July 12, 2024

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Bud Light’s ad backlash shows the complexity of mass marketing

Bud Light’s ad backlash shows the complexity of mass marketing
Source: Shutterstock

“Hi! Impressive carrying skills, right?” says an overdressed twentysomething as she sits down smiling into the smartphone camera. “I’ve got some Bud Light for us.”

Transgender actress and TikTok celebrity Dylan Mulvaney was celebrating a full year of her womanhood. And thanks to her friends at AB InBev she was doing it with a six pack of the eponymous low-calorie beer. In the post that accompanied the video, Mulvaney mentioned a new contest in which one lucky Bud Light drinker could win $15,000. Barely 20 seconds after opening a beer, Mulvaney was waving goodbye and the Instagram post was done.

Just one of thousands of ‘endorsements’ that take place daily in the atomised world of digital marketing in 2023. A brand sprays its money across a wide range of people with decent follower counts. The celebrities in question get somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000 depending on their fame and fan numbers. The top of the funnel gets an injection of awareness. And the world moves on.

Except this time. For a month we have been following, debating and disagreeing about the Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney saga. Despite its small, innocuous origins, it has exploded into the biggest brand crisis of the year so far. Marketers are all over the place, once again, in their assessment of Mulvaney’s impact on Bud Light. I’ve seen posts linking the promotion to a drop in AB InBev’s share price (total horseshit). And I’ve seen posts suggesting that “all publicity is good publicity” and predicting the coverage will be great for sales (total horseshit). The truth, as usual, sits somewhere in the messy middle.

Whenever something like a Mulvaney moment occurs, I remember the sage perspective of Les Binet, that he has never seen an ad damage a brand. Not once. Take care with that observation, however. There is a massive, implicit opportunity cost for any brand launching a bad campaign. Not doing any harm is very different from calculating the lost impact that a great campaign could have had. But Binet’s point should move us from the burning barn scenario in which marketers leap on top of each other’s shoulders to shout ever louder about the imminent destruction of Bud Light. That isn’t going to happen.

It’s the reaction to the reaction that drove the boycott, and in doing so, created more reaction.

What is surprising is the degree to which the controversy has not only maintained its position in the news cycle but increased its impact on the brand in recent weeks. YouGov’s American brand tracking shows Bud Light has lost 75% of its popularity with the general population. And unlike many social media scandals this is more than just a perceptual shift. It is dramatically impacting sales. Despite most competitors registering significant increases in beer sales in April, Bud Light is down 21% versus March.

So why does this controversy appear to outdo all other recent examples? To understand the blowback we need to look at all the ingredients.

The brand

To British eyes, Bud Light might appear a minor, speciality beer. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is, easily, the best-selling beer in America. Last year AB InBev sold $4.8bn worth of the stuff in America. With that kind of scale there is always the associated challenge of marketing to the masses.

Every American knows Bud Light. It operates at the giddy 90th percentile of brand awareness, usually reserved for airlines and the mobile phone networks. And a lot of that awareness turns into purchase too. Half of all American adults under the age of 50 have drunk a Bud Light in the last three months. And a third aged over 50 have had one too.

That kind of penetration produces dollars. But it also speaks to the peculiar challenge of managing a brand that is consumed by everyone: male/female, gay/straight, old/young, north/south. It’s the kind of penetration that turns sophisticated mass marketing into super-fucking-complicated mass marketing. YouGov’s tracking data presents prime evidence of that challenge. Since the Mulvaney video, Bud Light has improved its overall impression among twentysomething women from a score of -6 to +0.5. At the same time, the same metric has tanked among Republicans from +13 to -8.

You win some, you lose others. And the complex maths of the crisis equation plays out over two distinct sets of variables. First, the different segments of the market, their respective size and the vehemency of their immediate response. Second, the timelines of those responses as memories fade, culture changes and populations shift. Today’s scandal might prove tomorrow’s bonanza. I remember studying the history of Hennessy, which lost consumers thanks to its advocacy for African American consumers in the 1950s, only to win them back and then some as the decades and social attitudes advanced.

The extra problem for Bud Light, however, is its semiotic emptiness. As patronised as it is, this is a cypher of a brand. It’s a product that really does not taste of anything and one which, by and large, wants to stand for everything and nothing to everyone. ‘Easy to drink’ is pretty much as far as it has got towards as a clear brand DNA. That’s a tenuous position and – as Mulvaney has so dramatically revealed – a precarious equilibrium to maintain. Every consumer thinks their brand is their brand. Until they see it doing something that contradicts that perspective. When your brand is a tabula rasa, even the slightest splash of colour can prove jarring.

