Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial, “Born the Hard Way," celebrates Anheuser-Busch co-founder, Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant, and his arduous journey to St. Louis in 1857 at the age of 18. The timing of the ad, in the midst of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration, has made it controversial, though Anheuser-Busch InBev insists it was in the works long before Trump’s executive order.
What makes the ad notable, though, is not its political implications but rather its explicit embrace of history as a marketing tool. By setting out its founding story as part of an ad campaign that celebrates people “who live life on their own terms and never back down,” Anheuser-Busch InBev reveals the power of history and how smart organizations can tap into it.
First, the Budweiser ad derives much of its emotional power not from its cinematic qualities but from its focus on an individual’s role in a larger founding myth, which begins more than 20 years before the company’s official founding. Every organization is imbued with the spirit of its founder or founding generation, and it is only through an understanding of the beliefs they held and the risks they took that we begin to appreciate what makes the company or brand special. Telling a story through the lens of personal experience also makes that story more authentic, letting us identify with an otherwise impersonal brand or organization.
Second, by highlighting enduring values, the commercial transcends the particular in favor of the universal. We like to think we live in a time of unprecedented change and challenge. Historical narratives like the Budweiser ad remind us that our forebears had to overcome wrenching fears of their own: for immigrants, that the odds were just too great, and that they would never find acceptance; for native-born Americans, that immigrants would take their jobs and, with their strange language and customs, perhaps even redefine the national identity. They also remind us of what we have in common. Hardship, adversity, prejudice, the fear of failure, the kindness of strangers, and even a little luck—these are all elements of the immigrant experience, past and present, but they will be familiar to any American who has ever had a dream. They speak, in turn, to values that unite and inspire.
Finally, the ad shows how history can become a catalyst for the discussion of difficult subjects. “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” the ad’s opening line, sets the tone for the story that follows. But that story is not an overt political statement. Instead, by taking the co-founder of one of the most American of all brands (Budweiser) and reminding us of his immigrant roots, the ad manages to reframe a contentious issue and enable us to see it from a fresh perspective. That it has stirred controversy only underscores this power. All good history provokes debates, but it does so on the basis of a verifiable past that attempts to free us from our ideological straitjackets.
Is the Budweiser ad historically accurate?
Founding myths are just that—myths. To be effective, they must have a kernel of truth at their core, and this one does. Yet even a cursory look into Adolphus Busch’s life reveals a far more interesting story that in many ways only reinforces the message Budweiser wants to convey.
Like many entrepreneurs, Busch was not born poor but with money and connections. His family’s wealth had made possible a good education, first at a Gymnasium in Mainz and then at a prestigious institute in Belgium, where he learned French as well as English. Nor, as the ad also suggests, did Busch set out for America with the idea of brewing beer but rather, like most immigrants, simply to find his fortune. His family’s business, dealing in wines and brewing supplies in the Rhineland, had given him the knowledge of the river trade that got him his first job in a wholesale commission house along the Mississippi, and there he learned for himself the art of judging brewing ingredients like hops, barley and malt.
When his father passed away in 1859, he used his meager inheritance—he was the youngest of twenty-one children—to buy a stake in a brewing supply business, whereby he happened to meet Eberhard Anheuser, one of his customers, which the ad captured in its final scene. He would go on to marry one of Anheuser’s daughters and, in 1865, to become a partner in Anheuser’s brewery, which added the Busch name in 1879.
Busch used his advantages to revolutionize the brewing business. In an era of craft beers, with some 40 or 50 local breweries in St. Louis alone, he spotted an opportunity to create a brew with universal appeal, one that could be manufactured, marketed, and sold across the country. With shrewd intelligence and the instincts of a master marketer, he exploited innovations in pasteurization, refrigeration, and the emerging national rail network that enabled him to ship beer from St. Louis to distant markets.
A 60-second ad can never tell the whole story, but it does reveal the power of history for marketers: to engage jaded audiences in something authentic; to appeal to them around a shared experience, one that transcends time and place; to help us break free of unhelpful mindsets; and perhaps to whet our appetites for more and deeper engagement. Seen in this light, Budweiser’s Super Bowl LI commercial does more than advertise beer. It gives us a glimpse at a potent marketing strategy that other brands would do well to emulate.
John Seaman is the founder and CEO of Saybrook Partners. He is currently at work on a history of a leading private bank.