Ad Flap Leaves Bitter Aftertaste for Bud Light and Warning for Big Business
When she was named Anheuser-Busch’s marketing vice president, Alissa Heinerscheid explained in a recent podcast interview, “I had this super clear mandate: We need to evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand.” Doing that, she said, “means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive.”
But the limits of that mandate, and of how Anheuser-Busch defined “inclusive,” became apparent in recent days, when the company announced that Ms. Heinerscheid and her boss, Daniel Blake, were on a leave of absence after a wave of right-wing outrage over a Bud Light marketing campaign that involved the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
The backlash and subsequent scrambling provide a lesson in the newly unsettled politics of corporate America. In the past decade, major companies have leaned into liberal social politics that are increasingly anathema to their longstanding allies in the Republican Party and the consumers who vote for them.
Bud Light’s trials this month have underscored the difficulty of straddling that divide. Ms. Heinerscheid’s efforts reflected the company’s aspirations of shoring up years of eroding market share among consumers in predominantly liberal urban areas. Ms. Heinerscheid did not respond to a request for comment.
The resulting furor, however, has led to double-digit sales declines in rural red-state markets, where a broader revolt against transgender rights has become central to Republican politics.
“They’ve stepped into a polarized America,” said Benj Steinman, the editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, an industry trade publication. “They’re in the center of the culture wars in a way that no company could possibly want to be.”
On April 1, Ms. Mulvaney posted a video on her Instagram account showing off a custom Bud Light can featuring her face, which brand marketers had sent her as part of a March Madness promotion. A backlash and boycott quickly followed, driven by conservative media outlets and personalities like the musician Kid Rock, who posted an expletive-laden video on Instagram of himself mowing down several cases of the beer with a submachine gun.
Sales of Bud Light, the largest brand for Anheuser-Busch InBev, dropped 17 percent by value for the week ending April 15, compared with a year ago, according to one industry report. In a statement about the executives on leave, Anheuser said, “We have made some adjustments to streamline the structure of our marketing function to reduce layers so that our most senior marketers are more closely connected to every aspect of our brands’ activities.”
Despite the drop, Anheuser-Busch’s stock has barely faltered and is currently near its high point in the past year, suggesting investors may believe the storm will be short-lived.
“Companies will not end the standard business practice of including diverse people in ads and marketing because a small number of loud, fringe anti-L.G.B.T.Q. activists make noise on social media,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization GLAAD, said in a statement. She noted that a 2020 survey the organization conducted in conjunction with Procter & Gamble found three-quarters of non-L.G.B.T.Q. Americans were comfortable seeing L.G.B.T.Q. people in ads.
The boycott of Bud Light has divided prominent Republicans and campaign organizations, too. Many have rushed toward the latest front in the culture war, including several 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls.
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate who has campaigned on criticism of corporate progressivism, has raised money off the Bud Light episode, which he argues is emblematic of how top corporate executives are increasingly embracing liberal cultural values at odds with their companies’ consumers. “I think what Budweiser did would otherwise be inexplicable but for a corporate culture created by some of those top-down forces in American life,” he said.
In an interview this month with the right-wing media personality Benny Johnson, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is expected to enter the 2024 presidential race soon, said, “It’s part of a larger thing where corporate America is trying to change our country, trying to change policy, trying to change culture.”
But others in the party have urged restraint in light of Anheuser-Busch’s Republican campaign donations, which led supporters of L.G.B.T.Q. rights to boycott the company as recently as two years ago.
On his podcast this month, Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, cautioned against “destroying an American and iconic company for something like this,” criticizing the Bud Light campaign but reminding his audience of its parent company’s history of donating to Republican political campaigns.
After posting an online fund-raiser mocking Bud Light this month, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which received more than $464,000 in donations from Anheuser-Busch last year, took down the page within minutes, The Daily Beast reported.
The extent to which the backlash against Bud Light has affected the company’s sales is unusual. Other companies that have in recent years found themselves the target of ire on the right over race and gender politics, like Nike and Disney, or on the left over support of former President Donald J. Trump and his stolen election claims, like Goya Foods, have paid little for it with consumers.
Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies the intersection of social movements and consumer behavior, says that for many companies that have openly embraced racial justice politics and L.G.B.T.Q. rights in recent years, such gestures reflect an awareness that “it’s another way to differentiate yourselves in a competitive marketplace.”
He cited Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which has built brand identity and loyalty for decades in part by wearing its roots in the hippie enclave of Burlington, Vt., and its liberal politics on its sleeve. “Then suddenly that bucket is not just cream and sugar, it’s something else,” he said.
But Anson Frericks, who was Anheuser-Busch’s president of U.S. operations until last year, said that logic didn’t necessarily hold for his former company: a behemoth of a brand with a customer base that was historically divided more or less evenly between the two sides of the country’s increasingly stark partisan divide, and with an identity associated more with Clydesdales, Americana and humorous Super Bowl commercials than social justice.
“There’s an authenticity element to what Ben & Jerry’s does,” said Mr. Frericks, who is now co-founder and president with Mr. Ramaswamy of Strive Asset Management, an investment firm that has positioned itself against the trend toward socially and environmentally conscious investing.
“When you have these large corporations that have a historic brand identity, it just looks inauthentic when they’re all of a sudden getting involved in these social campaigns.” Anheuser-Busch, he argued, had “lost track of the consumer.”
The company’s backtracking, though, has left it with few defenders.
“This was their opportunity to say, ‘We do stand with the L.G.B.T.Q. community and specifically the trans community,’” said Stacy Lentz, the chief executive of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, the philanthropic foundation of the historic gay bar in Manhattan.
Ms. Lentz is also a co-owner of Stonewall Inn, which refused to sell Anheuser-Busch products during Pride weekend two years ago over the company’s support of Republican lawmakers it considered anti-L.G.B.T.Q. She said the boycott had led to heartening conversations with representatives from the company, and she had been further encouraged by the promotion involving Ms. Mulvaney — and dismayed by its retreat from it.
“They were going after the younger generation,” she said. “But that’s a really hard thing to do on a marketing level, to be all things to all people. And it failed massively.”
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