The art of brand activism: how AB InBev turned heads in the pandemic


Ania Sponaski 

Amidst the ongoing debate around whether the U.S. government should cancel student debt, Anheuser-Busch beer brand Natural Light unveiled ‘the most expensive piece of art in the world’. The artwork was a frenzied arrangement constructed from the diplomas of 2,600 college graduates, taking up a 6,000 foot space in New York City’s Grand Central Station. With each diploma representing an average cost of $180,000, the total value of this exhibit surpassed $470 million. The closest comparison for the most expensive work of art ever sold is Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, a cool $450 million auction purchase in 2017. 


“The design is meant to illustrate both the scale of the crippling debt crisis while also alluding to the chaotic impact college debt creates for those burdened by it,” according to the brand. In recent years, Natural Light has narrowed its marketing focus to reach college students, taking an empathetic approach to one of the most debilitating issues facing them and their future: the country’s crippling student debt problem. Since 2018, Natural Light has been committing $1 million annually to help college students pay back student loan debt through the Natty Light College Debt Relief Program. 

The beer brand has firmly positioned itself as an ally to a generation of young adults at a time when businesses have become the only trusted institution in America. The rising number of U.S. households with oppressive student debt is prompting increasing calls for a federal response, a scenario becoming more likely under the new Biden Administration. Today, 43 million adults collectively hold $1.5 trillion in federal student debt loan. Further analysis of the data, shows that a significant percentage of U.S. households in the bottom 50 percent of income have high student debt-to-income ratios. Young Black Americans face greater disadvantages and have the highest difficulty making federal student loan payments. 


What does all this have to do with experiential marketing? Consumers are asking brands to lead more on societal issues. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 68% of respondents believe CEOs and businesses should step in when government does not fix societal issues. Natural Light cannot relieve $1.5 trillion in student loan debt on its own. But, by choosing this pivotal moment to shine a bigger spotlight on a matter of significant importance to a highly vocal and loyal audience segment, it’s validating it stands for more than profit. This form of brand activism is aligning with the values and needs of millennial and Gen-Z audiences. The beer brand has taken a stand on this issue and are leading with their actions – not just counting on favourable PR. 

The beer brand has firmly positioned itself as an ally to a generation of young adults at a time when businesses have become the only trusted institution in America.

And at a time when physical experiences are still restricted, Natural Light has chosen to remind its core target that it is still committed to them. The display is part of a larger campaign inviting students to share their stories for why they attended college – a chance for 40 individuals to each receive $25,000. It’s also viewable via augmented reality on Snapchat.  


Brands should be embracing the growing trust gap and connecting with consumers by demonstrating genuine support for the issues that matter most to them. Brand activity for the sake of it just won’t resonate as effectively anymore.