This story is part of Punch-Drunk in the Metaverse, a new, occasional column from VinePair writer-at-large Dave Infante exploring the ways cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens, and Web3 aspirations are changing beverage alcohol — for better and worse.
What starts with a crudely drawn rocket ship, and ends with a million-dollar sell-off of decidedly slick beer history?
That would be Budweiser’s 2021 foray into the Web3 ecosystem.
In late November, the King of Beers “minted” its first “drop” (read: offered for sale its first collection) of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) known collectively as Heritage Cans. Most of the tokens — 1936 stylized JPEGs of Budweiser cans of various styles on various backgrounds — were offered for $499 apiece, with a few dozen “Gold Heritage” virtual Buds listed at $999. Created on the Ethereum blockchain and offered via the popular NFT marketplace OpenSea, the tokens sold out within an hour, netting the ETH equivalent of around $1 million and hundreds of newly invested acolytes in the process.
“The launch of this NFT Collection is yet another example of our innovative and consumer-first approach to further strengthen our iconic brands,” Spencer Gordon, vice president of Digital + draftLine at Anheuser-Busch, told Ledger Insights, a blockchain trade publication. (Anheuser-Busch InBev, Budweiser’s parent company, declined multiple requests for comment for this article.)
If your eyes are glazing over at the mere mention of more crypto claptrap, you’re hardly alone. As popular cryptocurrencies have boomed this year, talk of NFTs, “the metaverse,” and “digital autonomous organizations” have muscled their way into mainstream discourse. Maybe the possibilities of Web3 (loosely defined as a decentralized, post-platform, truly peer-to-peer internet) thrill you, or maybe you think the prevailing culture that currently surrounds blockchain technology is deeply cringe and scammy as hell. Maybe some combo thereof. But as 2021 comes to a close, it seems likely that more of our lives, not less, will find new expressions on the blockchain in some capacity. And the powers that be at Budweiser — along with the help of the internet’s preeminent Web3 celebrity/evangelist, Gary Vaynerchuk — want the King of Beers to be in the middle of it.
“Anheuser-Busch brands are dedicated to bringing people together, and especially in pandemic land it’s challenging to bring people together in person,” says Avery Akkineni, president of VaynerNFT, a Web3-focused consultancy under the umbrella of marketing entrepreneur and ubiquitous social media rise-and-grinder Vaynerchuk’s VaynerX communications empire.
Today @ 1 PM EST pic.twitter.com/cUrvDyFiAA
— beer.eth (@budweiserusa) November 29, 2021
November’s drop was the most auspicious fruit that the partnership has borne thus far. But Budweiser, with VaynerNFT’s guidance, has been dipping its toes into the wild waters of Web3 for months now. In August 2021, the brand made headlines for purchasing an NFT of a crudely drawn red rocket emblazoned with the brand’s name for 8 ETH, or about $25,000 at the time. The token is part of a popular project known as Tom Sachs: Rocket Factory, which mints the art on the blockchain and also builds select versions of those creations in the “meat world.” Around the same time, the firm also acquired Beer.eth, an Ethereum domain, for roughly $95,000.
St. Louis! We will begin launching at 5:30 at @budweiserusa HQ. All are welcome to join! Address: 1200 Lynch Street. St. Louis, 63118. Stay tuned 🚀
— Tom Sachs: Rocket Factory (@tsrocketfactory) October 8, 2021
This had some funny unintended consequences. “When Budweiser let it be known that its wallet was at beer.eth, they opened the floodgates,” wrote Packy McCormick, an influential Web3 investor and commentator, in the days following Budweiser’s rocket purchase. “Anyone can send them anything, and anyone can see what’s in their wallet by searching beer.eth… So of course, people do what they do with any fresh canvas: drew [sic] pensises.” (At publication, the phalluses are still there; the rocket remains the brand’s Twitter avatar.)
Dongs aside, the attention was mostly positive. Which gets at one reason why Budweiser, a 145-year-old beer brand whose best U.S. business is far behind it, wants to be on the blockchain: regular old marketing visibility. “Buying NFTs before other companies do is a free way to get exposure to the crypto community, who want to see signs that more money and interest is piling into the space, and hopefully the mainstream press,” argued McCormick in his publication, Not Boring. “That’s been a win for Budweiser and a win for Rocket Factory — I’m talking about the project now, as are many others, largely due to Budweiser’s involvement.”
(It should be noted that corporate NFTs aren’t uniformly celebrated even within the ranks of crypto true believers. And “outside of crypto, people are still very much grossed out by the idea of NFTs” due to the technology’s environmental reputation and overly aggressive acolytes, wrote Coindesk’s Will Gottsegen following the “muted” reception of TikTok’s first token offering in October. Budweiser’s NFT drop will be made carbon-neutral via offsets, according to Akkineni.)
Bullish observers like McCormick see huge opportunities for corporations in the Web3 space. Forging new connections with old and new fans is a big one. “First of all, it reminds you about the brand,” says Dr. Merav Ozair, a leading blockchain expert and fintech professor at Rutgers Business School. “Budweiser may not be the most popular [beer brand], there are the other brands that are trying to compete, so they’re kind of rekindling: ‘Hey, we’re still around, we’ve been around, and we’re still good.”
