Bud Light is facing a huge backlash after sponsoring a transgender social media influencer, and experts in marketing are taking notice.
But these same experts warn that woke “inclusive marketing” is still good business — and it’s here to stay.
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On April 1, transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a video of herself cracking open a Bud Light on her Instagram page. She showed off a can with her face on it that Bud Light sent her — one of many corporate freebies she gets and shares with her millions of followers.
But unlike the dress from Rent the Runway or the trip to Denmark from skincare brand Ole Henriksen, the backlash to the beer can was fast and furious. Three days after Mulvaney’s post, Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting cases of Bud Light. Shares of Bud Light’s parent, AB InBev, temporarily plunged.
This week, Anheuser-Busch — AB InBev’s U.S. subsidiary — confirmed that Alissa Heinerscheid, its vice president of marketing, and her boss, Daniel Blake, are taking a leave of absence in the wake of the controversy. The company won’t say when they will return or whether they’re being paid.
For some, the partnership went too far at a time when transgender transitioning in children have become a divisive topic in state legislatures.
“Whether the issue is trans people or anything else, the majority of consumers are pretty vocal about the fact they don’t want brands lecturing them or stuffing politics or social issues down their throat,” said John Frigo, the head of digital marketing for Best Price Nutrition. “If you sell beer, just make beer and leave it at that.”
But others maintain that taking a stand on transgender topics is a good way to hook younger, easily influenced consumers.
“I had a really clear job to do when I took over Bud Light. And it was, this brand is in decline. It’s been in decline for a very long time. And if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light,” Heinerscheid said last month in an episode of Apple’s “Make Yourself at Home” podcast.
Bud Light has long been America’s best-selling beer. But its U.S. sales are down 2% so far this year, part of a long-running decline as younger consumers flock to sparking seltzers and other drinks, according to Bump Williams Consulting. Those sales declines accelerated rapidly in April in the face of the conservative boycott.
The week ending April 15, Bud Light’s sales dropped 17% compared to the same week a year ago. Meanwhile, rivals Miller Lite and Coors Lite both saw their sales jump more than 17%.
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Marketers say it’s possible Bud Light’s experience will cause other brands to rethink using transgender people in their advertising. Joanna Schwartz, a professor at Georgia College and State University who teaches a course on LGBTQ+ marketing, said companies will still want to reach transgender consumers, she also predicted that these companies might shift to micro-targeted ads on social media.
“They’re walking an extremely fine line. They want to appeal to everyone, but that includes people who don’t like each other,” Schwartz said of Bud Light.
Still, Schwartz said, some brands — like Pantene shampoo — have featured transgender people in their marketing without as much backlash.
Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth issued a statement on April 14 but it didn’t specifically mention the controversy.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” Whitworth said.
By comparison, Nike — which also faced some boycott threats after sending workout clothes to Mulvaney — supported Mulvaney in an Instagram post, encouraging customers to embrace the transgender trend.
Manveer Mann, an associate professor of marketing at the Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University, said Bud Light should have anticipated the backlash and had a plan in place to handle it.
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Mann thinks Bud Light’s sales will ultimately recover. But in the meantime, it’s alienating everyone, she said.
“The communication from Bud Light is not clear. Is this coming from your value set or are these things just trending?” Mann said. “You have to know what your values are and what are the values of the customers you are trying to reach.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.