photo from Wall Street Journal
Several months ago, I had an active discussion with my good friends, Brad Berens and Lana McGilvray about how brands were becoming more partisan and more polarizing. You can read that exchange here .
This came back to the forefront of my consciousness because of the firefight over Bud Light that claimed several victims this week. Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s head of marketing as well as her boss, Daniel Blake were “placed on leave”. The fact that it was an involuntary leave will help to cut through the PR clutter.
This battle in the culture war started when the company launched a promotion during March Madness that included Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender advocate and social media influencer. The MAGA crowd immediately began to scream for a boycott of Bud Light. Bud Light sales were down 17% YOY.There is a very good article in the Wall Street Journal about the whole imbroglio here .
I am surprised that anyone at Budweiser could have been surprised by the uproar. We live in an age of people with hair trigger fingers. They are always ready to launch into apocalyptic rhetoric about how one side or the other is about to send America straight to hell. I am not passing judgment on the decision to include Ms. Mulvaney in this campaign. I am ready to criticize Budweiser for not anticipating the backlash and not standing by its executives.
If a company wants to be relevant and edgy, it will inevitably get flack. Strong companies (see Nike), stand by their principles and their team. When Colin Kaepernick became the center of controversy for his stands on racial justice, Nike stood firm. Here’s a New Yorker article from a few years ago, about Nike’s decision.
Brand managers need to anticipate the range of reactions of all of the constituencies. Even at the risk of being sensitive to the point of paranoia, they need to ask “who might this piss off?” And the decide if the benefits outweigh the costs. Great brands take calculated risks. Risks. But calculated. In this case, it seems that math was never done. Bud Light lost sales. Two people lost jobs and reputation. And the MAGA hawks claimed another scalp.