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Dipsology: Beyond The Basics - Looking Into the Case of the Bud Light Debacle

By now it is well-known that Anheuser-Busch is facing a serious business situation. As a result of one marketing decision with the company’s stalwart brand – Bud Light – the brewer is facing a backlash of monumental size. The decision to partner with the rising cultural figure, trans activist/influencer/egotist Dylan Mulvaney has led to more than a boycott and more than a backlash towards the brand. What we are seeing appears like an outright revolt.

Longtime drinkers are not merely paying lip service to their opposition, there are indicators this could be a serious shift in the marketplace we are witnessing. There are signs of major consumer flight from the brand. How much and how impactful possibly will not be known for some time yet, but the anecdotal evidence is stacking up like cases for an in-store promotion display. While much has been made of music stars Travis Tritt and Kid Rock announcing their personal boycotts of the brand, a more tangible piece of evidence was seen.

Another country star has a different perspective. John Rich is not only a singer/songwriter, he is a business owner. In Nashville, he runs the restaurant and bar Redneck Riviera, and he states that he does not have to boycott serving Bud Light in his establishment — the customers have already decided.

These are real examples leading to real problems for the company. This was made evident when the CEO of Anheuser Busch issued a public letter on April 14. The attempt at appeasement has been met with more hostility than calm. Donald Trump Jr. came out with a video calling to tamp down the boycott, as A-B is largely a conservative-backing company. Based on the reactions he generated his plea has fallen on deaf livers.

As corporate woke backlash goes I am not sure we have seen anything approaching this prior, in terms of size and scale. To see a longtime brand of immense size being outright rejected in the marketplace to this level might be unprecedented. There have been a number of factors leading to this decision I will look at, as they all met in one swift move that developed into a calamity.

The Woke Poison

One name that has cropped up in the furor following Mulvaney’s reveal as a spokesperson is Bud Light Vice President Alissa Heinerscheid. In a now-widely circulated video interview, she talks of the various changes she has in mind for the Bud Light brand. Her comments were littered with woke signaling, talking about how the brand needed to evolve and be more inclusive, with more representation and a “shifting the cone” strategy. Along with this Heinerscheid insulted the customer base by referring to them as being “fratty”, and out of touch.

You can hold opinions about that mindset, but there needs to be a realization that the “fratty” drinkers have largely been responsible for building Bud Light to the level of brand dominance it has enjoyed. Denigrating those drinkers is a foolish move on its face. This is a severely stunted strategy, but Heinerscheid is not alone. In an interview from 2021, A-B’s vice president of communications, Jennifer Morris, was asked about the company’s approach toward social activism.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, inclusion and equity?
As the nation’s leading brewer, Anheuser-Busch is in a unique position to bring attention to DE&I issues in a way that brings consumers along on the journey to drive positive change and create a more equitable world. As an organization and a family of brands, we can leverage our scale and resources to further conversations around DE&I and help consumers understand the difference they can make as individuals.

These are the executives who are falling prey to the same mentality that led Gillette to make commercials impugning the manhood of its customers, leading to sales evaporating and massive losses for the parent company. It is apparent the motivation for this is rooted in the business influence of the ESG movement – the Environmental, Social, and Governance system being foisted on corporations. Large investment funds are driving companies to follow activist standards, using their financial power to leverage companies into social compliance.

Using the trillions of dollars that their funds control, outfits like Blackrock influence companies by scoring them based on arcane woke standards. If a company has a score falling below approved thresholds they can be punished with sell-offs, or have their boardrooms populated by “approved” individuals in order to then compel corporate behavior. This effort has created a secondary offshoot, called the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which is centered mostly on LGBT𝜋 standards within companies. CEI also develops a score for companies, overseen by the Human Rights Campaign.

While a direct alignment with the ESG and CEI mandates and Anheuser-Busch is not seen, the very fact we have top brand executives employing the type of language used in these platforms, and being done to the detriment of their product and market position, indicates this has to at least be an influence. That it has led to a hostile reaction from customers is encouraging that this corporate extortion may not be a foregone conclusion.

Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman, is now a brand ambassador for Bud Light, 4/1/23. (Credit: Twitter)

The Marketing Error

The way this Dylan Mulvaney promotion went sideways indicates drifting from previous marketing. While an influencer with a large following is tempting, the move to appeal to a trans audience is dicey at best. This is a market made up of less than 1% of the population. You will not be drawing from much to begin with, and the risks of alienating a larger swath of your customer base were always present. But that drive to be seen accepting the push for acceptance seen in the culture these days was followed, and not in a wise fashion.

Bud Light, and A-B in general, has been marketing to LGBT𝜋 customers for years. The difference — it has been targeted marketing. Rainbow iconography, specialized tap handles, clothes, and signage have been created for gay bars and pride events. But those have appeared at locations with gay patrons, they have not been part of national campaigns. This is where the Dylan Mulvaney promo was a misfire. Had this partnership been revealed within a realm populated by the trans community it is possible the news still got out, but the reaction likely would have been blunted. It would have been something more sought out and less seen as the brewer pushing this on the public.

Part of this of course has to do with Mulvaney, who is a character deeply in need of adulation. While the use of Dylan was an attempt to tap into a lush social media audience, Mulvaney requires broadcasting things on a national level. Mulvaney’s face on a can and the videos of Dylan cavorting in a bathtub with a lazy Susan of Bud Light cans in the frame were shared well beyond the TikTok environment.

That this had not been a fully vetted campaign inside the executive channels has been revealed and the fallout is being felt within the company. You know things are bad when the CEO has to come out and comment on things. It seems likely some people are going to be instructed to pack up their desks over this debacle.

The Timing

Currently, we are seeing our culture embroiled in an ongoing contentious debate over trans rights and the modification of how to interpret the word “woman”. These are hotly contested topics right now, so what would motivate a marketing division to wade into this culture war component? These are divisive issues, so the last thing a company should consider is taking sides and segmenting its customer base. (To say nothing about referring to them as being fratty, and out of touch.)

The other problem in embracing a trans influencer now is this move comes immediately after the shooting at the Covenant Christian School in Nashville, with 6 adults and children killed by a trans shooter. This was seen by many as either a tone-deaf move in the wake of the tragedy, of insulting or at least ignoring the victims, or even seen as taking sides in the debate surrounding that news story.

It really is the last thing you would want to see your brand being attached to in any capacity, let alone entertaining the prospect that you could be perceived as taking up an unpopular position on the matter. That the promotions team had not considered this probable fallout is another sign of the lack of foresight applied to any aspect of this promotion.

Bud Light and Anheuser-Busch is dealing with a monumental problem of their own making. It will be fascinating to watch this play out and learn just how widespread and how long-lasting this active boycott will become. By all the signs to this point, we could be looking at a shift in the beer marketplace that is at a tectonic level. The next couple of quarters will be analyzed significantly.

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