Brand Strategy

What marketers can learn from Bud Light’s response to backlash

After positioning itself as an LGBTQ+ ally for years, it appears to be backpedaling on its recent collaboration with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, causing a brand identity crisis.
article cover

Illustration: Hannah Minn, Photo: Bud Light

5 min read

It started out with a post, how did it end up like…this.

In the weeks since Bud Light first received backlash from conservatives over trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney’s Instagram post featuring a custom Bud Light can, the brand’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has:

  • Put out a statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth where he said the brand “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”
  • Placed VP of Marketing for Bud Light Alissa Heinerscheid and Group VP Daniel Blake, who oversaw marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s mainstream brands, on leaves of absence, according to Ad Age and the Wall Street Journal.
  • Released a Budweiser ad featuring a Clydesdale galloping past landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Experienced a 21% drop in sales across US retail stores, per an analysis of Nielsen figures by Bump Williams Consulting cited in the Wall Street Journal, during a week in mid-April.
  • Offered distributors free beer in response to a drop in sales and said it would spend three times as much on Bud Light’s marketing this summer than previously planned.

With the company seemingly backpedaling (or at least not doubling down on) its partnership with Mulvaney, experts told us that the company has put its values in question, causing a largely preventable brand identity crisis.

Anheuser-Busch did not respond to a request for comment.

Who am I?

Bud Light has marketed itself as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community for years, having run print ads geared at these audiences in the late ’90s with the tagline, “Be yourself and make it a Bud Light.” More recently, the brand has put out ads showcasing same-sex weddings and drag queens in the US and Canada, as well as released products like rainbow bottles for Pride Month. In 2016, Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer showed support for trans rights in an ad for the brand.

Anjali Bal, associate professor of marketing at Babson College, told us that the brand’s work with Mulvaney—and then its response to the backlash—is “diluting our knowledge of what Bud Light is.”

While some boycotters may be wondering whether the brand intended to sever ties with them, she said, those consumers unbothered by the Mulvaney partnership may be wondering, “Was this just an ad campaign where you were trying to make some money?”

Kylo Freeman, founder of wellness brand For Them, said Bud Light’s response to the Mulvaney backlash may stand to make past campaigns seem inauthentic. “I think it’s a good learning for other brands to stand behind what you do. And if you want to tap into our community…that should be in an authentic way,” said Freeman, who is trans.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

This isn’t the first time Bud Light has faced pushback for its LGBTQ+ campaigns: The brand’s “be yourself” campaign caused a stir among conservative Christians including church leader and activist Jerry Falwell in the ’90s. Bal said Bud Light “should have been prepared with some sort of emergency, crisis management response” in anticipation of the Mulvaney post, despite the fact that it wasn’t a huge ad expenditure or campaign.

Instead, Freeman said the brand put Mulvaney in a precarious and potentially dangerous position. “I think that it’s the brand’s responsibility to protect that collaborator and be thoughtful about who they collaborate with,” they said, adding that trans people face violence, death threats, and persecution.

In her first Instagram post since the backlash began, Mulvaney said, “I think it’s OK to be frustrated with someone or confused, but what I’m struggling to understand is the need to dehumanize or be cruel.”

Lessons learned?

Rather than release a “vaguely apologetic” CEO statement that “satisfied seemingly no one,” per the Washington Post, or release a “patriotic” ad that’s been parodied and referred to as pandering, Bud Light should have perhaps worked with Mulvaney on a different type of  campaign in the first place, like perhaps one for its hard seltzer, Georgetown University Professor of Marketing Ronnie Goodstein told us.

Unlike Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, which was considered controversial by some but led to an increase in sales, consumers won over by the Mulvaney post haven’t yet seemed to offset customer losses borne out of the conservative backlash—“not a good economic move,” Goodstein said.

Freeman said they worry other marketing teams might be afraid to “support equity in collaborations and partnerships and ads” following the Bud Light saga. However, a recent Morning Consult survey found that 53% of beer drinkers in the US said they would feel favorable toward a brand with a trans spokesperson, and many believe inclusive ads aren’t going away despite Bud Light’s recent dip in sales.

Had Bud Light stood behind its work with Mulvaney, Freeman said they would have felt more inclined to support the brand, and believes other trans allies would have done the same.

“I would have backed them,” Freeman said, “and I don’t really drink.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.