Exclusive: Budweiser VP Brian Perkins Talks Selecting Songs for the Super Bowl

Budweiser Vice President Brian Perkins in his office.

Ryan Nicholson

Anheuser Busch has long been the largest sponsor of the Super Bowl -- TV's perennial most-watched event, with a record 111.5 million viewers in 2014, according to Nielsen -- and it has prepared more than three minutes of collective ad time for the 2015 game, set to air this Sunday Feb. 1, valued at more than $18  million in media spend. 

Brian Perkins, VP-marketing at Budweiser, spoke with Billboard on the eve of the Super Bowl about choosing the right music (Sleeping At Last's cover of the Proclaimers' "I'll Be [500 Miles]" was this year's choice), changing up the agencies involved (Steve Stoute's Translation is out, indie shop Anomaly is in) and plans for Budweiser's three-year-old Made In America franchise later this year. 

Budweiser often makes music a central part of its Super Bowl ads. What goes into that song-selection process?

The right music can make the different between a hit commercial and a dud. Bear in mind, the last two years of Clydesdale commercials have contained no dialogue whatsoever, so the only part of the story that touches your ears is music. And that, in my opinion, is what makes the spot go so global and so viral. 

Super Bowl 2015

Because music can help you appeal to the zeitgeist, how late in the game are you finalizing songs?

With Passenger, there were a couple tracks in contention, but we chose that song less than a week before the Super Bowl, and pre-released the spot that Wednesday to build buzz [the commercial has been viewed more than 55 million times on YouTube.]

For this year, in a 60-second Super Bowl spot like 'Lost Dog,' the music chosen is pivotal to telling an engaging story. In a spot with no dialogue, it's extra important. There needs to be tension and a compelling crescendo. 

For the final cut, we reviewed countless songs before deciding on Sleeping At Last's cover of "I'll Be (500 Miles)." That particular version, as a familiar song with a slower, more emotional tone, spoke to the distress felt by the puppy, as well as the anguish of the Clydesdales having lost their companion. The end result is like a short movie with an exceptional soundtrack, pulling the viewer into every scene of the storyline.

Your boss Jorn Socquet, VP-marketing at Anheuser Busch InBev USA, recently said Budweiser has a real challenge in reaching millennials. How are you fixing that?

We have seen increased competition from more full-flavored beers and craft beers, but what's interesting to me has been seeing little flickers of positive news like our volume growing in Brooklyn last year. So I took my whole team to Williamsburg, and what we found was people referencing "normcore," like, "this is a beer that I know is good and is consistently good, it doesn't pander, it knows what it is, it's been around forever and I respect that."

Each tentpole beer at Anheuser Busch has a different brand and music profile – Bud Light has ties with rock and Latin, Bud Light Platinum has a big EDM strategy. How would you define Budweiser's music philosophy?

I would say the entire spirit and philosophy of Budweiser Made In America is Budweiser's music profile, which is all built around the dissolution of genres, the breaking down of walls of "I like this and you like that." We want to buck that idea of "We're going to a hip-hop concert or a rock concert," particularly with 21-to-34-year-olds, it's all about the blurring of genres and reflecting that kind of melting pot. Like, if you look at my Spotify playlist, it's all over the place, you wouldn't know what kind of music I like because I like a lot of different things, and that's the spirit of Made In America and Budweiser music. As always, we're interested in artists that feel really authentic and that have some sort of story to tell about how they made it and how they got to where they are. And that's why Jay Z's such a great partner in that program because he's such a big proponent of that spirit.

A-B recently parted ways with ad agency Translation, which led a lot of the creative for Bud Light's Super Bowl spots as well as the concept and branding for Made In America. What prompted the change?

The first thing to note is that Budweiser Made In America has been a massively successful platform for us, and we see it as a long-term strategy of the brand. You'll see it continue to evolve and develop in the years to come. The specific situation with Translation is very simple: it's a synergy move, it was not tied to performance. It was to consolidate creative in the US and for global under Anomaly. So Anomaly is our creative agency of record, our lead agency partner, and they previously led all of our marketing communications programs, and on music it was Translation. We parted ways with Translation on very positive terms, and they've been a valued partner for three years, but it was the right time to make this move.

Budweiser introduced the first L.A. installment of its Made In America festival last Labor Day, which just announced $14.7 million in economic impact for the city. Will you bring it back this year?

I can't yet confirm if we're gonna bring it back in exactly the same way, but it was a success and whatever we do with Budweiser Made In America this year is going to be building on what works.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of Billboard.