Raising the Bar at Anheuser-Busch

Jodi Harris is changing the marketing culture within the beer industry and making gender equality a priority at AB

By Todd Wilkinson

Jodi Harris courtesy of Anheuser-Busch

To casual observers, it might seem counterintuitive suggesting that a 21st century national movement aspiring to achieve gender equality and diversity in the American workplace would find a champion in a person who helps market beer for a living. But in these transformative times, Jodi Harris is determined to become a disruptive catalyst for social change within a high-profile company in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

As the VP of marketing culture and learning at Anheuser-Busch, Harris has two ambitious goals, neither of them modest: the first is working to bring a renewed culture to marketing in general; the second, and one no less daunting, is helping the world's largest brewer earn distinction as the most nurturing environment for women marketers in the beer and alcoholic beverage industry. By making rapid progress with the latter, AB has already become a catalyst for achieving the former.

"I know my job title is a bit mysterious, and the response has been awesome because it's doing exactly what it was intended to do — turn people's heads and engage them so that they think differently," Harris says. "It's an invitation to let the world know that we at AB are doing something special."

Harris oversees a team that is changing the face of her company's own marketing culture. It comes with the blessing of AB's CMO for the U.S., Marcel Marcondes, who wants the progress being made inside the company to strongly resonate with customers, too.

"A lot of the rules that were written for marketing, advertising, and beer were written long ago by people who are not as relevant in our culture today, so we need to break them by bringing innovation, agility, and inclusivity to our routine," Harris says.

Harris has two primary missions, both distinct yet interrelated, that converge with her serving as a conduit and organizational point person. In one novel role, AB has created space for its culture and learning team, which Harris leads, to build a new culture of marketing. "Society is evolving and marketing as an industry has to catch up to speed and help shape that," she says.

In parallel, she is leveraging her seniority to have a louder voice and pave the way for women's empowerment and equality within the company through an industry-leading initiative called "Women In Beer." Launched by AB in-house, it is fostering a new spirit of cultural inclusion and respect for women.

The transformation that needed to happen within the culture of beer makers — and how it courts customers — is not only the right thing to do, Harris says, but figures prominently within AB's drive to stay relevant.

The "century of women" has arrived, Harris says, and it's long overdue.

Famously, beer industry marketers have helped shape modern mass culture in America. No one disputes that. They created some of the most impactful advertising campaigns in history. The problem is that most of those classic campaigns were created by male-dominated marketing teams devising messaging and engagement to resonate with male consumers. Looking back, rightly or wrongly, Harris says chauvinism and objectification of women are synonymous with the industry, and are the very attitudes that movements like Time's Up are fighting to overcome.

AB could point to examples in its own history. Consider one of its oldest marketing assets: the Bud Girls. Since 1883, the brewer has enlisted attractive women known as Bud Girls to be public brand ambassadors. In the decades after World War II, Bud Girls often were presented dressed in skimpy or suggestive attire. They appeared in TV ads, had a presence at sporting events, and were featured prolifically on posters for in-store brand promotion.

Beer marketing for years, Harris says, sought to increase bottom-line performance for brands based on a core male consumer, in which sports and hedonism once prevailed particularly in male-oriented industries. "But our culture and society has moved on, and we are too," she says.

 

Tapping Into New Opportunities

With traditional beer segments tiered to men falling flat in recent years and facing disruptive stiff competition from emerging craft beer makers and microbreweries, the industry finally awakened to the fact that one of its most lucrative untapped segments for growth — women — was right in front of its eyes, but ignored or written off.

For beer and alcohol consumption, women make up about 31 percent of the market and the number is rising. "Four out of 10 alcohol purchases made by women are for beer," Harris says. "There's a huge opportunity for us to grow our business and the category."

Harris isn't interested in paying lip service to inclusion the way it's been handled for years, based on promises of programmatic improvements seldom kept or tweaks in the language of marketing. The "century of women" has arrived, Harris says, and it's long overdue, socially seismic, and irreversible.

