If you watched NFL Sunday action, you might have seen a commercial promoting a mysterious marketing campaign from Budweiser called “Whatever, USA.” As advertised, the “King of Beers” was going to descend upon a community and throw the biggest party it had ever seen. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, it did just that.

You see, I live in Crested Butte, Colo., but by this time last week — as the signage right outside town denotes — I suddenly found myself in Whatever, USA. Budweiser was about to take over our town — literally. Four blocks of our main street were blocked off for the event. In addition to the 1,000-plus contest winners who were flown here for the weekend, 4,000-plus entry wristbands were given to locals, including me.

Bathed in Bud Light Blue

While there was some trepidation about what was to come (some locals initially protested, citing that the event would harm the town’s image and that it would lead to traffic and noise issues), the week leading up to the event was like one big party. People filled the streets as we slowly watched our town transform from quiet Crested Butte to Whatever, USA.

All outdoor patios had branded umbrellas, while all business windows sported blue panels emblazoned with the Bud Light logo. Things took a more surrealist bent as a side street was filled with sand and lined with hot tubs to make a beach. Then the Budweiser event personnel erected a two-story inflatable blue gorilla and giant blue cowboy boot and lined the streets with life-size rhino decorations. And, of course, everything from the streetlamps to the benches to the street itself was painted in Bud Light’s signature blue.

For the duration of the weekend, all the bars and restaurants in the Whatever, USA designated zone only served Bud Light products, which were free to contest winners and locals alike.

Getting the Party Started

Upon arrival, each contest winner received a bag of gear: sweatshirts, backpacks, hats, shirts. Each item was emblazoned with Whatever, USA/Bud Light verbiage. And then, at 5 p.m., the party began.

With the drop of a curtain, the freshly transformed Crested Butte was revealed to the crowd. The contest winners paraded down the street along with a variety of entertainers, including dancers and stilt walkers. The Whatever, USA mayor (yes, the fictitious town had its own mayor) rode in on a blue-painted ceramic horse. At the last block, a large stage had been set up, and Lil Jon was there to get the party started. Throughout the opening ceremonies, Bud Light and Whatever, USA were mentioned frequently.

At 10 p.m., contest winners switched venues to the local ice rink where they were treated to a huge rave with DJ Alesso as the headlining act. Outside of the rink a carnival had been set up, complete with a carousel, Ferris wheel and swinging ship. At 1 a.m., the contest winners were ferried up to where they were staying in large Bud Light blue buses for additional late-night parties.

The festivities continued into Saturday. Internet sensation, the Prancercise Lady made an appearance, a mariachi band performed throughout the day and there was a petting zoo. But the highlight of the afternoon was a high-energy performance by early ‘90s rap sensation Vanilla Ice. He arrived in an ice cream truck, which he returned to after his set to hand out ice cream to the crowd. At 10 p.m., the party shifted to the ice rink where we were transported back to the ‘70s with a live performance by disco hit-maker KC and the Sunshine Band.

Bringing the Brand to Life 

The Whatever, USA campaign, which you can learn more about at its website, might seem to some like a bizarre, over-the-top marketing stunt. And that is true. But it’s also a lot more than that. It’s emblematic of where marketing and branding are today, of the sheer competitiveness for consumers’ attentions and of the requirement to build community around your brand.

One of the larger purposes of turning sleepy Crested Butte into the biggest party of 2014 was to transform the Bud Light brand into an actual interactive experience, one that could exist beyond touch screens, apps and social media. Because a large part of Budweiser’s branding is fun and spontaneity, what better way to hammer this home than to have people actually live inside a town built by the brand itself?

Furthermore, the novelty factor of the marketing campaign was designed to intrinsically attract attention via word of mouth, social media and the news media. While Bud probably paid a PR company to help with media relations, the news itself was likely unique enough to attract press coverage regardless.

Bud was also smart to exploit FOMO, or the fear of missing out. By throwing a party for only 1,000 loyal fans, Budweiser knew others would flock to see exactly what they had missed out on. This curiosity would ensure the expensive campaign would reap significant returns after the fact in the form of website visits, social media engagement, video downloads and more.

While most law firms probably don’t have the budget to acquire a small town for a weekend and host a lineup of everyone’s favorite B-list celebrities, there is much to take away from Bud Light’s Crested Butte endeavor, including:

  • Relying solely on traditional marketing tactics isn’t going to make a splash. You might not want to stray from the norm when it comes to legal marketing, but the truth is that you’re going to have a harder time getting noticed if you don’t occasionally implement something extraordinary.
  • Live events are incredibly powerful marketing opportunities. Finding ways to bring your brand to life is a potent means to increase awareness and make good on the promise your brand implicitly proposes.
  • Always think about content marketing. Bud might have sunk millions of dollars into its campaign, but it knew going into it that it was paying for more than a one-off event. By capturing video footage, developing hashtags, composing social media messages, creating a microsite, etc., Budweiser will be able to leverage the Whatever, USA campaign for a while. 

All’s Well That Ends Well

Just as the event was a success for Budweiser, it was also a boon for Crested Butte. I spoke to many contest winners as well as workers brought in to help with the event, and they all raved about our town and how they hoped to come back again.

We also benefitted in other ways. In addition to the $500,000 that Bud Light paid for use of the town, many business owners received additional compensation for the use of their space, and most businesses in the “zone” made a windfall compared to what they would have made on a normal September weekend. Every hotel room was sold out. Many local residents were hired to work prior to and during the event. Bud Light also donated 5,000 meals to the local food banks. Even the sand from the beach is going to a good cause; we’re using it for our volleyball courts in the town park and for the school’s long-jump pits.

This speaks to the last lesson from the Whatever, USA campaign. Budweiser used the campaign to leverage the community it has created around its brand. In doing so, it created an actual, real-life community. But it also recognized that as a corporate citizen, there were other stakeholders involved besides Budweiser’s marketing department and outside agencies. Crested Butte is a real town with real people whose lives could have been uprooted significantly because of the event. But because of extreme organization and clear communication, the town and the citizens were treated with respect. 

So, yes, it was all about Bud Light, and you couldn’t forget that if you tried. We lived and breathed Bud Light for over a week. However, I think if you asked all parties involved if they would do it again, you would hear a resounding YES!

Want to ask me about my experience at Whatever, USA? Contact Jennifer Faivre at jfaivre@jaffepr.com. And if you want to inject some life into your brand, reach out to Content Strategist Keith Ecker, who helped provide analysis for this article, at kecker@jaffepr.com.