Business marketing classes will be discussing for years to come the curious case of Bud Light and how a single Instagram post created weeks of misery for the long-established brand. In our Woke Marketing efforts, we’ve discussed our “3 Bees” — be authentic, be prepared, be present — and we’ve highlighted companies who’ve done great work in diversifying and creating more inclusion. Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Bud Light, tried to do exactly that but it all went very wrong.
Alissa Heinerscheid, VP of marketing at Bud Light, said in a March 2023 interview, “If we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.” So to promote a March Madness contest, Anheuser-Busch sent popular transgender Instagram influencer Dylan Mulvaney a can of Bud Light with her face on it and she delightedly showed it off to her 11 million TikTok followers on April 1st. The company had previously created rainbow-coloured Bud Light bottles for Pride events so this seemed in keeping with their new inclusive strategy. Be authentic, yes?
“Discussing trans issues is hot right now, whether positive or negative,” says consultant Cindi Grace Miller, author of GENDER TRANSITION: WHERE TO START AND HOW TO THRIVE. “It would have people talking about Bud Light and they do have a history of LGBT support as I understand it. Maybe they wanted to show support to the trans community or her specifically, and maybe they are trying to profit off the 2SLGBTQIA+ community like so many businesses try to do.”
But Bud Light was not prepared. When the hateful but entirely predictable anti-trans backlash roared to life immediately, Anheuser-Busch went silent, abandoning Mulvaney and eventually releasing a timid statement from the CEO on April 14, admitting, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” There was no mention of any transgender people and they followed up with a bland new Budweiser TV spot featuring horses and “the American spirit.”
Grace calls the CEO statement “a basic PR response” and the response from every corner was one of annoyance: conservatives were furious at the lack of an apology from the company for approaching a trans woman in the first place, while liberals were unimpressed at their cowardice in not standing with Mulvaney against online hate. Several gay bars joined the conservative-led boycott but for the exact opposite reason.
At the end of April, both Heinerscheid and her boss, Daniel Blake, were placed on leave by the company while Mulvaney revealed she’s had trouble sleeping amid death threats and will no longer work with companies “just trying to check a box.” Despite their recent history (and hopefully future) of inclusion, Anheuser-Busch was not present this time.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Grace, “The majority of people have no idea of what is really happening with a person of trans experience, and many find it scary and therefore undesirable. It is basic insecurity against the monster in the closet. I have found time and time again that when I explain to people what is really going on, most relax about the whole thing.”
A recent survey from Morning Consult agrees with Grace and has proved Heinerscheid right. 53% of monthly beer drinkers are very or somewhat in favour of a transgender spokesperson, with Gen-Z Democrats very much so but older Republicans not so much. While Bud Light sales have dropped nearly 20 percent this quarter, investment analyst Jeremy Bowman told Newsweek on May 10, “the management team is hustling to repair the brand and seems to be confident there won't be a lasting impact.” Meanwhile, other brands like Nike, Levis and Hershey are continuing to work with trans spokespeople, among other marginalized groups, in courting younger consumers. The 3 Bees buzz on.
As more companies discover the power of creating partnerships with 2SLGBTQIA+ customers, employees and colleagues, our Ally is a Verb series now includes Alphabet Soup, a fun and fascinating dive into the world of gender and sexuality and how stronger inclusion in the workplace can drive your business forward. Book a chat with us to learn more. Schedule a 30-minute meeting on Calendly: https://calendly.com/jefferson7/30min!
PS: Jefferson Darrell and I were delighted to chat with Cindi Grace Miller this week and strongly recommend taking a look at her comprehensive consulting site. She’s a terrific speaker and thought leader. Seek her out and tell her we sent you!
Let's Break Some Eggs! – Scott Dagostino, JEDI Consultant, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.