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For years, Budweiser was the King of Beers and Anheuser-Busch was the King of Marketing. Its commercials on television, radio and print were the envy of the advertising world.
Now, a single promotional initiative gone awry threatens the company’s standing as a marketing machine.
Bud Light is the top-selling beer in America, but its frothy sales have taken a massive hit in the past month. A short TikTok video by transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, and a single can of beer with her face on it, has brought the once-mighty A-B marketing machine crashing to the ground.
“It basically was a post from an influencer that got blown very far out of proportion. It has been adopted by a certain section of the country as the calling card for anti-trans (support). They’re calling to boycott Bud Light,” said David Steinman, vice president and executive editor of industry publication Beer Marketer’s Insights.
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The informal boycott has been successful, slashing the brand’s sales by as much as 26% in a single week. If the trend continues, Bud Light could lose its position as the No. 1 beer in America, said Bump Williams of Bump Williams Consulting, which specializes in the alcoholic beverage industry.
“It’s self-inflicted,” said Robert Lachky, former chief creative officer at Anheuser-Busch.
Called “One of adworld’s greatest fixtures” by AdAge magazine, Lachky worked on the “Wassup?!” and frogs campaigns, as well as the iconic Clydesdale ads of the 1990s and 2000s and “Real Men of Genius,” which received more awards than any other radio campaign.
“It’s a complete lack of corporate oversight, and it’s been that way since (InBev) took the company over,” he said.
InBev, a Belgian-based international brewery, bought Anheuser-Busch in 2009 and forced out many executives, including Lachky, and overhauled the marketing staff.
“Effectively, it took us 20 years to take Bud Light beer to the No. 1 beer in the country, and it took them one week to dismantle it,” Lachky said.
Anheuser-Busch was flying high in 1979, when it launched one of the most effective and memorable taglines of all time, “This Bud’s for you.”
That campaign was followed by one hit after another. Three frogs croaking “Bud,” “Weis” and “Errrrr” proved to be enduringly popular — a writer at Adweek later called it one of the “most iconic alcohol campaigns in advertising history.”
A campaign featuring friends calling each other and saying “Whassup?” followed, and was an equally huge hit.
Sales soared. At its peak, in 1988, Anheuser-Busch brewed more than 50 million barrels of Bud. And when the brand slipped to No. 2 in 2001, the beer that surpassed it was Bud Light.
Bud Light’s current tagline, “Easy to drink, easy to enjoy” was unveiled February in a commercial that aired during the 2023 Super Bowl. In an earnings call with investors and analysts on Thursday, A-B InBev chief executive officer Michel Doukeris called the tagline “a strong message for Bud Light.”
Perry Drake, who teaches marketing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, disagrees.
“It sounds like a tagline for a nice glass of white wine if you ask me. Not Bud Light,” he said.
But that is a potential minor misstep compared to the apparent marketing faceplant of working with a transgender influencer. That problem was then compounded by the brand’s marketing director, who is now on a leave of absence, insinuating that Bud Light drinkers are all frat boys.
The marketing director’s remarks were an unforced error, but the idea of appealing to the LGBTQ community was fine and well-intentioned, Drake said.
“I think it was executed really badly. They broke one of the rules of influencer marketing, and that is to make sure your influencer aligns with your customer segment,” he said.
The mistake shocked him, because the marketing people at Anheuser-Busch pride themselves for knowing their customers well and engaging with them, he said.
“If you want to work with the LGBTQ community, there are ways to do that. You could release rainbow-colored cans during Pride Week, and (customers) could buy them or not, as they choose,” Drake said.
“It’s Marketing 101, as far as I’m concerned.”
Pier Yvette Alsup, teaches a class in inclusive marketing strategies at Washington University. She said that the idea of using a transgender influencer to promote Bud Light was smart and forward-thinking, a way to reach new customers.
“If you’re trying to reach a new market or an emergent market and you’re looking at what’s changing in terms of demographics, you should be aware of their values,” she said.
Appealing to young beer-drinkers made sense from a marketing point of view, she said.
“(But) I think the timing may not have been ideal. Reading the room, we as Americans are in a hyperpolitical period,” she said.
Alsup cited a 2021 survey by the Bauer Leadership Center at Washington University and Vrity in which 55% of respondents said they paid more attention to the political stands of companies than they did just one year before.
Generations X, Y and Z — people born between 1965 and 2012 — were especially inclined to look at a brand’s values before purchasing.
Getting through the crisis and restoring some of the lost business will require a corporate mea culpa.
“You go out there and you say, ‘We don’t always get things right even with the best intentions. But there’s always room for improvement as a company and we’re always learning new things. And we want to keep the lines of communication open,'” Alsup said.
Drake, at UMSL, said he thought it would be best for Anheuser-Busch to keep quiet and let the controversy die out. The overall impact on the company should be minimal, he said.
“In the long term, I think it will be forgotten. It will just be something that will show up when you Google ‘the 10 worst marketing campaigns ever.'”