How the Bud Light Boycott Changed Marketing

How the Bud Light Boycott Changed Marketing

More caution, better social monitoring and a more deliberate approach toward inclusive advertising

The idea behind Bud Light’s #EasyCarryContest, which debuted around this time last year, was straightforward: Offer people a chance to win $15,000 for posting a video of themselves carrying as many cans, bottles or glasses of beer as possible.

Much like some of the footage participants shared online, the outcome has been messy.

Some consumers began to boycott when they heard Bud Light had partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who posted a clip promoting the brand’s #EasyCarryContest. Others grew upset when they felt Bud Light and its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, weren’t defending Mulvaney or expressing support for the LGBTQ+ community.

The drop in demand has far exceeded the $15,000 in prize money. Last year, AB InBev’s North American revenue amounted to $15.1 billion, down $1.5 billion compared with 2022. Indeed, total dollar sales sunk lower than any year during the pandemic, when bars and concert halls were closed.

“Bud Light is the number 1 selling beer in the U.S. and we continue to invest big behind the brand, including the successful debut of the Bud Light Genie during Super Bowl 58,” said an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson, who noted the brand has also partnered with comedian Shane Gillis and country singer Zach Bryan. “Today, our most senior marketers oversee every aspect of our brand activities and Bud Light will continue to be there for beer drinkers during the best moments across sports, music and entertainment for years to come.”

On the first anniversary of Mulvaney’s post pushing the brand’s #EasyCarryContest, ADWEEK spoke with experts and industry insiders to get a sense of how marketing has changed in a post-Bud Light boycott world.

New vocabulary

The Bud Light boycott drove some brands from LGBTQ+ marketing and representation but helped others and their agency partners learn the value of long-term, unwavering commitment.

In the wake of the controversy and a stream of anti-LGTBTQ+ legislation throughout the United States, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) sought answers. An AIMM survey released in October found that 77% of consumers would stop buying from brands that back away from promises to diverse groups and causes. Further, 76% won’t come back unless a brand changes its practices.

In an ANA survey conducted in August and September 2023, 82% of marketers believe brands should increase LGBTQ+-inclusive marketing, with 97% saying it positively impacts brand perception. However, just over half actively targeted or included the LGBTQ+ community in their marketing efforts in the past year, with 39% citing fears of consumer backlash.

“We continue to hear silence in many instances, which is deafening, and that’s very sad,” said Lisette Arsuaga, co-founder of AIMM. “When you consider that more than 50% of those individuals are going to be allies or part of this segment, it’s a huge missed opportunity.”

Investment adviser LGBT Capital estimates global LGBTQ+ spending power at $4.7 trillion. In the U.S., the 7.2% of people who identify as LGBTQ+, according to Gallup, is almost double the percentage it was a decade ago and is far higher among Gen Z (20%).

Rana Reeves founded the RanaVerse creative agency in 2018 and, as CEO, has worked with brands including Coach, Airbnb and Citi to address cultural issues and support societal change. He noted that, before Bud Light, diversity, equity and inclusion were “pristine, sparkly terms” that brands embraced.

He now avoids those designations, which brands hoping to avoid controversy consider loaded. Instead, Reeves suggests brands approach LGBTQ+ communities through substantial, non-performative gestures. If an outdoor company wants to reach new audiences, he noted, it shouldn’t just cast random drag queens—it should showcase gay hikers.

“Still doing the work, whether it be systemically or frontline, but talking about it in spaces where you’re warm,” Reeves said. “That could be geographically, it could be channels—it is easier to exist on TikTok or Instagram than it is on Facebook with LGBTQ+ narratives.”

Emily Stutzman, co-owner and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based creative agency Happylucky, noted that while it would be ideal for brands to simply build off of their existing support for the LGBTQ+ members of their organizations, they shouldn’t be afraid to consult the communities they’re trying to reach.

“As a queer person and somebody who studies queer people and queer consumers, we know the queer community is an aspirational audience and can often be early adopters of trends,” Stutzman said. “Focusing on how to bring queer thinking and queer consumers into the brand more fully—instead of just in these moments of panic where we need to speak to them—has a competitive advantage.”

Ben Hennes, co-owner and chief creative officer at Happylucky, said he’s seen more brands ask themselves if they have a right and a responsibility to show up for the LGBTQ+ community before approaching his agency for a long-term strategy. Happylucky, in turn, has created strategic playbooks that ask brands how they’re supporting their own LGBTQ+ communities, whether that’s through fundraising or creating more inclusive spaces.

