Bud Light's Strategic Misstep: A Lesson on Commitment and Inclusivity

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Bud Light found themselves in hot water recently, and while I’m typically not one to trendjack, I do think this recent kerfuffle is worthy of discussion. Especially because I think their miss-step was a basic and entirely avoidable one. I also want to share my two cents on why brands should embrace inclusivity, put people first, and never cave to a loud-mouthed minority's intolerance. 

Bud Light's “Controversial” Move

So here's the deal: Bud Light sent an influencer named Dylan Mulvaney a handful of beers, in early April. Mulvaney, in turn, posted a video of herself dressed like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, using said beers to celebrate both March Madness and her first year of womanhood. One of the cans featured her image. It was part of a paid sponsorship deal and promotion for some sort of sweepstakes challenge where people can win $15,000 from Bud Light by sending in videos of themselves carrying a lot of beers.

This made some people very very mad, and not because Holly Golightly wasn’t really a beer gal (her preference was the White Angel, a boozy mix of one-half vodka, one-half gin, no vermouth, which… well you might need to make one for yourself before reading on).

No, instead, they’re upset because Mulvaney is transgender. 

* Gasp *

The Anti-Trans Storm and Bud Light's Response

Now, Bud Light has found itself in the eye of the anti-trans storm. Kid Rock is so angry he is shooting cans, and Travis “Big-Emotions” Tritt says he’s banning the brand from his tour. Many on the right are calling for a complete boycott of the beer. If this all sounds ludicrous, it’s because it kind of is. It’s also indicative of where we are in the United States today.

Does the Boycott Really Matter?

In terms of hurting sales, boycotts tend not to be super effective for large brands as most people don’t respond, let alone stick to them. Remember the Great Keurig Boycott of 2017? Or Frito-Lay in 2021? Or, more recently, when people were mad because M&Ms were girls? 

Calm down, Tuck. It’s just chocolate…
Calm down, Tuck. It’s just chocolate…

AB-InBev's Strategy and Bud Light's Potential Win

Here's the thing, I've worked with AB-InBev, they don't generally do anything like this without a massive amount of research and a long-term plan. A large part of AB's overall strategy for the last 50 years has been to target first-time legal drinkers. They know how important that first celebration of turning 21 is, and that your first beer is statistically the brand you are most likely to become loyal to.

And if we look at the demographics of Gen-Z and the upcoming Gen-A, they skew heavily toward the progressive side of social issues. Generally being more open and accepting of diversity and inclusivity.


Anheuser-Busch, which is getting a ton of earned media out of this, at first appeared to largely be riding the wave, even through the backlash. And let's be honest the backlash is only from a small but very loud group of people. Which I am almost 100% sure they were not only planning for but hoping for. Rage-Farming style marketing tactics are quite common now a days. If they could commit to the new progressive tone they have set, they may well be on track to win over many new drinkers.

The CEO's Statement: The Misstep

But with the reports that their sales dropped over 17% less than a week after, Anheuser-Busch released a lengthy, but quite tepid statement from its CEO, Brendan Whitworth, saying he is “responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew” and highlighting the number of people the company and its distributors employ. “We have thousands of partners, millions of fans and a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere,” he 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.” That was so vague it could mean literally anything to anyone.

To me, this was the massive misstep. Not only does this statement look like the brewer is walking back its stated DEI commitments (which will just anger progressive customers and staff), but it’s not going to cool any heads on the right. 

Now everyone is just pissed off and for what? 

Don't Abandon Ship in the Middle of the Storm

A drop of 17% in sales for Bud Light would certainly be a lot of money for many companies. But we know how boycotts work for large established brands like Bud Light, Nike, or Keurig. Your sales might dip in the short term, but they pick up as new customers buy into your new messaging and as old customers silently end their boycott because the performative rage is no longer worth the inconvenience of manually brewed coffee or the overpriced “Ultra Right” beer (that is still probably contract brewed by AB’s Goose Island anyway).

If Bud Light had committed to the strategy, not only would they have won new progressive drinkers and fortified their brand for the future, but the previous customers would have eventually ended their boycott silently once they realized that no one cares anymore and that other brands, especially MillerCoors, are just as if not more openly progressive.

My point here is that if you have a strategy based on strong data and solid reasoning, don't abandon ship when you hit a bump in the road, especially when the specific thing you planned on happening happens. Transition takes time.

AB isn’t Innocent

An important aside here is that AB InBev is hardly some pro-trans hero. The company’s recent statement signals it’s at the very least aware that it’s angered some of its customers, and beyond that, this Mulvaney partnership is ultimately about the company trying to generate profits. It also papers over some much less LGBTQ-friendly actions. Anheuser-Busch has made multiple donations to anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans politicians very recently.

The Bottom Line: People-Centered Strategy

I know you came here to read a blog about strategy, but strategy only works when it's centered around people. And I am personally of the opinion that strategy should be used for the wellbeing of all people, not just shareholders. Members of the LGBTQIA+ are people, no matter what some people might wish, and they deserve the same equity and representation as anyone else.

And while I typically get the creepy crawlies when big brands try to exploit LGBTQIA+ issues for marketing or branding without truly committing to the cause, I'd rather live in a world where consumer pressure compels brands to be more inclusive and less shitty.

Luckily, most of us don't run massive multi-trillion dollar behemoth brands, and it costs nothing for us to choose to be on the right side of history.

So, what's the takeaway? Commit to well-reasoned initiatives, embrace inclusivity and diversity, and, most importantly don't let a vocal minority's intolerance hinder your inclusive business strategy.

After all, what are we doing if we aren’t trying to make the world a better place for everyone?

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