“That’s one purpose” for corporate NFT projects like Budweiser’s, she continues. “The other is monetizing whatever they can.” When it comes to making money in the Web3 space, the King of Beers’ age could function to its advantage. Big consumer packaged-goods brands sit atop mountains of intellectual property — logos, advertising jingles, retro merchandise designs — that hold real, powerful nostalgic value to would-be collectors. Budweiser is no exception: Though the one-time flagship has bled sales for decades in the U.S. market, it consistently ranks as one of the world’s most valuable beer brands anyway based in no small part on the strength of its intellectual property. From its iconic logo and Americana Clydesdales to the instant-classic Super Bowl spots, the King of Beers has created loads of globally recognizable cultural artifacts. NFTs are a way to turn that trove into real, offline revenue.
Ozair points to the Chicago Bulls’ Legacy Collection, NFT versions of its six championship rings, as an example of a brand successfully monetizing existing intellectual property (in this case, the likenesses of IRL pieces of jewelry). “This is something that every business is going to do,” she says. (As for the environmental concerns, Ozair, a member of the International Association for Trusted Blockchain Applications’ academic advisory board, thinks crypto’s impact has been “blown out of proportion.” “There are a lot of misconceptions. … It’s not as crazy as people think,” she tells VinePair.)
Some businesses, like Coca-Cola, Marvel, and Adidas, have gone even further, developing exclusive new items specifically for Web3 applications. Other Anheuser-Busch InBev brands have, too: In June, fellow ABI brand Stella Artois partnered with a virtual racing platform Zed Run to auction off virtual skins for virtual racehorses.
“We bring people together in reality for a better world, and there are more worlds emerging,” Lindsey McInerney, global head of technology and innovation at AB InBev, told The Drum about that partnership. “So our mission to bring people together just got bigger.”
With Akkineni and VaynerNFT, Budweiser has undertaken its own Web3 mission. After its summer purchases, Budweiser launched a dedicated Discord server — a decentralized chat platform popular in the crypto and gaming communities — known as the Budverse. Anyone can access through a link in its Twitter profile, and in the months leading up to the Heritage Can drop, it became a centralized online venue for Budweiser-and-blockchain discussions. “The intention is to create a community of fans of Bud who want to get to know each other and, longer term, can engage and talk about the NFT project,” Akkineni tells Vinepair.
On a recent afternoon, the Budverse was abuzz with chatter about prospects for the future of the Heritage Collection drop. Whether they’re fans of Budweiser (the beer) is hard to say, but they’re clearly fans of buying and selling NFTs. Users tout the rarity of their cans (the scarcity of different design traits, measured on platforms like RarityMon, is a key driver of a given token’s value) and post links to their sale listings on OpenSea. The collection, which sold out in an hour, has seen significant resale activity: Ledger Insights reported that by Nov. 30, 75 percent of the NFTs were up for sale. At publication, the collection’s volume traded — i.e., the amount of value, in ETH, that has changed hands in transactions of Bud NFTs — was nearly $3 million.
Will any of that activity translate into selling more Budweiser in real life? Maybe. But maybe that’s not the right question, anyway. Web3 true believers view NFTs as building blocks for the metaverse, a fully interactive (albeit still fully imagined) future dimension of the internet where users can commune virtually. The metaverse of today’s discourse is basically “the internet reimagined as Fortnite,” a sort of “virtual mall” where users “collect digital goods to express themselves online,” wrote journalist Ryan Broderick, editor of the popular internet culture newsletter Garbage Day. Long the province of augmented-reality dreamers and futurists, this vision of the metaverse (again, there are other, less corporate versions) has found purchase with newly mainstream cryptocurrency advocates, “particularly NFT artists and collectors, who see a path towards a fully realized metaverse via Web3 technology, or decentralized services that run on the blockchain,” Broderick said.
Whether that comes to pass is absolutely up for debate. (Broderick, deeply knowledgeable on the topic, is also deeply skeptical, but sees good reason to pay attention anyway. “[E]verything relating to the metaverse is … inherently stupid, but the amount of money involved is, unfortunately, not.”) But if you do believe in that longer view, the idea of using Bud NFTs to sell more Bud IRL seems downright limiting. “There will genuinely be opportunity to sell beer from the metaverse,” ABI’s McInerney told The Drum. “There’s no doubt in my mind. … But moreover, there’s the opportunity to be where your customers are and surprise and delight them, and give them experiences that are unmatched.“
Continuing to surprise and delight its NFT holders will be key to Budweiser’s Web3 success, predicts Ozair. “Being a first mover is good, but the question is can you build on that momentum?”
The ball is in Budweiser’s court, but its Heritage Can holders and enthusiasts have some ideas. One that’s particularly popular among Budweiser’s NFT community at the moment is attaching exclusive IRL perks to Heritage Can ownership, experiences that only the King of Beers can deliver. A Clydesdale ride? A Super Bowl commercial cameo? If you’re a member of the Budverse, the possibilities are endless — but only if you keep your can.