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Backlash to brilliance: Bud Light’s 2024 task and brand voice in a polarized world

By Jamie Rosenbaum, Vice President, Group Strategy Director

Jack Morton

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The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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January 5, 2024 | 5 min read

Jack Morton’s Jamie Rosenbaum argues that brands can no longer shy away from controversy. As Bud Light continues the fight to regain credibility, she looks at what having brand values really means.

A neon sign that reads 'Bud Light'

Bud Light, Nike and brand purpose / Rythik via Unsplash

2024 is not going to be a year for the timid. It’s a year for marketers to be bold and brave, resisting the fears that may linger in corporate offices, particularly among crisis communications teams worried about their brands getting caught up in media and political controversies. Instead of retreating, marketers must recognize that polarization is an invitation for brands to lean into purpose. It’s certainly not a reason to pull back.

Abstaining from purpose will come at a long-term cost for brands. If your brand isn’t a part of your customers’ values, it isn’t going to be part of their lives.

The purpose obligation: The Bud Light saga, almost a year on

Brands that shy away from purpose are at risk, but fear not – there’s a way for brands to thrive in this divisive climate. Armed with an authentic purpose and unwavering conviction, marketers can shed their fear and discover opportunities to unite audiences, positioning their brands as allies and sources of optimism in an anxious and divided world.

Even as the echoes of the Bud Light backlash linger in marketers’ minds, they should draw lessons from the importance of engaging in authentic brand partnerships. Your brand voice is just as powerful as your audience. Bud Light alienated two core audiences by not standing by its values as a proud LGBTQIA+ brand, and their silence will be remembered. For a beer meant to bring people together over shared experiences, it missed the mark.

What’s costing Bud Light now as it attempts to repair its reputation is two major partnership deals with highly likable NFL celebrities Peyton Manning and Emmett Smith. At least, this time around, Bud Light’s deal with Manning is based on a longstanding connection and love of beer, as Manning has celebrated several NFL victories throughout his career with the brand well before an official endorsement.

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Looking even further back: What Nike did right

Conversely, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad (“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”) did it right taking a stand (or a knee) against racism in America. It’s a shining example of a purpose-driven campaign that sparked a cultural conversation and brought people together. This is what Nike intended to do, and it didn’t back down. The brand believed in its message, which resulted in increased brand sentiment and sales.

It’s a testament to the power of staying true to your purpose and engaging in meaningful dialogue as the conversation unfolds. This carefully planned campaign allowed Nike to continue being part of the cultural conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement, authentically and meaningfully. It was one of the first brands to come out after the murder of George Floyd, altering its tagline to “For once, don’t do it,” referencing turning your back on racism.

Polarization doesn’t stem from a mere clash of opposing sides; instead, it emerges from a world where diverse voices have the platform to be heard. Brands cannot overlook these voices, yet they also cannot afford to remain voiceless.

Confidence in a brand is cultivated when it is dedicated to making a positive impact on the world. In such instances, there is no justification for it to retreat. In the dynamic marketing landscape of 2024, integrating purpose, especially into brand experiences where audiences can be immersed in authenticity, isn’t just a strategic move. It’s an essential step towards establishing enduring connections, building trust, and thriving in a continuously evolving world.

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Content by The Drum Network member:

Jack Morton

No one sets out to be average. No one aspires to be ordinary. Jack Morton is an award-winning global brand experience agency that exists to reimagine what an experience...

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