Why Anheuser-Busch should hold its nerve

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Anheuser-Busch made headlines last month following a Bud Light campaign involving Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender actress and TikTok influencer.

This incident has been framed, incorrectly in my view, as a cautionary tale for marketers after right-wing politicians criticised the brand as being “woke” and initiated a boycott.

The incident began innocently enough, with Mulvaney posting a lighthearted video to her 1.8 million Instagram followers. “This month, I celebrated my 365th day of womanhood, and Bud Light sent me possibly the best gift ever: a can with my face on it,” she said.

“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” said Anheuser-Busch’s CEO, Brendan Whitworth, somewhat defensively.

Jim Geraghty from the conservative National Review thundered that Bud Light, “want to sell to people who, up until now, have had little or no interest in buying or drinking Bud Light.”

But reaching out to new audiences is, of course, the very essence of marketing.

This is especially the case when attempting to revive a brand that has been experiencing a long-term decline. Bud Light’s US volume sales have fallen by 6.4 per cent in the year leading up to March 24, according to Nielsen data.

Moreover, Bud Light does not conform to the stereotypical image associated with conservative states in America.

It was introduced in 1982 as a lower carbohydrate, less bitter spin-off of Budweiser. It followed in the footsteps of Miller Lite, which originated as a diet beer catering to calorie-conscious individuals during the fitness boom.

The beers currently usurping Bud Light’s market share in the United States are sharper-tasting imports like Corona, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, and Modelo Especial.

“If we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light,” admitted Alissa Heinerscheid, the brand’s vice-president of marketing, with admirable candour during a podcast interview before the controversy.

Bud Light is a declining asset that needs to regain its appeal among millennials and Gen-Zers. That is the economic reality.

“These efforts to broaden Bud Light’s reach made perfect sense and it has since gained free publicity,” argues John Gapper in the FT.

“The clamour does not change the fact that it needs more drinkers, whether pick-up drivers, urban couples or trans actresses. The rest is froth.”

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