Responsible drinking programmes can be effective, but they need to be carefully targeted and culturally aware, says Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Carol Clark speaking to Ethical Corporation

Ethical Corporation: Why must brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev focus on responsible drinking?

Carol Clark: As a leading global brewer, we understand we have a critical role to play in encouraging consumers to enjoy our products responsibly. The issue of alcohol abuse also poses significant business risks for us, and we have to tackle it. But it goes beyond business. Our 116,000 colleagues around the world drive on the same highways as our friends and neighbours and many of us are parents. It only makes sense that we take promoting responsible drinking seriously and want to play an active role in addressing issues such as drunk driving and underage drinking.

Throughout the year, we look for ways to remind consumers about responsible enjoyment. We also sponsor programmes that help parents talk with their children about alcohol to prevent underage drinking, for example, and we assist bars, restaurants and stores with educating their employees on how to serve and sell our beers responsibly.

EC: What are the benefits for the company of this approach?

CC: Our dream is to be what we call the “Best Beer Company in a Better World”, and as part of this, we encourage our employees to participate in responsible drinking activities.

In September, we hosted our third annual Global Be(er) Responsible Day, which is an opportunity for our employees, distributors and wholesalers in more than 20 markets worldwide to work with stakeholders, from retailers and consumers to law enforcement professionals, in their communities to spread the word about responsible drinking.

This benefits the company in helping ensure we’re seen as a responsible corporate citizen, but the ultimate benefit is making a difference in society by helping bring about reductions in alcohol abuse.

EC: What are the key criteria that a successful responsible drinking campaign must contain?

CC: First, it is critical to support campaigns that are tailored to specific markets, again keeping in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But, don’t forget that if you have a strong programme in one market, with some cultural tweaking, some efforts do very successfully translate across markets.

It’s also important to build a work culture that’s focused on integrating responsibility into every aspect of the business. For us, this means making sure everyone at our company, from the senior leadership team on down, is equally committed to promoting responsible drinking. We try to find ways that allow all our employees to take ownership of the issue, we have been proud to have tens of thousands of employees participate in our annual Global Be(er) Responsible Days.

Responsible drinking programmes also need to be interactive. We invite the public to participate by taking pledges to be a designated driver, for example.

EC: How do you ensure that there isn’t a conflict between promoting your product on the one hand, and trying to moderate its use on the other?

CC: No company benefits when its products are misused, something acknowledged by our 116,000 employees who are also living and working in communities around the world and raising our families. We have a vested interest in the responsible consumption of our beers.

We are also committed to responsible advertising, in the marketing messages we create, the media outlets we use, the thorough review process that guides the development of brand advertising and the careful attention we pay to selecting appropriate programming and placements for our advertising.

It’s also important to remember that around the world today, the vast majority of consumers drink in moderation. And to encourage this, we will continue to do our part by implementing a variety of consumer campaigns, educational programmes and community-based initiatives dedicated to promoting responsibility and discouraging the harmful use of alcohol.

EC: Which goals have proven the most challenging?

CC: Changing attitudes and behaviours takes time, and there is no “quick fix” to solving alcohol issues. Whether it is training bartenders and servers or helping parents talk with their children about alcohol, we’ve learned that these messages need to be continually reinforced.

We’ve also learned that for our programmes to be successful and have further reach we must always account for different cultural contexts. This is the approach we’ve taken with our Family Talk About Drinking programme. In the past 22 years, this programme has grown and changed several times, and it’s now available in seven different languages – including English, Russian and Chinese – to help parents start and continue the conversation with their children to help them make smart choices.

We work very closely with psychologists and experts in different countries to adapt the programme and present the information in the right cultural context so it can be most effective. We’re continually adapting and working with partners to make the programme better.

For example, in 2011 we partnered with Mumsnet, a leading online network for parents, to launch Family Talk UK on Facebook and to focus on building a community of parents and experts there who can have a conversation about their experiences and get support and tips. And this year that conversation has expanded with our “Dads and Lads” initiative that focuses on communication between fathers and sons.

EC: Have you or your colleagues ever come up against internal opposition over your proposals? How have you coped with these?

CC: Back in the 1980s when these efforts were first beginning, there was scepticism from some within the company who questioned the value of engaging and taking the lead on addressing the issues of harmful alcohol use – it’s worth remembering, of course, that “corporate social responsibility” wasn’t even heard of back then. 

Having said that, we have a responsibility, not only from a business perspective, but also from that personal perspective of having employees who care about these issues, too. 

When you have that kind of leadership at the top of the company, these messages become part of the culture and any scepticism quickly goes away. And the results speak for themselves. When you look at the engagement of the entire industry on these issues, and specifically some of the significant declines we’ve seen in drink driving, for example, you can see the difference that combined efforts have made. 

EC: What evidence do you have that your consumers and customers are engaged by your responsible drinking programmes?

CC: We track our progress very closely, and engagement is a key part of how we measure success. All our responsible drinking goals will be independently audited at the end of 2014.

Just as one example, we’ve seen tremendous uptake from asking the public to participate in responsible drinking pledges online. By calling on the public in China, for example, to be designated drivers, we collected 13 million responsible drinking pledges in just one year.

Our US team also recently launched to encourage Americans to take the pledge and demonstrate their commitment to responsibility. Since launching in July 2012, almost 9,000 people have pledged online to drink responsibly. Similarly, our Canadian team signed up nearly 5,000 consumers who made a pledge not to drink and drive.

We’ve also spread the word about the importance of using a designated driver or safe ride home to more than 270 million legal-age consumers in just the past year through an array of programmes. And we’ve had significant success in reaching consumers through identification checking programmes. In just the last year, we’ve provided ID-checking materials to more than 150,000 bars and other retailers around the world to help ensure our beers are sold and served only to people above the legal age.

EC: Do you think there are misconceptions about responsible drinking programmes?

CC: Yes. Two areas really stand out for me.

First, promoting responsible drinking is something companies can’t do alone. In order to truly make a difference, we need a team approach in partnership with consumers, parents, educators, retailers, law enforcement, community groups and others. We want – and need – to work together, and as a company, we’re committed to working with our partners to be part of the solution.

Second, as a global business, we’ve learned that cultural context matters as we tackle these issues. Research has shown – and World Health Organization member states have acknowledged in adopting the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol – that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to these issues. People and cultures differ around the world, and that includes behaviour and attitudes toward alcohol. Prevention efforts must account for these different cultural contexts in order to be successful.

Carol Clark is global vice-president, beer and better world, at Anheuser-Busch InBev.

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