This Bud’s for Who?
Bud Light Controversy Represents an Inflection Point for Corporate America.
Countless critics have voiced opinions on Anheuser-Busch’s response to the Dylan Mulvaney controversy. Some have argued that Anheuser-Busch should have avoided partnerships that don’t align with its audience. Others have made the case that it was smart to look ahead and appeal to the inclusive values of an emergent market—a direction that many shareholders themselves have recently begun pushing for.
Regardless of personal stance, the recent controversy raises the question: In such a politically charged environment, how can corporations better prepare for knee-jerk marketplace reactions and determine whether an issue represents a movement or a moment?
Anheuser-Busch has time and again reaffirmed its commitment to Bud Light being a beer for every American. And this commitment to inclusivity can be seen through a long history of support for the queer community, including donating more than $13 million to local and national non-profit organizations advocating for LGBTQ+ equality.
However, when the Dylan Mulvaney controversy sparked anti-trans boycotts of Bud Light, the company seemed to abandon this decades’ long commitment. As the pressure built, they veered away from their values-based commitment and issued a carefully-worded press release saying that they, “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” downplaying the Mulvaney partnership altogether as, “one can, one post, one influencer, and not a campaign.”
Bud Light was reacting to a vocal marketplace rife with dissenting and divisive opinions. But should they have waited to see if they were facing a long-term threat to their reputation, or simply a short-lived boycott?
The key difference between those rarer boycotts that last and the many that flame out is whether they represent a movement or a moment, something representative and organized versus something reactive and nebulous.
Companies risk reputational jeopardy when they act reflexively before taking time to determine whether a movement or a moment is bearing down upon them. History tells us that neither social media outrage nor viral boycotts persist in the vast majority of cases. Recent boycotts of Chick-Fil-A, Disney, and even Budweiser itself, in 2017, didn’t make a dent on bottom lines.
It’s possible that in the heat of the moment, Anheuser-Busch misread the Dylan Mulvaney controversy as a long-term reputationally damaging incident rather than a short-lived marketplace reaction to a heated political debate. If Anheuser-Busch had not reacted so strongly to the public outcry, would the business have suffered as much as it did? Could they still be the number one-selling beer today?
Public relations and crisis communications are full of non-answers. There is the temptation to avoid upsetting any group, risking “cancellation”, meaning executives more often than not opting to tip-toe the line and issue statements devoid of any substance. But long-term reputation management requires a different approach.
History has shown that when brands undermine their established values based on fear, they may feel short-term relief, but in the long-term, this decision will erode the brand for the worse. Anheuser-Busch’s values were set in stone, with publicly marketed commitment to the queer community over decades. But as public outcry applied pressure on the company, Anheuser-Busch was perceived to have abandoned those values.
Brands need to approach issue management with a clear understanding of the broader social impacts that separate short-lived boycotts from long-term reputational and financial damage. It requires vigilant marketplace research and analysis to develop a thoughtful and strategic strategy for response.
By approaching issues from the perspective of how a controversy affects the enterprise as a whole – rather than only looking at a single brand or moment – companies will be better prepared to assess issues in the midst of a brewing crisis and determine the best path forward.
Account Executive, based in Washington, DC
Cade Stone is a communications consultant passionate about working with clients across sectors, sizes, and time zones to deliver tailored content to targeted audiences, with a particular interest in politics, tech, and global affairs.