Last year, Happylucky helped its partner Adidas host its annual conference in Seattle. With help from the nonprofit Athlete Ally, the event featured LGBTQ+ athletes talking about their experiences.

“One thing we always come back to, especially around the conversation of brand safety, is the power of experiential and connecting with people IRL,” Hennes said. “It becomes a space that you as a brand can control.”

New monitoring

Beyond taking the fizz out of America’s most popular beer, the Bud Light drama has had a ripple effect on how brands prepare for crisis.

A senior corporate comms director at a London-based company listed on the FTSE said, post-Bud Light boycott, communication teams are leaning more on enhanced social sentiment analysis and media monitoring tools, sometimes powered by AI, to pre-empt risks and make quick decisions.

This shift chimes with PwC data showing that 58% of global business leaders say tech will play a key role in facilitating their crisis management programs. Three in four already say tech has helped their team navigate a crisis.

For those in the business of protecting reputation, the ability to pull the crisis management trigger faster is also becoming more important. There’s a consensus among industry experts the gap between Mulvaney’s original post and a clear statement from AB InBev showcased a failure in the beer giant’s ability to read the room and react promptly.

As the controversy raged on both sides of the spectrum, Bud Light went quiet on social. Two weeks after Mulvaney’s initial post blew up, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth issued his first statement. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” it read. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

This was too little, too late. For Stephanie Craig, president at DC-based public relations consultancy, the advice for brands that find themselves battling a crisis in the future: make it someone’s job to monitor your adherence to your values and give them a hotline to the C-suite.

“Speaking truth to power is critical,” she advised. “Management may not like to hear that it is falling short, but wouldn’t they rather hear it from a trusted confidant than an angry mob or a falling stock price?”

For Jamie Ray, co-founder of creator agency Buttermilk, there was a missed opportunity for Bud Light to re-chart its course and respond to the crisis through marketing.

“This wasn’t just about failing to connect to culture, it was about failing to understand your audience, prospective and existing, within the wider cultural context,” he said. “If any brand exists in an ego-centric echo chamber, not listening to its employees, peers or community of consumers, it will fail.”

New concerns

Another change that’s occurred following the Bud Light boycott: marketers are proceeding with more caution. The price for getting it wrong has become too great.

“Ever since the Bud Light thing blew up, you can almost feel the marketing world holding its breath,” said Maria Rodas, a business professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and former marketer who’s worked at Mars and General Mills. “I get it—brands want to avoid being the next social media storm, but it’s kind of sad to see risk-taking take a back seat.”

John Connors, CEO and founder of the full-service independent ad agency Boathouse recalled two companies telling him in recent months they’d prefer to “protect the brand” and “keep the ball in the middle of the field” when it comes to marketing ideas.

“There’s a tone now that we didn’t see or hear before,” said Connors.

At the influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy, brands are dedicating more time to making sure their customers share the same values and viewpoints as a creator’s audience.

“The Bud Light campaign simply re-emphasized the value of that process—especially when choosing a creator partner who aligns with the brand in an authentic way,” said Christopher Douglas, Billion Dollar Boy’s senior manager of strategy.

Another contentious presidential election promises to add more discord to an already fragile environment. More than four in five U.S. B2C marketing executives, for example, are concerned about marketing their brand during the upcoming election season, according to recent survey data from research firm Forrester.

“If you’re looking to do a big launch activation or brand experience event this summer, it could be picked up as part of the political conversation leading up to the election,” said Sadie Dyer, strategy director at Omnicom’s global brand experience firm Siegel+Gale. Dyer has therefore advised clients to think hard about timing, even if that means waiting to run their campaign next summer.

Although the media landscape has fractured into many channels, from CBS to Snapchat to Twitch, the Bud Light situation has shown why marketers should keep their entire consumer base in mind when targeting niche communities on specific platforms. It doesn’t mean brands should avoid speaking to different demographics or taking a stand on social issues; it does, however, mean they should be prepared to see themselves trending on social media.

“You can no longer expect to speak to one audience without the other audiences finding out about it,” said Dyer, who has worked with AB InBev in the past.

One question she thinks every brand should answer before sending a message out into the world, whether it appears on a billboard in Times Square or the comment section of a YouTube video: “Would you still do it if everybody heard about it?”

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