Bud Light may have failed in its attempt to expand its following by partnering with a transgender influencer. But experts say inclusive marketing is just good business — and it’s here to stay.
“A few years from now, we’ll look back on this ‘controversy’ with the same embarrassment that we feel when we think back to the ‘controversies’ of the past surrounding things like interracial couples in advertising,” said Sarah Reynolds, chief marketing officer. manager of human resources platform HiBob, who identifies as queer.
On April 1, transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a video of herself opening a Bud Light on her Instagram page. She showed off a can with her face on it that Bud Light sent her – one of the many corporate gifts she receives and shares with her millions of followers.
But unlike Rent the Runway’s dress or skincare brand Ole Henriksen’s trip to Denmark, the beer can’s backlash was fast and furious. Three days after Mulvaney’s post, Kid Rock posted a video of himself spinning crates of Bud Light. Shares of Bud Light’s parent company, AB InBev, temporarily plunged.
This week, Anheuser-Busch – the US subsidiary of AB InBev – confirmed that Alissa Heinerscheid, its vice president of marketing, and her boss, Daniel Blake, were taking leave. The company won’t say when they’ll be back or if they’re being paid.
For some, the partnership has gone too far at a time when transgender issues – including gender-affirming healthcare and participation in sports – are a divisive issue in state legislatures.
“Whether it’s trans people or whatever, the majority of consumers are pretty clear that they don’t want brands to lecture them or stuff them with politics or social issues,” John said. Frigo, digital marketing manager for Nutrition at the best price. “If you’re selling beer, just make beer and leave it at that. »
But others – including Heinerscheid herself – say reaching younger, more diverse consumers is crucial. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 21% of Gen Zers identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, compared to 3% of baby boomers. Gallup also found that young consumers are most likely to want brands to promote diversity and take a stand on social issues.
“I had a very 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 don’t attract young drinkers to come drink that brand, there’s no future for Bud Light,” Heinerscheid said last month on an episode of Apple’s “Make Yourself at Home” podcast.
Bud Light and Mulvaney declined to speak to The Associated Press for this story.
Bud Light has long been the best-selling beer in the United States. But its U.S. sales are down 2% so far this year, part of a long-running decline as younger consumers flock to sodas and other sparkling drinks, according to Bump Williams Consulting. These sales declines quickly accelerated in April. In the week ending April 15, Bud Light sales fell 17% from the same week a year ago. Meanwhile, rivals Miller Lite and Coors Lite both saw sales jump more than 17%.
Marketing experts say it’s possible the Bud Light experience will cause other brands to rethink the use of 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 and their supporters, but may turn to social media and more targeted advertising.
“They walk an extremely fine line. They want to please everyone, but that includes people who don’t like themselves,” Schwartz said of Bud Light.
Still, Schwartz said, many brands have had success featuring transgender or non-binary people in their marketing. In 2016, Secret deodorant ran an ad featuring a transgender woman in a bathroom stall, wondering whether to go out and face other women at the sink. Pantene shampoo aired ads and shorts supporting transgender people in 2021 as part of its Hair Has No Gender project. And Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial featured young people using different pronouns to describe themselves.
Thomas Murphy, an associate professor of branding at Clark University, said he tells brands that want to be inclusive to run ads with real people who can talk about the company’s efforts.
“They may have employees saying, ‘I love Bud Light. I worked here for 20 years, there are inclusive programs and I came here because I wanted a company that would embrace me,” he said. “Who couldn’t see and hear that person and say, ‘What a great company’?”
Instead, Bud Light ended up alienating even transgender customers because it didn’t support Mulvaney after boycott calls began, Schwartz said. Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth released a statement on April 14, but she didn’t specifically mention the controversy.
“We never intended to be part of a divisive discussion,” Whitworth said.
By comparison, Nike – which also faced boycott threats after sending workout clothes to Mulvaney – supported the transgender community in an Instagram post, encouraging followers to be kind and inclusive. Nike did not respond to requests for comment.
Manveer Mann, an associate professor of marketing at Montclair State University’s Feliciano School of Business, said Bud Light should have anticipated the backlash and had a plan in place to deal with it.
Nike learned that lesson in 2018, when it introduced football player Colin Kaepernick – who had protested against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem – in its advertisements. Mann said Nike briefly faced boycott threats, but he backed Kaepernick and his sales quickly picked up.
Mann believes Bud Light sales will eventually recover as well. But in the meantime, it alienates everyone, she says.
“Bud Light’s communication is unclear. Is it coming from your set of values or are these things just trendy?” Mann says. “You have to know what your values are and what the values of customers you are trying to reach.”