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What lessons should brands take away from the 'Bud Light Effect'?

Scripps News interviewed marketing experts to explain the 'Bud Light Effect' and discuss lessons for brands moving forward.
What lessons should brands take away from the 'Bud Light Effect'?
Posted at 7:10 PM, Jun 24, 2023

It's a term that has brands across the country battening down the hatches. The so-called "Bud Light Effect."

"The Bud Light story is really astonishing," Tim Calkins said.

What started out as a Bud Light beer plug with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney back in April has become a tsunami of backlash and boycotts rocking brands like Anheuser-Busch, Target, Kohl's, and others who partner with or display LGBTQ+ themes, be it beer or tuck-friendly swimsuits.

Consumers bothered by these LGBTQ+ partnerships or displays have largely taken to social media to make their stance known. For example, musician Kid Rock decided to post a video to Instagram in which he shot up cases of Bud Light with a gun. Others have used their wallets to make their point.

"They're just pushing it in everybody's faces; that's just my opinion," Damian Basile, a shopper, said. "The only reason I'm coming here is because it's closer to my home. Other than that, I would not be shopping here."

In the case of Bud Light, its sales took a wallop in April, May, and June, prompting the brand to end its partnership with Mulvaney. For Target, a series of threats and even instances of physical attacks on employees led the chain to move its Pride Month displays to the back of some of its stores.

But marketing experts say the backtracking on partnerships and displays has only made things worse, with consumers who support the LGBTQ+ community now feeling abandoned at a time when more than 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been introduced so far this year.

"In other words, what happened was everybody was mad," Calkins said.

Tim Calkins is a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and previously spent over a decade managing brands at Kraft Heinz. He says the so-called 'Bud Light Effect' has many brands feeling uneasy about their next move.

"I think that has changed the world in lots of ways because this was the first time we saw that big of a backlash from a program that created that much trouble for the brand," Calkins said.

As a result, Calkins says he expects many brands will likely back away from topics they fear will be too controversial.

"Generally speaking, if you're leading a brand or leading an organization, you don't really want to get caught in the middle of those fights unless it is really key to your brand positioning or a key to what your organization stands for," Calkins said.

SEE MORE: Bud Light isn't the top-selling beer in the US anymore. This one is

From a bottom-line business standpoint, it may not be a fight worth fighting.

"You know, it's hard enough to attract a new customer and sell product and sell services. What you don't want to do as a brand leader is to send a lot of people away because you got your brand caught in an issue that isn't really related to what you're doing fundamentally," Calkins said.

Which is why experts say brands need to do some serious reflection.

"You need to ask yourself, what are you convicted about? Conviction is about what are you willing to stand for, even if you're the only one. Do some soul-searching, decide what you believe, and then take a step out on that belief," Marcus Collins said.

Marcus Collins is a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School and the author behind the award-winning book "For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want To Be."

"You don't have to respond to every single thing. Like, respond to the things that are meaningful for you. Not because it's a great marketing moment, but because it's real. Because you actually believe it," Collins said.

And Collins argues that playing it "safe" is no longer a "safe" marketing option for brands.

"We play to the middle because we feel like that's a risk-aversion strategy. That we don't offend anyone when we play in the middle," Collins said. "So for Bud Light or brands like Bud Light who say, 'Oh, we didn't mean to offend you; sorry, we'll take a step backward to sit in the middle, not being on either side,' both sides go, 'Meh, no, thank you.' And we think that, well, at least we're sort of safe where the majority of people are in the middle. But the people in the middle don't have an opinion."

He says one of the biggest lessons brands should take away from the so-called "Bud Light Effect" is to not flinch.

"Most brands stand their ground in the past. You take a brand like Nike that stood with Colin Kaepernick when he kneeled, and as a result, there were an opposition to the brand. And Nike said, Whatever we stick by athletes." Collins said. "And as a result, people who saw the world the way Nike does have believed what Nike believes. They bought two pairs of Nikes. It worked out well. The challenge we see here today is that Bud Light flinched in the face of resistance. And that's kind of a newer thing."

SEE MORE: Garth Brooks says his new Nashville bar won't boycott Bud Light

Especially on topics or communities, brands have spoken out before.

"I worked on Bud Light literally 11 years ago. We did work for marriage equality for this community. I've had clients from Bud Light tell me that these people matter, this community matters to us, which is why Bud Light has been there for years. They've had receipts of support. So, whenever this situation would present itself, Bud Light could have easily been like, 'Hey guys, we've been doing this forever for at least ten years. Why is this a problem now?" Collins said.

So where does this effect leave brands and their consumers now?

"Companies are going to always express their values, and they're not going to force them on anyone," Bob Witeck said.

Bob Witeck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Witeck Communications. He's spent more than 30 years advising corporations and nonprofits on their LGBTQ+ marketing strategies.

"My sense is that companies that are on board know that this is their future," Witeck said. "They're not going to withdraw from the fact that every customer matters to them, and they want to express that. And it could be gay people today, could be Latinos tomorrow, and African Americans next week. So marginalized communities understand risk."

But what about Pride Month?

"My first observation is that especially Pride season is not for lightweights," Witeck said. "This is a season of tough love for LGBTQ people, and missteps sort of are amplified currently."

And as for the future of brands, influencers, and social media...

"It's very hard to control what's going to pop and what's going to go big. And you can be one day on your brand and thinking everything's fine, and then two hours later there could be a Tik Tok video exploding where people are saying bad things about your brand or criticizing you for something that puts a huge amount of pressure on being quick to respond or being aware of what's happening. Of monitoring things," Calkins said. "Influencers are the world that we live in now, and I think we will continue to see influencers play a really big role in marketing."

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