For years, Bud Light leaned on jokey ad campaigns and its designation as a light beer to push sales. But recently, interest in beer has faltered, and beer brands have had to rethink their offerings and marketing strategies to reach new audiences.
Now, Bud Light finds itself seeking younger drinkers, and stumbling through America’s polarized landscape in the process.
The brand’s sponsorship of an April 1 Instagram post by a transgender woman, Dylan Mulvaney, set off a firestorm of anti-trans backlash and calls for a boycott. The company first responded with a straightforward explanation of its relationship with social media influencers. But later it released a milquetoast statement from the CEO, which angered both sides, and made changes it its management structure, suggesting that there had been some sort of miscommunication about how to market the brand.
Bud Light is not alone in struggling to reach some audiences without offending others. Customers increasingly want to feel like the products they buy represent their values. But those values are often opposed, creating a tricky situation for advertisers who want to convince everyone that their product is right for them.
“There are two trends that are colliding,” said Daniel Korschun, associate professor of marketing at Drexel University. “People are much more interested than ever before in the underlying values of brands,” and at the same time, there’s “the political polarization of the country.”
Some brands are able to walk the line, or pick a side and stick with it. Bud Light failed on both counts.
“Bud Light misunderstood their ability to reach out to a new target market and the backlash they would face with some segment of their current market,” said Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at New York University.
With the CEO’s response, “they did this half-step backwards, which doesn’t satisfy their existing market.” Meanwhile, “this market they’re trying to appeal to … sees this as an inauthentic move. And so they end up in a position where they’ve satisfied nobody.”
The controversy started with a single commemorative can of beer, one which wasn’t even for sale. The can wasn’t featured in a 30-second Super Bowl commercial, a billboard on the highway, or a glossy magazine spread, but in an Instagram post.
The post is a video from Mulvaney, a performer and influencer who had posted about Bud Light previously as a brand partner. This specific post, however, showcased a customized Bud Light can the brand sent her as a gift to mark a milestone in her transition. The video went viral, with some supporting Mulvaney and the company, and others responding with anti-trans reactions and calls for a Bud Light boycott.
BeerBoard, which tracks sales data, previously told CNN that the 3,000 locations it tracks poured 6% less Bud Light than rivals — including Miller Lite and Coors Light — from April 2 to April 15, a turnaround from previous weeks. Also, Bud Light sales fell 17% in the week ended April 15 compared to the same week in 2022, according to an analysis of NIQ data compiled by Bump Williams Consulting provided to the Wall Street Journal.
Still, it’s too soon to tell whether the boycott efforts will have long-lasting sales impacts, as customers often don’t commit to them for long. And the stock of Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch
(BUD) has fallen only about 3% in the last month, suggesting Wall Street isn’t too worried. Anheuser-Busch
(BUD) reports earnings on May 4.
At first, Anheuser-Busch offered a straightforward explanation of its relationship with social media influencers in reaction to the backlash.
“Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics,” an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson told CNN in April. “From time to time we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers.”
Yet there was enough of an uproar to prompt a an additional response from Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth, who released a vague statement calling for unity.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” Whitworth said in an April 14 statement titled “Our Responsibility to America.” He said the company has “a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere” and that he would “continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.”
The words said nothing much, and they managed to anger many on both sides: those who thought Bud Light owed them an apology, and trans rights advocates who wanted a stronger defense of the at-risk community. Transgender people are more than four times as likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people, according to a study from the UCLA School of Law.
“Whitworth’s statement was indefensible,” wrote the Advocate’s senior editor John Casey in an article calling for a Bud Light boycott. “It exacerbates the disgust for trans people that is seething in Republican-led state legislatures all across the country.” Over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures this year through April 3, according to American Civil Liberties Union, including ones restricting access to gender-affirming care for trans youth. The Human Rights Campaign, which fights for LGBTQ rights, reportedly sent a letter to Anheuser-Busch asking it to stand with the trans community.
Tim Calkins, associate chair of the marketing department at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said the statement was “remarkable in its lack of substance … it said basically nothing.” Still, Calkins said, he understands why a CEO would try to stay neutral. “You really can’t go either way, you’re caught.”
But recent history shows that there are consequences for backing away from a controversial topic. In March of last year, Disney’s then CEO Bob Chapek at first declined to condemn Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, telling staffers that corporate statements “are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.” The non-statement was roundly criticized and Chapek eventually apologized, saying “you needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry,” in a letter to employees. In November, Chapek was replaced by Bob Iger.
In addition to issuing a statement from the CEO, Anheuser-Busch made changes to its marketing team in the wake of the backlash.
Two marketing vice presidents, Alissa Heinerscheid of Bud Light and Daniel Blake of A-B, have taken leaves of absences. Heinerscheid — who discussed efforts to update the brand in a podcast episode that aired prior to Mulvaney’s April 1 post — has been heavily targeted in the conservative press.
The changes are designed “to streamline the structure of our marketing function to reduce layers so that our most senior marketers are more closely connected to every aspect of our brands’ activities,” a spokesperson said in a statement in response to a request for comment to this story.
For Calkins, the moves suggest Bud Light’s management team wasn’t fully behind the decision to sponsor Mulvaney’s posts.
“I think it is safe to say that there was not alignment with the strategy … The brand embarked on [it], but without the full support of senior leadership,” he said.
Calkins, who spoke with CNN previously about the challenges and importance of inclusive marketing, reiterated the message. “There really is a need to be inclusive, and welcoming,” he said. “But you want to do that without getting into the middle of the most controversial issues.”
For her part, Mulvaney, who had stayed quiet on social media in the weeks since the backlash began, spoke directly to her followers in a TikTok video on Thursday. “What I’m struggling to understand is the need to dehumanize and to be cruel. I don’t think that’s right,” she said, adding “what I’m interested in is getting back to making people laugh.”
For Bud Light, the problem wasn’t partnering with Mulvaney, but failing to show her supporters that it was willing to stand behind her when she was targeted, noted NYU’s Watson.
“It makes a world of sense to partner with Dylan, to reach a younger audience, a more diverse audience,” he said. Mulvaney, who is in her mid-20s, has 10.8 million TikTok followers and 1.8 million Instagram followers, an attractive group for a company trying to reach young customers.
But, Watson said, “that partnership has to also have additional evidence of support.”
Some companies have weathered backlash by staying steadfast in their convictions.
(NKE). The athletics brand featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad in 2018, after the football player became a polarizing figure for kneeling during the national anthem to raise awareness about police brutality. It faced plenty of backlash and calls for a boycott at the time. But it stuck the course, and the following year won an Emmy for its Kaepernick commercial. Over the past five years, Nike
(NKE)’s stock has grown about 86%.
Nike “understood that some segment of [their] market would feel disenfranchised by their action, but a large segment … would feel empowered,” Watson said. Bud Light, he thinks, could be missing out on that type of support. “It appears that they pulled the plug far too early.”
— CNN’s Jordan Valinsky and Vanessa Yurkevich contributed reporting.