WTF Brand? The Bud Light Case

The top beer brand seller in the US Bud Light attempted to rejuvenate its image by partnering with Dylan Mulvaney, a social media influencer and transactivist, to promote their last Bud Light contest. The problem? The brand’s core customers aren’t happy about this partnership, which resulted in a social media backlash, customers boycotting the brand, and ultimately stocks plummeting. No good.

The Case

Bud Light, introduced in 1982 as Budweiser Light by Anheuser-Busch Companies, is Budweiser’s flagship low-calorie beverage and is advertised as a light beer.1 During the first quarter of 2023, Bud Light launched a trans-inclusive campaign in partnership with the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, an American actress, comedian, and famous social media personality with more than 10 million followers on TikTok who gained popularity by sharing her transitioning journey and “girlhood” experience.2

Dylan Mulvaney’s Instagram sponsored post in partnership with Bud Light.

From “fratty” to “trendy”

Like many other top-selling US beer brands3, Bud Light sought to create an LGBTQ+ partnership to rejuvenate the brand image and to reach younger customers. Bud Light’s VP of marketing stated the marketing strategy aimed to “evolve” and “elevate” the slowly declining brand4 by creating an inclusive campaign which included partnering with a trending influencer such as Dylan Mulvaney, but also other influencers to “authentically connect with audiences across various demographics”5. Historically, the beer brand targeted sports fans, women, and working-class citizens.6 By joining the popular “woke” trend with its latest campaign, Bud Light controversially alienated its core fan base which includes conservative buyers such as the singer-songwriter and pro-Trump Kid Rock or traditional family-conscious women.7

Kid Rock’s Instagram post about the Bud Light campaign.

Good or bad practice?

Bringing awareness toward positive forward-thinking initiatives such as trans activism is a well-known business strategy, as studies8 have shown that people are twice as likely to buy from brands that demonstrate a commitment to advocating for LGBTQ rights. However, when it comes to brand strategy there’s a risk of either going “off-brand” or being perceived as unauthentic by using popular trends (here: advocating for societal causes) to portray a sympathetic image and attract customers that resonate with these trends. In this case, Bud Light went off-brand by selecting Mulvaney as a brand influencer: the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” look and the preppy decor showcased a drastic contrast not only with the traditional imagery advertised by beer brands but also with Bud Light’s brand image. 

Journalist Ian Miles Cheong’s Twitter post mentions Bud Light’s last campaign.

Traditionally, Bud Light has a history of creating positive momentum with its marketing efforts. In 2017, the “Dilly Dilly” advertising campaign showcasing a banquet in medieval times became a popular cultural movement which resulted in an increase in sales.9 The reason behind this success is the strong understanding and alignment with their core customers. Dave Sutton, transformational marketer and author of “Marketing, Interrupted – Sometimes the only way to succeed is to go a little crazy”, explains the intention behind the popular campaign was to create an ad around Bud Light’s customers’ habits: watching Game of Thrones and going to parties where they get to bring alcoholic beverages.10 Later in 2020, Bud Light introduced Bud Light Seltzer. On this occasion, the brand partnered with the renowned singer Post Malone for their Bud Light Super Bowl commercial.11 A successful partnership that makes sense as the singer, aside from being among the best-selling music artists with over 80 million records sold12, is popular for navigating through multiple music genres such as hip-hop, pop, country, and rock – and is also a self-proclaimed prolific beer consumer.

For both advertisements, Bud Light was able to create creative concepts and brand partnerships that resonate with their core audience, which in turn increased brand awareness and sales. With the current brand partnership involving Mulvaney, its lack of resonance with beer customers resulted in a decline in trading stocks as Bud Light’s parent company has lost more than $6 billion in market capitalization since announcing its partnership with the transgender influencer13

An explanation behind this brand failure could be associated with transphobia, but previous Bud Light’s efforts toward the LGBTQ+ community didn’t generate apparent backlash or a substantial decrease in sales14. Also, targeting new customer segments isn’t necessarily the problem: previous attempts from the hard seltzer beverage category to target male customers have proven to be successful with brands navigating effectively new men’s consumption habits and embracing “feminine-coded” beverages. Therefore, the backlash can’t necessarily be fully explained by the “girly” imagery behind the ad but rather by the potentially perceived negation of the masculine representation behind the selected brand ambassador. Again, not because of the gender identity represented by the influencer but rather by the seemingly gimmicky hyper-feminine persona which, without considering its intended comical effect, can be perceived as a parody of multiple non-exclusive categories: gender, sexual identity, women/men-hood, and sports aficionados.

“Go big or go home” or “Go woke, or go broke”? 

Taking risks in terms of creative direction is desirable and often sought after by companies seeking to “keep up with the times”. However, brands should still consider market insights to ensure brand alignment with core audiences. While Bud Light Vice President Alissa Heinerscheid aimed to bring a “truly inclusive” approach that appeals to men and women as she argues “representation is sort of the heart of evolution. You’ve got to see people who reflect you in the work”, it appears Bud Light actually forgot to reflect the brand core demographic. As John Rieker, St. Louis-area operator and Harpo’s Bar and Grill owner in Missouri, told Fox Business: “You’re marketing to an audience that represents a fraction of 1 percent of consumers while alienating the much larger base of your consumers.”15

Jim Geraghty, senior political correspondent at National Review, attempts to explain this brand misalignment by identifying a potential disconnect between Heinerscheid – a privileged upper-class profile – with Bud Light’s demographic, highlighting the fact that elite decision-makers in high-level marketing positions at top-selling brands should seek to understand the demographic they intend to target.

Now, will this failed attempt to engage with younger generations automatically translate to a loss in sales? Not necessarily. Other companies like Nike (with Mulvaney. Again) or the NFL with Colin Kaepernick have previously encountered backlashes and boycotts following “woke” initiatives and still, “there’s ample evidence that major brands tend to easily weather anti-woke furor”16 There might be, however, a negative impact in terms of brand perception and loyalty. Also, people can experience “woke fatigue” when brands endorse “social justice” initiatives through their association with influencers. As Patrick Imig, a hospitality consultant in St. Louis, states: “Sometimes you just want to drink a beer without getting a lecture on social or political commentary or someone’s sexual orientation.”17

Brand, do better.

In 2023, brands can’t have a top-down approach to marketing like it was done before. To create marketing campaigns that resonate with audiences, having a strong link to current (or new) customers and their natural ecosystem at any given time is key. Nowadays, customers can express their needs and opinions freely on any comment-sharing digital platform. They let brands know when there’s a perceived misalignment between business components valuable for their customer experience: company values, brand representation, business management, and product quality. Hence the need to conduct marketing research that highlights the true needs and habits of customer targets, instead of conducting them to reassure or confirm preconceived ideas about a product and its customers. Marketing professionals need to go beyond simply answering business assignments but rather seek to create marketing strategies that generate revenue while genuinely aiming to answer consumer needs. Because as TopRigth founder would say: “Great story without sales is art. Great story with strategy is marketing.”18

Brands co-create with customers. And sometimes, they too make mistakes. It can happen to the best of us.

But again: WTF brand?