illustrating and compounding its point.
But, much like the ghostly tweet, preserved forever in screenshots marked with “lol”s, Budweiser remained a presence throughout the World Cup.
While stadiums had been scrubbed of regular beer, they were awash in stacks of alcohol-free Budweiser Zero. Ads for the drink played on a loop on stadium screens, and refrigerators full of it sat within arm’s reach at concession stands, right next to soft drinks. Signs also noted that “Budweiser is proud to serve its products in compliance with the local rules and regulations”.
Ricardo Fort, a marketing expert and former head of global sponsorships at Visa and Coca-Cola, called what happened “weird and embarrassing” — for Qatar, not Budweiser. “It’s unprecedented. I’ve been involved with the FIFA World Cup for several editions, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Fort said.
Among other factors, Fort said, the ruling came after Budweiser had gone through the logistical hassle and considerable expense of transporting its beer to Qatar, storing it and assembling the sales infrastructure required to sell it. “There is a lot of work that needs to happen to be able to sell beverages,” he said. “This country doesn’t manufacture beer locally. They would have had to bring trucks from different countries, then bring in a disproportionate amount of refrigerators to store all the beer.”
In all of this, he estimated, Budweiser must have spent some $5 million on operations in Qatar over the past couple of years. “This is money that they lost,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to get that back.”
“I’m just glad it wasn’t us,” said a representative for another FIFA sponsor, on condition of anonymity. “Qatari regulations are very strict and top-down, and it’s hard when you feel that the regulations can change so abruptly.”
Actual beer sales at the tournament were just a tiny portion of what Budweiser expected to get out of its sponsorship deal, which also included lavish advertising, entertainment and fan festivals, and promotions at pubs, restaurants and retail outlets. And Qatar is not entirely dry: Fans could drink at set times in government-approved “fan zones” away from the game, in hotel bars and select visitors were also granted permits to buy it at a single, isolated retail location.
Salvaging the situation
The day after the government’s ruling, Budweiser hit upon a new plan, tweeting a photograph of a bunch of cases of beer in a warehouse. “Winning Country gets the Buds. Who will get them?”
Later, the brewer announced that the winning nation would also receive “a celebration on us” and unveiled a new slogan seen inside the stadiums: “Bring Home the Bud.”
For inside the stadiums, meanwhile, was a statement extolling the virtues of drinking non-alcoholic beer. “Budweiser Zero is a key part of our planned activations during the FIFA World Cup in the host country and around the world,” the statement said.
But did the fans’ attitude change toward the usefulness of non-alcoholic beer? “Why?” asked
one fan at Lusail Stadium, when asked if he had tried one yet.
“I find water more refreshing,” said another. “And it gives me the same alcohol content.”
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