The real problem here, and the reason sales are continuing to decline, is not the Mulvaney Instagram post but what followed. Ben Shapiro, Kid Rock and a bunch of country-and-western singers you have not heard of are stretching this thing out. In a perfectly postmodern twist, Mulvaney did not directly cause any of this. It’s the reaction to the reaction that drove the boycott, and in doing so, created more reaction.

The brand manager

Alissa Heinerscheid deserves a significant degree of sympathy in all of this. Very few of us have experienced the horrendous sensation of being part of a marketing campaign that enters the mainstream in the worst possible way as the floor caves in beneath us. Less than a year ago she was the new VP of Bud Light and the first woman to lead the brand in its 40-year history. In little over a month, she has suffered unwarranted accusations and a constant stream of unfair attention. She was just trying to do her job.

Typically, when these crises hit, the blame generally lands on the company behind the brand. But, in a twist of unfortunate fate, Heinerscheid gave a one-hour interview just 48 hours before the Mulvaney Instagram post went live. In it, she provided plenty of grist for the right-wing mill. Partly because she is a manifestation of everything the alt-right objects to: born in California, educated on the East Coast, with an Ivy League MBA. And partly because she was open in her unfortunately timed interview about her “super-clear mandate” to “elevate” the brand.

Bud Light was “a brand of fratty, out-of-touch humour” and when pressed on the nature of her planned “elevation” Heinerscheid was unequivocal. “It means inclusivity. It means shifting the tone. It means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter and brighter and different. And appeals to women and to men. And representation is at the heart of evolution.”

Watching the full interview with Heinerscheid is important. Many of her comments have been taken out of context and a full viewing reveals a smart, driven, impressive marketer. She is incredibly clear on the need to revitalise and rejuvenate her brand. You can see why AB InBev put her in the position.

But three significant flaws emerge. First, for a world-class brand manager there is a significant absence of respect for the current Bud Light consumer and any data to represent their point of view. Heinerscheid is too quick to talk about who the brand needs to recruit and silent about the loyal consumers that made the brand what it is today.

When you embark on revitalisation you do it slowly. Especially when your brand leads the category. It’s like changing course in a small boat as the wind shifts. You tack back and forward gradually to obtain your new trajectory because a sudden lurch into the changing wind would sink you. Heinerscheid appears to have a blind spot when it comes to existing customers and their existing relationship with the brand. That’s odd given that, for all the talk of saving the brand, it still dominates its category. That blind spot led her to be too quick, too explicit, too impatient to change what she had inherited. The boat began to take on water.

Adopting a purpose and being driven by a social agenda are wonderful things, but they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with short- or long-term profitability.

That absence leads to problem number two – Heinerscheid dwells too much on her own perspective and ambition for the brand. Don’t get me wrong: her perspective is fascinating and involving. But her interview sounds more like the type you get from a founder, where their background and that of their brand are intertwined and indelibly connected. Great brand managers are more clinical than this. More data driven. More tentative. They are humbled by the market they serve and the humility sends them into research to get both a sense of the brand and the direction it can take.

The lack of consideration for existing Bud Light consumers creates a vacuum that Heinerscheid’s own perspective fills. But she is not the market. She’s the marketer. And that eternal, often missed distinction is apparent.

Finally, Heinerscheid is a victim of a common and incorrect assumption that bedevils most marketers at the moment. Adopting a purpose and being driven by a social agenda are wonderful things, but they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with short- or long-term profitability. We do these things because we believe in them, not because they will automatically make more money. They might. They might not. But that’s not the point of purpose. Purpose is the point of purpose.

If Bud Light’s goal was diversity, representation and progressiveness, then so be it. But the brand had to be ready for the short-term impact on sales that this approach was likely to generate. The giddy, naïve idea that purpose always results in profit is a big part of the problem here.

The company

Bud Light’s American travails cost parent company AB InBev around 1% of global sales last month. The single digit makes this crisis seem trivial. But when your company generates more than $50bn in annual revenues, every percentage point becomes huge. Bud Light is the company’s biggest brand in its biggest market. But more important is the potential impact that the crisis could have on the company’s overall beer portfolio.

