What companies can learn from Bud Light’s botched PR strategy after their trans influencer marketing post received backlash.
Influencer marketing may seem like small potatoes for companies like Bud Light, who pay millions for a 30-second Super Bowl ad every year. Nevertheless, last month’s uproar on social media regarding the company’s paid influencer sponsorship, and their response to those claiming to be offended by it, offers a cautionary tale for marketing and public relations professionals to keep the lines of communication open when embarking on new campaigns.
In early April, the company sent a specially packaged beer to transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in celebration of March Madness and the content creator’s “Days of Girlhood” series. This was part of the brand’s ongoing efforts to connect with influencers and younger drinkers. Mulvaney posted a video dressed as Audrey Hepburn’s character from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, enjoying said beers and showing the audience a Bud Light can with her face on it to promote Bud Light’s new sweepstakes contest. Almost immediately, anti-trans backlash, trolling, and boycotting ensued.
An article in Vox described how the company has “found itself in the eye of the anti-trans storm,” with country artists like Travis Tritt banning the beer from his tour, and other politically conservative representatives and celebrities like Kid Rock calling for a boycott.
Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, released an apology statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth with the sentiments “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” and “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
The backtracking of the statement doesn’t take ownership of Bud Light’s initial intent to promote inclusivity, or connect with a younger generation, nor does it take a clear approach to appease those against the campaign. Instead, the company chose to hide behind easy platitudes – that they didn’t want to be “part of a discussion”, an extremely naïve response to what has been a long-term heated topic in a country with notoriously polarized political views.
Since then, Anheuser-Busch also announced that two of its executives were taking a leave of absence.
The lesson is this: If your brand decides to take part in hot-button issues, you must be prepared and have a plan with your public relations and crisis communications team so that you are aligned on a response when things get heated. And if you plan to take a stand, be prepared to back it up.
The pale attempt to stay neutral hurts your message more than “picking a side.” Bud Light’s unclear stance doesn’t protect the partnership with Mulvaney. By not standing by the company’s decision to sponsor her, Bud Light is leaving her and her millions of followers and supporters in the dust. If the goal of the sponsorship was to promote inclusivity amongst the brand, the decision to retreat when faced with opposition demonstrated that the company completely missed the boat on what being an ally is all about.
Bud Light going dark on social media after the backlash, only to emerge with Whitworth’s weak lukewarm statement allows more concerns to fester on both sides of the aisle. Coverage of the issue on PR NEWS points to the insincere practice known as pinkwashing, or, “attempting to monetarily and reputationally benefit from LGBTQ+ support messaging and marketing, often as a way to distract from alternative agendas or dated social and cultural policies within a company.”
For brands, it’s important to remember other paid partners are watching, and they may decide not to continue their partnerships based on how (or if) you defend your strategies. It’s a poor strategy to be caught unprepared for that response.
Bud Light is learning that you can’t please everyone. Companies need to have a prepared and clear strategy for if, how, and when they step into major socio-cultural and political conversations – and be prepared to articulate and demonstrate how decisions support corporate values. At the risk of sounding cliché, companies cannot just talk the talk. Walk the walk….or take a walk.