The Gist

  • Brand messaging. Art and analytics are equally vital in brand messaging.
  • Crisis management. Effective crisis response often evolves into ongoing campaigns.
  • Brand evolution. Transforming a brand image requires consistent, ongoing communication.

Every now and then marketers receive reminders that brand messaging can be as much art as it is analytics. Crisis management yields those reminders quickly.

One of the most crucial lessons emerges from the Anheuser-Busch open letter addressing the controversy surrounding marketing videos featuring influencer Dylan Mulvaney. These occurrences serve as a potent reminder that brands must discern when to tackle the elephant in the room rather than merely focusing on their brand attributes. It also underscores that transforming a brand image, despite the speed of digital media, is not an overnight process.

The Bud Light Story

Dylan Mulvaney created two social media videos endorsing Bud Light as part of an NCAA March Madness campaign. In one of these videos, Mulvaney disclosed that Anheuser-Busch had sent a Bud Light can featuring their image, a gesture that Anheuser-Busch clarified was a one-off commemorative act. The laid-back videos underscored Mulvaney's humorous style, humorously admitting ignorance about the specific sport associated with March Madness, while suggesting everyone should enjoy a Bud Light.

The now-high profile blowback swiftly came from many social media users, protesting the campaign’s usage of a transgender person. Singer Kid Rock posted a video in which he shot cases of Bud Light beer. In another instance, influencer Bri Teresi also fired a semi-automatic rifle at a case of Bud Light.

On April 14, Brendan Whitworth, CEO of Anheuser-Busch, issued an open letter called Our Responsibility to America. In the letter, a response to the social media outcry, Whitworth shared that “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

Was selecting Mulvaney a sales misfire? Recent reports claim sales for Bud Light have declined since the campaign. Bud Light is considered the top-selling beer in the US market, having generated nearly $5 billion in sales during 2022. But the decline has raised eyebrows in the beer industry.

Busch executives did realign its management structure, requesting Bud Light's vice president of marketing and her boss take leaves of absence in the wake of the campaign. A bad match between brand and influencers can occur — I noted what goes into such combinations in a previous post on influencer choices.

However, numerous reports have suggested that Bud Light has been strategically repositioning its brand to appeal to younger demographics for some time. As part of this strategy, Anheuser-Busch has fostered connections with hundreds of influencers, aiming to expand the appeal of its products to increasingly diverse customer segments.

The Social Media History Of Dylan Mulvaney (So Far)

Mulvaney attracted followers as they documented their transition back during 2022. Their story attracted followers and propelled Mulvaney into the social media spotlight as an influencer. Mulvaney posts pictures and videos that promote positivity, joy and personal development insights meant "to help trans people to be seen." The audience Mulvaney gained led to various brand interests — an influencer campaign at Ulta and an athletic gear endorsement campaign with Nike, just before the Anheuser-Busch campaign.

Both Ulta and Nike faced criticism for their campaigns but continued to support Mulvaney. For instance, in Nike's campaign, Sharron Davies, a former swimmer who represented Great Britain in the Olympics, suggested in a tweet that by featuring a transgender individual who is not an athlete in a campaign for athletic gear, Nike was inadvertently undermining women's empowerment in sports.

Nike issued the following statement to support Mulvaney. "You are an essential component to the success of your community! We welcome comments that contribute to a positive and constructive discussion: Be kind. Be inclusive. Encourage each other. Hate speech, bullying, or other behaviors that are not in the spirit of a diverse and inclusive community will be deleted." 

In straightforward terms, Nike announced a direct action: the deletion of comments that conflict with their principles or values.

Related Article: Parrotheads and Margaritaville: A Case Study in Lifestyle Brand Building

The Trouble with Anheuser-Busch’s Letter

In contrast to Nike, Anheuser-Busch mentioned more about its beer and ideas in its public response rather than a specific action that a customer can decide to embrace.

The effort to avoid a controversy looked past several elephants in the room — having Mulvaney as a brand spokesperson and the excessive trolling that occurred after the campaign. The result is a negative non-apology apology that doesn’t speak to brand values.

Marketers with experience with press release communication noted the flaws in Whitworth’s comments. Sara McCord, CEO of McCord Communications, noted that a lack of commitment leads to more dire consequences than a murky brand message:

Learning Opportunities

“There’s an old adage: marketing to everyone is marketing to no one, and that is the best way to sum up Brendan Whitworth’s statement. He says: 'We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,' like it’s a brand value, but it’s simply an appeal to the masses. The statement fails to support anyone who would’ve felt targeted in recent days: those who support trans rights see that when the brand was attacked by conservatives it abandoned them, and those who do not support trans rights see no clear commitment to their agenda. This entire situation highlights the monetary consequences of performative activism, misunderstanding influencers, and influencer marketing and above all a lack of courage to stand up for what you believe in as a company."

Debra Dixon-Anderson, owner of PR firm Light of Gold PR, Marketing, and Consulting LLC also offered how crisis management sometimes changes crucial messaging:

“I suspect they [Anheuser-Busch] were advised not to address these issues directly and to instead focus on their brand, history, and to minimally mention diversity. In our experience, not addressing the actual issue is not always the best course of action ... When there are investors, donors, and advertisers to keep in mind, the statements put out post-crisis typically change. It appears that the statement was created to minimize any more damage and loss of investors, maintaining neutrality, while focusing on as many of Anheuser-Busch's positive brand attributes as possible.”

While companies strive to maintain neutrality on social issues, managers must understand that crisis response campaigns often evolve into ongoing ones when the controversy persists. It's crucial to avoid getting embroiled in exchanges with trolls to stay on message. This approach is exactly what Anheuser-Busch aimed to achieve with its open statement.

However, prominently featuring your product in a public service announcement can strike an inappropriate tone. It can be perceived as covert advertising masquerading as a genuine message, shifting attention toward the product rather than facilitating a sincere dialogue or establishing what boundaries should not be violated.

Related Article: Why Your Brand Should Care About Influencer Marketing

Your Metrics Can Guide Where Your Crisis Management Strategy Begins

I noted in the post "Tips for Avoiding and Managing Costly Branding Associations" that brands must examine their social media reach to identify where their crisis responses are best received. Measurement tools have long offered analytic insights displaying the best potential avenue for consistent communication. 

Highlighting message engagement is essential, especially as many brands reevaluate their social media campaign strategies against the bevy of online community options emerging since the pandemic. Brands should look at their visits, sessions and conversions from referral sources and determine how their brand messaging is exposed to the source audiences. Auditing how a brand reaches its customers, current and potential, is essential for evaluating how actions decouple brands from their customers.

It is especially essential for campaigns meant to reinvigorate audience attention. Branding must speak to current moments that are not a fleeting trend. Today’s demographics have not only demonstrated the current buying moment of many consumer groups, but they have also demonstrated that measurable results are possible. No product, service or company can evoke the same emotion across customer generations.

Positioning a Brand in Any Strategy Takes Time

Moreover, transforming a brand image necessitates consistent, ongoing communication. Reacting with changes in management doesn't convey this consistency. Anheuser-Busch is attempting to modify Bud Light's brand image to appeal to demographics that have emerged since the beer's introduction in 1982. Open letters and management departures do little to advance this goal.

Inclusive marketing is an integral part of today's customer experience. If established brands are adapting to meet these evolving expectations — and they should be — then executives and brand managers need to exhibit more patience with results and be prepared for challenges. Making too abrupt changes does more than shorten campaigns. It can lead to poor partnership and customer experiences, potentially causing irreparable harm.