Case Study #6: Bud Light & Social Media Influencer Dylan Mulvaney

By: Charlene Co and Chidinma Obi Odunukwe, 2023

On April 1, 2023, American beer producer Bud Light sent influencer Dylan Mulvaney customized Bud Light beer cans that featured her image to celebrate the anniversary of her gender transition. Mulvaney, a trans influencer who rose to fame as she documented her transition, went on to post a video of herself on her social media accounts dressed as the character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, toasting to “March Madness” and “day 365 of womanhood” (Mulvaney, 2023). In the post, which was a paid sponsorship, she also encouraged people to send videos of themselves carrying Bud Light beers for a chance to win US $15,000 (Mulvaney, 2023). The video was posted on her Instagram and TikTok accounts, where Mulvaney had over 1.8 million and over 10 million followers, respectively.

The post went viral. While some cheered Mulvaney on (Walsh, 2023), the post spurred fury among Bud Light’s consumer base—notably far-right conservatives—followed by calls to boycott the brand (Stewart, 2023). Among the high-profile protestors were American rocker Kid Rock, who was seen shooting cans of Bud Light while spewing expletives (Kid Rock, 2023); country artists John Rich and Travis Tritt severed ties with the beer, saying they’re banning the brand from their tour (Daw, 2023). On the other hand, podcaster Joe Rogan and radio jock Howard Stern weighed in, calling the vicious reactions exaggerated (Di Placido, 2023).

As discussions surrounding the backlash and the reaction (or lack thereof) from parent company Anheuser-Busch continued in the following weeks, so did reports of Budweiser’s sales dipping. At the end of April, there were reports that Bud Light sales had fallen more than 11% (Philipps, 2023); on May 13, sales were reportedly down by 28.4% (Wile, 2023). In early June, Budweiser was reported to have lost the bragging rights as the “#1 Selling Beer Brand,” with Modelo Especial taking the coveted spot (Revel, 2023).

Actions Taken

Anheuser-Busch releases a statement (April 3, 2023)

In the face of growing criticism, on April 3, Anheuser-Busch, maker and parent company of Bud Light, defended its decision to work with Dylan Mulvaney as a brand influencer through a released statement:

“Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics. From time to time, we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and brand influencers like Mulvaney. This commemorative can was a gift to celebrate a personal milestone and is not for sale to the general public.” (Hur, 2023)

The company’s first attempt at alleviating the situation was widely ill-received. Critics saw the statement as refusing to take a side or, at the very least, standing by its decision to take on Mulvaney as a paid ambassador (Bronner, 2023).

CEO releases a statement (April 14, 2023)

Two weeks after the Mulvaney post, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth issued a statement titled “Our Responsibility to America,” which stated that they “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer” (Anheuser-Busch, 2023).

Whitworth adds that he is “responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew” and mentions 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 (Anheuser-Busch, 2023).

Social media (in)action (April 14, 2023)

There was no activity on Bud Light’s Instagram account for two weeks after the Mulvaney post. On April 14, it shared a photo of a beer on Instagram with the caption: “TGIF?” Some of its followers were disappointed with the brand’s silence and expressed their dissatisfaction in the comment section, none of which Bud Light addressed. Bud Light then turned off the option to comment on their posts.

Leadership shakeup (April 21, 2023)

Alissa Heinerscheid, VP of Marketing for Bud Light, and marketing executive Daniel Blake took a leave of absence, with Budweiser global marketing VP Todd Allen taking over in the interim (Springer, 2023). The company said that this move was part of streamlining its marketing structure, so it can “maintain focus on the things we do best: brewing great beer for all consumers, while always making a positive impact in our communities and on our country” (Beer, 2023).

Cancellations of April events

Citing safety concerns amid alleged employee threats, a Budweiser distributor in Springfield, Missouri, cancelled all planned appearances of the Clydesdale horses following the Mulvaney backlash (Zymeri, 2023). The Clydesdales horses, which have grown as a symbol of the repeal of the prohibition of beer in the 1930s, have been an integral part of Anheuser-Busch’s marketing and advertising for decades (Anheuser-Busch, n.d.), even being featured in Super Bowl commercials—the penultimate annual advertising moment for an American beer company. 

PR Learnings

By collaborating with Dylan Mulvaney, Bud Light detached from its core audience.

This Bud Light campaign violated the cardinal rule of communication, which is to know your audience and put them first (Schechter, 2023). Historically, Budweiser’s ads and promotions revolved around its sponsorships and partnerships with sports teams and major sporting events, with a message that a Bud Light, or a Budweiser, can be best enjoyed while watching a sports game; this strongly suggested that Bud Light has a male-dominated target market. The brand’s core value is that Budweiser “brings people together for game time” (Budweiser, n.d.).