As a reference point, she and her marketing colleagues have been using the famous Renaissance painting "The School of Athens," by master Italian artist Raphael, as a muse. The fresco portrays philosophers, scientists, and other historic figures that saw enlightenment as the only pathway out of the Dark Ages.

Rafael's "The School of Athens" has become a point of inspiration for the marketing team at Anheuser-Busch and a reminder of their position at a turning point within the organization and the industry. Photo by Isogood_patrick/Shutterstock.com

"It was timed to an earlier awakening in society," Harris says. "It occurred when there was a profound shift in creativity and learning. We use that image quite often to emphasize that we, too, are in the midst of another significant turning point. We are embracing that mindset and concentrate on what we can do with disruptions — cultural, demographic, and digital — swirling around us."

"This isn't about 'Let's go target women' based on profit motives; it's about 'Let's sincerely as a company be relevant to the world,'" Harris explains. "What's relevant today is this opening of activism and empowerment that must be accompanied by nurturing and care. A lot of this relates to what we're seeing with the evolution of women in society."

Prior to her new role, Harris was head of consumer insights at AB USA. "In creating the marketing culture and learning function, I recognized a natural progression from the consumer insights and planning work I had been doing for nearly my entire career to leading brand-building programs and creative excellence," she says.

Building winning brands remains the core element of AB's business strategy, Harris says. "As leaders in the market, it's our job to lead growth in the industry, particularly when beer may not be in the best performance situation with the trends of disruption," she notes. "To thrive, our brands must be more relevant to capture attention and be more relevant to the culture of peoples' lives than ever before."

 

Transformation from the Inside Out

To earn the loyalty of the changing consumer landscape, Harris says companies and brands have to create breakthrough reasons and meaning for customers to see them and want to know more. At AB, the message starts within. "Creativity has got to come first," Harris notes. "We've got to adapt ourselves and actually become a disruptor of our own former mindset in order for us to grow."

Reflecting on the fact that the best innovation comes by being willing to take risks, Harris says AB realized that it needed to do much more with involving members of its culture and bringing the level of engagement up. "We've been step-changing in our level of creative ambition, our brand-building capabilities, and bringing new routines to the marketing function," she adds. "Altering behaviors at the microlevel is the cornerstone to changing culture."

AB is not only recognizing and celebrating the big marketing wins it's achieving with its campaigns, but calling attention to the important little things that people are doing every day in contributing to an atmosphere of inclusion. "It's probably been the most fulfilling part of my career because I am able to see it happen, share everything I've learned over the past 20 years, and realize that I'm learning too," Harris says.

As her company and the industry talk about disruption and what's happening, no one has the perfect answer, Harris says. "To achieve breakthroughs, you've got to try things and learn from others and be open to collaborating outside of your comfort zone," she adds.

Creativity today is flowing from a renewed sense of learning and collaboration. The company's entire marketing organization, all 150 people, stops what it is doing once a month, every month, and comes together to learn. At a gathering called Sparks Sessions, a guest expert — it could be a CMO or CEO from another company, agency head, or thought leader — is invited to share his/her experiences and provoke the marketers to challenge themselves and their work.

"We take those provocations to heart," Harris says. "In some cases we build new routines around them or make organizational challenges."

The collaborative spirit extends to its agency relationships, too, Harris says. AB's marketing organization created an internal council that tracks how teams are doing against their creative ambitions, discusses barriers getting in the way, and creates mini-projects as tools for overcoming them. They dovetail with "agency assemblies" where internal marketing and creative teams cascade information, and collaborate on new opportunities or solutions.

The Women in Beer initiative, which Harris leads, brings together a community of around 250 women and men throughout AB's organization in the U.S., and its turning heads industrywide. "Our purpose is to champion gender inclusivity so we can drive growth and change in the industry," Harris says.

The effort started with the intention to create a community where women could connect with other women in the company, and then progressed by partnering with their "people team" to change and communicate policies around family leave, anti-harassment, and mentorship.

"Externally, it's about raising the bar on our reputation, making sure we are communicating and portraying women in the right way," Harris says. "It's not about pinkifying things which, as a traditional response, would obviously be seen as superficial and stereotypical."

