Beer giant AB InBev’s Environment, Social and Governance Agenda (ESG) report for the year 2021 reflects that AB InBev has taken advantage of the global coronavirus pandemic to rebuild its broken corporate social responsibility image.  

Doing well by appearing to do good

Beer giant AB InBev’s Environment, Social and Governance Agenda (ESG) report for the year 2021 reflects that AB InBev has taken advantage of the global coronavirus pandemic to rebuild its broken corporate social responsibility image.  

In response to COVID-19, the world’s largest beer producer has extended its efforts in donating key medical supplies to aid the fight against the disease in communities in developing countries where the company has the most growing consumer base.

For example, in May 2021 an AB InBev team in India worked with state governments, medical institutions and NGOs to equip more than 50 villages in the country with over 300 oxygen concentrators, 500,000 medical grade surgical masks and over 5000 COVID-19 test kits. The national team has donated more than 900,000 meals benefitting approximately 8,000 families.

In the same report, the company praises utilizing social norms marketing capabilities developed by the company’s “Smart Drinking” initiatives to support the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. As an output, raising vaccine awareness through a developed toolkit with the partnership of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Professor Jeff French (social norms marketing expert) was being leveraged.

The toolkit entails two parts: 

  1. A government guide on how to organize a successful public campaign in support of the national COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
  2. A company guide on how to engage governments in support of their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

“This is a remarkable effort led by a global company and we are excited to be part of it,” said Estrells Merlos, Director of Partnerships at UNITAR on the developed toolkit.

Estrells Merlos, Director of Partnerships, UNITAR

These kinds of partnerships reflect how the company develops its strategy to manipulate the general public and reputed organizations like the UN to cultivate its image. 

Exposed: How Big Alcohol Turns COVID-19 Into the World’s Largest Marketing Campaign

A 2020 report by the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Research Consortium exposed how Big Alcohol along with other unhealthy industries turned COVID-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign.

The report outlines four main strategies used by these industries and contains more than 360 examples of alcohol industry activities to exploit the public health crisis for profit maximization.

AB InBev is mentioned 19 times in the report, revealing how brands of the beer giant operated around the world to exploit the pandemic for marketing purposes.

Examples of unethical practices are the promotion of beer sales to garner support for healthcare workers in the U.S. and U.K., the use pubs as vaccination sites in Uganda, the aggressive deployment of online retail platforms and on-demand home delivery services in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, claiming to support local businesses while most attention, traffic, and funding is directed at AB InBev’s own brands and ventures across Latin American countries, organizing online parties to target young people during the pandemic in India, assisting bars with COVID-19 protective equipment in Mocambique, or supplying AB In-Bev-branded water to people in Brazil.

The report also reveals that AB InBev have also sought to use its COVID-19 response to shape the agenda around gender-based violence and shift attention away from an association with alcohol use. For example, the ‘No Excuse’ campaign in South Africa centred around a WhatsApp helpline as the solution to sharp increases in gender-based violence during national lockdown. In focusing on individualised solutions to gender-based violence, the initiative served to displace attention away from alcohol as a serious risk factor of violence against women.

At the same time, AB InBev was lobbying and litigating against live-saving temproary alcohol sales bans in South Africa, that reduced alcohol violence, trauma and injuries and thus eased the alcohol burden on the healthcare system.

Movendi International has reported on AB InBev subsidiary SAB’s attempt to stop the South African government from implementing temporary alcohol sales bans.

In 2021 SABMiller launched a legal attack on this life saving measure. First the company challenged the temporary sales ban with the Western Cape High Court. Since the court ruled against the challenge the company went to the Supreme Court, but was dismissed there, too.

AB InBev is using CSR to maximize profits, not “to do good”

In 2018, scientists analyzed a web-based compendium of 3551 alcohol industry actions, representing the efforts of the alcohol industry, including from AB InBev, to reduce alcohol harm due to alcohol. They found:

  • Only 27% conformed to recommended WHO target areas for global action to reduce alcohol harm.
  • The overwhelming majority (96.8%) of industry actions lacked scientific support.
  • 11.0% of alcohol industry CSR activities had the potential for doing harm.
Overwhelming majority of industry actions lacked scientific support
Alcohol industry CSR activities lack scientific support and even have the potential for doing harm.

The benefits accruing to the alcohol industry (‘doing well’) included brand marketing and the use of CSR to manage risk and achieve strategic goals.

Scientists concluded that alcohol industry CSR activities are unlikely to reduce harm due to alcohol but they do provide commercial strategic advantage while at the same time appearing to have a public health purpose.

In 2013, a comprehensive study revealed three CSR tactics employed by the alcohol companies. There are all geared towards core corporate intents.

  1. Alcohol manufacturers employ CSR as a means to frame issues, define problems and guide policy debates. In doing this, alcohol companies, such as AB InBev are able to deflect and shift the blame from those who manufacture and promote alcoholic products to those who consume them.
  2. Alcohol corporations promote CSR initiatives on voluntary regulation in order to delay and offset alcohol control legislation.
  3. Alcohol giants undertake philanthropic sponsorships as a means of indirect brand marketing as well as gaining preferential access to emerging alcohol markets.