Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Bud Light

Bud Light’s PR fiasco: ‘it pandered to a dwindling base and embraced hate’

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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 18, 2023 | 12 min read

PR and communications professionals weigh in on what Anheuser-Busch could have done differently and how Bud Light’s image will fare as it attempts to recover its right-wing appeal.

Bud Light cans in fridge

Anheuser-Busch is seeing a new wave of backlash in response to its statement on a brand partnership controversy / Adobe Stock

Anheuser-Busch is facing backlash for what many view as a tepid statement by chief exec Brendan Whitworth in response to controversy over Bud Light’s partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

The executive, who joined Anheuser-Busch in 2013, said that the company “never meant to be part of a discussion that divides people” in a statement published Friday across the beer giant’s social media accounts.

The statement came on the heels of heated backlash incurred by Bud Light after it teamed up on an NCAA March Madness sweepstakes with popular transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who has some 10.8 million TikTok followers.

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The partnership sparked divisive reactions online, leading some conservative consumers to call for boycotts of the brand. A handful of artists and celebrities voiced their opposition to the partnership with Mulvaney; Kid Rock posted a video of himself firing an AR-style rifle at cans of the beer, while country musician Travis Tritt pledged to ban all Anheuser-Busch products from being sold on his tour.

The uproar has made an impact. Beer Marketer's Insights said Monday that Bud Light's sales volume dropped 11% for the week ending in April 8, compared to a year ago, according to data from NielsenIQ via Bump Williams Consulting. Meanwhile, the stock price of competitor Molson Coors has jumped nearly 9% since the end of last month.

But the somewhat ambiguous response from Anheuser-Busch – in which Whitworth says he recognizes “the importance of accountability” and the “values upon which America was founded” – appears to have done the company no favors.

Consumers and branding and communications experts alike are largely unimpressed by the approach.

The backlash to the backlash response

Consumers on both sides of the debate have taken to social media to signal their discontent with Whitworth’s lukewarm statement.

Many conservative activists and pundits suggest they will continue to boycott Bud Light, while liberals say the statement from Whitworth fails to underscore Anheuser-Busch’s social values or offer protection for Mulvaney.

The brand is facing the reality of a sentiment often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln (though the actual origins may be unknown): ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

It’s a lesson that “brands ought to have learned … a long time ago,” says Robert Passikoff, founder of market research firm Brand Keys. “And now they’re paying the price.”

Now, Anheuser-Busch appears to have backtracked even further in an effort to win back its conservative customer base: social media users pointed out Friday that patriotic Budweiser ads featuring its iconic Clydesdale horses have begun to appear on their timelines.

Where things went wrong

Many PR and communications professionals say that Anheuser-Busch’s approach to handling the controversy has been misguided at best.

“Its first major misstep was not anticipating potential criticisms and having the plan to address it quickly, and then came too many days of silence,” says Kelcey Kinter, senior vice-president at crisis communications firm Red Banyan.

Others agree that perhaps Anheuser-Busch went into the partnership ill-prepared for the likely possibility of backlash.

Part of the reason for such a blunder, according to Brand Keys’ Passikoff, is “brands’ desperate addiction to social media” – with little consideration for potential outcomes. “The brand has said, ‘We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,’ but if it really felt that way, it shouldn’t have embroiled itself in an issue that is so divisive. I’d say the lure of Dylan Mulvaney’s 10.8m TikTok followers was too great for it to bother thinking about anything else!”

Nonetheless, some laud Whitworth’s decision to break the silence. “Having the CEO address this head-on is appropriate since this campaign has impacted the corporate brand as well as the Bud Light brand with its core audience members and the media,” says Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at the University of Louisville.

However, she also acknowledges that the statement was “somewhat vague” and that “you could tell it was vetted via corporate and legal when it went out.” She notes that Whitworth didn’t call out any specific actions the company plans to take to remedy the situation or double down on any corporate commitments. As a result, Freberg says: “instead of addressing the situation and conversation at hand, [the statement] elevated it to the next level of discussion.”

Some other leaders in the communications space, however, offer a more damning assessment. “To steal from Bloomberg's Ben Schott, AB InBev set a new low in corporate courage,” says Dini von Mueffling, who runs an independent PR firm in New York and helps brands navigate publicity crises. “The CEO‘s milquetoast response – which took two weeks for him to release – decreed that it ‘never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.’ So instead of doubling down on its decision to work with Dylan Mulvaney, it pandered to a dwindling base and ultimately embraced hate in the process.”

Mark Izatt, director of ad agency Cream Creative, said this statement is "fuel to the fire, and an injustice to Dylan Mulvaney which leaves her open to attack."

"Whitworth’s words are chosen to capture a conservative audience taught by some of the media to see trans people as dangerous – his ‘time serving this country’, his mention of ‘military, first responders’. He’s invoking warfare and disaster, in-line with so much insidious transphobic discourse. Is this really relevant to what was effectively just one of many casual talent partnerships?," said Izatt.

"Perhaps there are well-meaning marketers at Bud Light trying to show their values through diverse casting and, in their words, ‘connect with audiences across various demographics’. But if this isn’t connected to the values at the top of the company, it means nothing."

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A brand image in question

Whether or not the controversy will impact the Bud Light brand – or Anheuser-Busch’s bottom line – in the long run remains to be seen.

Red Banyan’s Kinter, for her part, believes the controversy will ultimately be a flash in the pan for Anheuser-Busch. “The backlash – and now counter-backlash – is absolutely hurting the Bud Light brand in the short term. But it is likely that Anheuser-Busch will move through this storm, as social media focuses on the next ‘cancel culture’ target. In the meantime, the company needs to figure out what kind of company it wants to be, now and into the future.”

The short-term effects, of course, are still likely to hurt brand perception among a large swath of consumers. It could also hurt the marketers behind the campaign, says Freberg. The brand’s vice-president of marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid – who in March said on the Make Yourself at Home podcast that she wanted to embrace “inclusivity” and shed Bud Light’s “fratty” brand image – became a target of the initial scrutiny around the campaign in the media.

Now, Freberg suggests, Heinerscheid – and her strategy at Bud Light – could suffer in the fallout. “Staying out of the spotlight [and choosing] to not address the situation after the viral interview [on Make Yourself at Home] emerged may not be the best bet for the long term for her or the brand. This will be a campaign that will be tied to the CMO and Bud Light for a long time.”

Ultimately, the events that have unfolded over the past couple of weeks suggest a poor approach to PR, Freberg says. “Sometimes the response to a crisis is what gets the spotlight for a brand – it is best to have a response that is timely and forward-thinking to recover from the crisis.”

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