Bud Light’s “Inclusive” Marketing Campaign Angers Core Customers

Can a Transgender TikTok Influencer Be a More Effective Brand Ambassador than Spuds MacKenzie?

4/11/23 – – Reputations built over decades can be destroyed in minutes. The same holds true for brands, and we may be seeing this harsh reality play out for Bud Light, the best selling beer in America.  

If you are not aware of the controversy, Bud Light’s marketing team recently entered into a promotional relationship with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender “influencer” with 10 million followers on TikTok. As soon as Mulvaney began posting endorsements for the beer, the hops hit the fan.

It doesn’t take a marketing genius (or a bartender) to understand the dissonance here. Why would a brand so indelibly associated with sports-loving, tavern-dwelling, unapologetically cisgender men get within 100 yards of the issue of gender identity? How do you get from Spuds MacKenzie to Dylan Mulvaney?

Alissa Heinerscheid, the marketing executive in charge of Bud Light, explained the strategy in a podcast interview posted on Facebook. Here’s a portion of her explanation:

This brand is in decline . . . and if we don’t attract young drinkers to drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light. So, I had this super clear mandate. It’s like we need to evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand and what I brought to that was a belief in, okay, what is, what does evolve and elevate mean? It means inclusivity. It means shifting the tone. It means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter and brighter and different and appeals to women and to men. And representation is, it’s sort of the heart of elevation. You’ve gotta see people who reflect you in the work. And we had this hangover. I mean, Bud Light had been kind of a brand of fratty, kind of out-of-touch humor and it was really important that we had another approach.    

When I first saw this interview, my thoughts went back to a Detroit Ad Club luncheon I attended years ago. The topic of the day was the demise of General Motors’ Pontiac and Oldsmobile divisions. While the auto industry mavens on the panel pointed to a number of reasons for retiring the brands, there was consensus that ill-conceived marketing campaigns had hastened their deaths.

In the late 1980s Oldsmobile launched its “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign in an effort to attract younger buyers. The catchy phrase insulted the brand’s base customers and failed to interest the next generation of drivers.

This misfire was outdone in 2004 when Oprah Winfrey gave away 276 Pontiac G6 sedans to members of her studio audience on her afternoon talk show. Pontiac was GM’s muscle car, enthusiasts division. The just-introduced G6 was the offspring of the GTO and Grand Prix. While the primary customers for the G6 were young men who expressed their identities through their cars, Oprah’s studio audience (and her TV audience) was made up almost entirely of women. Not a lot of men wanted to pull up in “the car Oprah gave away for free on TV.”  (The stunt also lost some punch when the recipients of the cars were hit with $6,000 tax bills.) 

In each of these automotive cases, marketers were attempting to breathe life into declining brands by expanding the customer base for their products. And in each case marketers chased away existing, loyal customers, while failing to interest new buyers.

Analyzing Bud Light’s new “evolving, elevated” positioning, Yogi Berra’s famous saying keeps coming to mind: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Bud Light’s sales have declined, along with the sales of most mass-marketed beers in a disrupted, highly competitive market environment. But the brand is still the most purchased beer in America, with sales doubling that of the number-two beer, Coors Light. Any adjustment to the sales pitch has to be executed with a high-level of respect for and understanding of the millions of customers who are drinking Bud Light at home, in bars and at sporting events — despite their lifestyles or sense of humor.

Enjoying a Bud Light is an escape from the politics and social warfare they encounter in their lives. Destroy that promise and you are headed down the path of Oldsmobile and Pontiac. It’s never wise to try to add customers — or achieve “inclusivity” — by subtracting customers.

In the meantime, bars in Nashville are reporting zero sales of Bud Light, which had been the most popular beer they offered. Videos of right-leaning celebrities shooting cans of Bud Light in their backyards are trending online. And this comment posted on Facebook in response to Alissa Heinerscheid’s interview represents the dominant view being expressed by “former” customers:   

“Coors Lite called. They wanted to thank you for the absolute BEST ad campaign they’ve ever not had to pay for!!!”

UPDATE: 4/22/23 – – According to today’s New York Post, “the Bud Light senior marketing executive behind the controversial Dylan Mulvaney ad campaign has taken a leave of absence . . . Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing for the popular beer, will be replaced by Budweiser global marketing VP Todd Allen, AdAge reported on Friday . . . Heinerscheid has led the brand since June. It’s unclear if her replacement will be permanent.”


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