The Responsibility (Or Not?) Of Alcohol Brands To Invest In Public Health

The idea isn’t for alcohol businesses to sell less of their product. The idea is for them to sell it while also advocating for responsible consumption of that product.

Is that even possible? Is it something, moreover, that should be mandated or in some way regulated in the interest of public health?

Those were some of the questions under debate last week, during a webinar facilitated by Dr Myriam Sidibé, Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, and Michel Doukeris, CEO since July 2021 of AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company. Additional commentary was provided by specialists in corporate social responsibility.

The topic piqued my interest. What does it take to embed “smart drinking” into a company’s business model, and make it sustainable? Do beverage alcohol companies have a responsibility to invest in public health by promoting more responsible, smart drinking habits?

The timing of the webinar dovetailed with my previous post in this column, when I wrote about public health investment as one of the four main takeaways from the 2021 Global Wellness Summit, held in Boston at the beginning of December. I positioned those takeaways for the wine industry audience, which is why an aging population of wine consumers, enotourism, and circadian rhythm research for shift workers all merited attention and focus.

Today I’d like to drill further into the fourth takeaway, that is, investments in public health, in light of AB InBev’s participation in the webinar and their publicly stated Global Smart Drinking Goals. Of particular interest here is the second goal, that is, “to invest $1 billion USD across [their] markets in dedicated social marketing campaigns and related programs by the end of 2025,” specifically to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

A jumping-off point, I learned during last week’s webinar, is “social norms marketing,” a term I had never heard before but is executed in this case through AB InBev’s Smart Drinking Toolkit that guides their marketing teams.

Here were some excerpts from the webinar conversation that “caught my ear,” so to speak, presented in Q&A format.

Q: It doesn’t seem logical for AB InBev to invest in “social norms marketing” when it limits the way people drink. What’s in it for you?

Doukeris: There was a time in which companies could develop their businesses in isolation from what happens in society. That time has gone. We need to see ourselves as part of society, with all the benefits and all the problems. [We have a presence in] more than 200 countries. We can’t imagine the future without being part of the conversations and the solutions. We can’t deny that harmful consumption is a problem, or that beer is part of that set of alcoholic beverages.

Q: How can beer, and AB InBev, be part of the solution?

Doukeris: We can be part of that solution for several different reasons, including our reach and scale. We’re part of the day-to-day for consumers, and part of brand building is communicating what is the right thing to do. We don’t want to limit consumption. We want to limit harmful consumption. That is very different.

Q: How does the social norms marketing approach influence the message?

Doukeris: We work to analyze campaigns and bring visibility into a lot of things that we have long believed. It becomes more evident. There are ways that you can impact society through the ad dollars you spend. We react differently to different messages. People don’t like being told what to do [but sometimes they] appreciate smart ways of connecting, that make them feel good.

[An interesting example: The designated driver campaign executed in China, where consuming alcohol is a cultural reference point. The designated driver is drawn or chosen at the beginning of the night, and they often receive the best treatment because they’re the ones who will be getting everyone home later. Today people volunteer to be the designated driver. It’s a privilege.]

Q: Where do we go from here? What can be done at the policy, inter-agency, public sector and public health levels?

Doukeris: What I see in the future is really about moderation. When you think about social norms, what we want to fight against, it’s illicit alcohol, binge drinking, underage drinking, drinking and driving. A lot of progress has been made over the last 10 years, and we will continue to invest. Beer is well-suited to help in this future [because it] is flexible in terms of formulation [that is, low-alcohol or non-alcohol]. We want our consumers to be healthy, to drink with moderation, to drive the social norms. We’re happy with what’s happening, and we know that there’s much more to be done. The more public and private sector work together to reduce harmful consumption, the better the solutions will be.

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