AB InBev owns Corona, Michelob, Natural and of course Budweiser, to name just three of its hundreds of beer brands. It’s one thing for Bud Light to catch fire, but quite another for the inferno to follow the thin perceptual line of gunpowder linking Bud Light to Budweiser and then to all the other sister brands in the portfolio. Initial data suggests that Budweiser also suffered a (less severe) April downturn and Brendan Whitworth, CEO of Anheuser-Busch in the US, has admitted “some spillover” from the crisis to the other brands in his stable.

For the most part, however, consumers have not joined the dots to the other AB InBev brands and, in many cases, are actually switching to them as they boycott Bud Lite in total ignorance of the inanity of the move. A recent YouTube video from Fenway Park – the stadium of the Boston Red Sox – shows fans lining up for beer outside every single beer concession except Bud Light’s, which remains deserted despite the long wait for beer everywhere else. It’s a telling moment. Not only because it demonstrates the social stigma Bud Light is enduring even in liberal cities like Boston, but also because many of those fans were still buying beers from AB InBev at other branded concessions that night.

A lot of structural and financial investment goes into building a house of brands but it’s at moments like this when it really pays off. Imagine the magnitude of pain that an Apple or an IBM would have suffered in this situation.

That said, the risk of a portfolio wildfire is almost certainly why Whitworth released a statement on 14 April that said nothing and yet everything. Under a picture of the St Louis brewhouse and the title ‘Our Responsibility to America’, the statement did not mention Mulvaney, the trans movement or even Bud Light. Instead, it spoke simply of the need to make sure “every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew”. Whitworth accepted that his company “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people” and redirected attention towards the one core purpose that Anheuser-Busch did acknowledge: beer. Just beer. A week later Heinerscheid took a leave of absence and was replaced by Todd Allen, the company’s global marketing VP.

These moves only served to draw more attention. And by now everyone was pissed off. Conservatives were angry at the initial campaign. Progressives were unhappy with the way the company had hung Heinerscheid out to dry and seemingly pulled back from its initial stance.

It’s worth also noting that, despite the criticism of Bud Light for its progressive approach and overemphasis on female and trans representation, the departure of Heinerscheid renders the Anheuser-Busch leadership team very male, very white and very different from the diverse consumers it serves. When I worked at Ericsson, they used to call the global head of HR “de fånge” – the prisoner in Swedish. She was the only woman on the board and every leadership photo looked like a ransom demand as she sat in the middle of what appeared to be a dastardly army of old, grey kidnappers. That was more than 25 years ago, however…

Screenshot: Anheuser-Busch’s US leadership team (source: anheuser-busch.com)

The country

This next paragraph pains me deeply, but we also need to talk about America. I love the place. Pretty much grew up there as a marketer. In the 1990s, you went there to learn your trade from the best. And I did. But America is now behind in marketing. Far behind. None of the modern marketing gurus call America home and the standard of big brand management there has fallen well short of many of the international operations that once trailed it. The next time you have a beer with someone who works for an American corporation, ask them about HQ and the quality of its marketing. But stand well back before you pose the question.

I worry about a lot of the meetings I have had in recent years in American offices. It’s not much about the brand. The business. The strategy. It’s a lot more about the optics. The agendas. The things that cannot be said. The things that can. Only later, in a decidedly un-American way, can the real discussions commence. In smaller huddles. Away from the office. After hours. It’s a very poor way to do anything. Especially marketing.

And the country itself is proving increasingly problematic for its decidedly average marketing teams. Being a brand for everyone is a tricky business anywhere. But it is possible. Just ask Cadbury and they will tell you how hard but how ultimately successful they have been at appealing to every Brit. Bunnings has done something very similar in Australia. I would argue that this is significantly more difficult in today’s America, where the societal factions are not just further apart but vehemently in opposition to each other. How does a brand appeal to everyone in society when that society is openly opposed to whole sections of itself?

One of the few exceptions to this current tribalism was, ironically, Dylan Mulvaney. The social media celebrity has gone out of her way to not only push for trans rights but also build bridges with those opposing those rights. Even in that short, but now infamous, Instagram post for Bud Light Mulvaney was at it. After a confession that she knew very little about the sport being promoted in the competition, Mulvaney announced, “Go team!” And after a pause, “Whatever team you love, I love too.”

It was a rare moment of universality and understanding in a month that saw so many get so angry over a piece of marketing communications that was, ultimately, utterly benign.