To fuel a more dynamic atmosphere in its marketing division so women's contributions are valued, AB launched an internal competition with its marketing teams called Creative X. Teams compete against each other for the best campaign in different types of categories, intended to accelerate forward progress and inclusivity.

 

Disruption Breeds Growth

As its own form of disruption, AB has consciously departed from many of its playbooks of old. Bud Girls aren't going away; their appearance is instead being repackaged to reflect the life experiences of real women, their uniqueness, roles in families, business acumen, wisdom, and, yes, beauty.

AB recently joined the ANA's #SeeHer movement, designed to eliminate bias against women from ads and media. "We're excited about the partnership," Harris says. "As the leader in beer, it is our responsibility to portray women and men accurately in all of our communications. While there's still lots to do, with #SeeHer, we look forward to accelerating our brands, company, and the beer industry to make a difference faster."

Along with the ANA, AB has a half-century-old relationship with the Ad Council. It's Budweiser brand is a major supporter of the council's "Love Has No Labels" campaign that promotes tolerance, acceptance, and non-discrimination.

Harris believes that empathy ties everything together. Working across several traditionally male-dominated industries hasn't always been easy for her, noting how she and other colleagues over the years have experienced their own Time's Up moments.

"Early in my career, I had my share of unsavory situations — very uncomfortable but they make you stronger," Harris confesses. "As a result of encountering that throughout my career, I've become a champion for making sure our voices are heard and supported. I've come to learn that 'feminist' isn't a negative word anymore, which is amazing."

"My mother taught me to never forget who you are and where you come from."
— Jodi Harris, VP of marketing culture and learning at Anheuser-Busch

Colleagues describe Harris as a leader strong in her identity who brings an underdog's sense of irreverence. Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., in a Catholic family, she was the first to graduate from college. She identifies with the humble nature of working hard to achieve a better life coupled with strong family values. As the mother of twin five-year-olds, she wants them to know a world where creativity and knowledge is a more potent currency than gender.

"My mother taught me to never forget who you are and where you come from," Harris says of her first role model. "It gave me confidence to use my voice and exert my femininity and have the courage to stomp on the double standards."

Harris also praises Anheuser-Busch's Marcondes. "He calls me his co-pilot," she says. "It's an important honor and bond of trust that is empowering. He believes in the power of building the best of your people to bring great business results."

Twenty years ago when she entered marketing as a profession, Harris says that company standing for a woman only came with age and longevity. Now, young women are more fearless and she's determined to make sure it's supported at AB.

"When women join the team," Harris says, "I tell them, 'You have the power and responsibility to change the way that we as women are portrayed in marketing and advertising. Don't let anyone tell you differently.'"

Yes, one of the fiercest advocates for women's equality and inclusion dwells within an institution that gave America the Bud Girls. Championing the advancement of women inside a global beer company and treating them with respect as potential customers "is the dignified thing to do," Harris says. "You will never go wrong if you aspire to do what's right."

 


 

BUD WISER

Jodi Harris' Best Practices

  1. Know your audience inside and out. People are more than data points. Leverage data and predictive techniques to spot trends, but remember to spend time getting to know your consumer. This goes for your stakeholder audience too.
  2. Create meaning. Connect your brand on human levels by having a clear purpose that will matter in people's lives beyond functional benefits.
  3. Start from within. Create a winning team that gets you to winning work, which gets you to winning brands. Guide and nurture the very best of your people to unleash their creativity and encourage them to take the risks.
  4. Remember, there's really no single magic formula for success. The world around us is evolving so quickly that even your plan will likely be disrupted. Be open to and embrace the possibilities that come your way.
  5. Pay it forward. At the end of the day each person who comes into your life offers you a gift. You have to ask yourself whether you are ready to receive it. If you are, and it helps you, then make sure you say thank you. But more than that, to honor the relationship, make sure you give back to another person who also needs the support you received.
    — T.W.

 


You must be logged in to submit a comment.