And this worked: according to Beer Marketer’s Insights, Anheuser-Busch held roughly 39% of the beer market in the United States in 2021 (National Beer Wholesalers Association, n.d.).

Interestingly, however, Bud Light has, in fact, created inclusive campaigns in the past. In 2016, the brand launched the “Bud Light Party” campaign that featured American comedians, Seth Rogan and Amy Schumer, in an ad meant to “champion the brand’s message of inclusivity among modern beer drinkers and bringing people together” (Anheuser-Busch, n.d.). This invites a question: did Bud Light try to ascertain the political “threshold limits” of its primary audience regarding the LGBTQ conversation? Did it, perhaps, push the envelope a bit too far for its customers’ political leanings with the Dylan Mulvaney campaign?

The company gave a cowardly and tepid response to an issue both sides felt very strongly about.

The company failed to take a definitive stand on the issue: does it fiercely defend its decision to make Mulvaney a brand ambassador and, by extension, stand by its support for the LGBTQ community, or will it side with its established far-right consumer base?

While its first released statement attempted to defend the move to have Mulvaney as a brand ambassador, it needed more determination; the statement gave the impression that the brand was sitting on the fence and refused to take a side. It was a missed opportunity to reinforce the company’s direction to be more inclusive. The second statement from the CEO read like a sanitized canned response, which, despite its length, did not say anything substantial that spoke to the intense emotions felt by either side.

Bud Light did too little and too late.

Mulvaney posted the video on April 1 and immediately received backlash. This issue was kept in the media for most of the month, with reports of dropping sales attributed to the controversy coming in well into the two months that followed. Bud Light’s responses were few and far between. Presumably, the company thought that people would eventually lose interest by not bringing more attention to it. Instead, this silence led to a flurry of theories and misinformation.

Rumors swirled that no one at a senior level at Anheuser-Busch knew about the partnership. At the same time, a satirical website published a post that claimed Anheuser-Busch let the marketing team behind this campaign go. It was shared by social media users as fact, prompting the company to confirm that “there is no truth to that statement” and reiterated that the commemorative beer can sent to Mulvaney with her face on it was not intended for wider release (Tulp, 2023).

A problem of mixed messaging: Is Bud Light, in fact, for everyone, or loyal to its most ardent fans?

Today, brands face the conundrum of whether they must re-think their marketing and communications strategies so that they resonate more with ethical and socially responsible consumers—or, as some might put it, the “woke” generation of customers. While admirable and not to mention long overdue, if not done thoughtfully, these well-meaning intentions can cause brands to venture into politically dangerous territory where they might find themselves back-pedaling on their words because they are caught in the crossfire between the new customers they want to reach and the established ones who served them well in the past. The Bud Light-Dylan Mulvaney case study is case in point.

Bud Light’s VP of marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid, was always vocal about her desire to make the brand more inclusive. In a March 30, 2023, podcast, she said she wanted to trade the brand’s “fratty” reputation for “inclusivity” (Avarre, 2023). While the mandate is admirable, the manner with which its parent company responded to this issue questions whether this new direction has the buy-in of upper management.

References

Anheuser-Busch. (n.d.) About us: Horse-story in the making: The Budweiser Clydesdales. https://www.anheuser-busch.com/about/clydesdale

Anheuser-Busch. (n.d.) Press releases: The Bud Light party launches, “Labels,” furthering the brand’s mission to bring people together over beer. https://www.anheuser-busch.com/newsroom/the-bud-light-party-launches-labels-furthering-the-brands-mission-to-bring-people-together-over-beer

Anheuser-Busch. (2023, April). Press releases: Our responsibility to America. https://www.anheuser-busch.com/newsroom/our-responsibility-to-america

Averre, D. (2023, April). ‘No one at a senior level’ was aware Bud Light had made the ‘mistake’ of partnering with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney – as parent company Anheuser-Busch loses $6BN in six days. Daily Mail. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11967949/No-one-senior-level-aware-Bud-Light-partnering-trans-influencer-Dylan-Mulvaney.html

Beer, J. (2023, April). Bud Light poured decades of LGBTQ allyship down the drain—and now everyone’s mad. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90888756/bud-light-inclusive-marketing-right-wing-outrage

Bronner, D. (2023, April). Anheuser-Busch facilities face threats after Bud Light backlash. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/20/business/bud-light-threats/index.html

Daw, S. (2023, June). Every musician who’s spoken about Anheuser-Busch’s trans-inclusive campaign: Kid Rock, Jason Isbell & More. Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/lists/musician-reactions-bud-light-trans-inclusive-initiative/kid-rock/

Di Placido, D. (2023, April). Dylan Mulvaney had a classy response to hateful Bud Light backlash. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2023/04/28/dylan-mulvaney-responds-to-hateful-bud-light-backlash/?sh=4ee58c303ba5

Hur, K. (2023, April). Wall Street Journal: Bud Light owner places two execs on leave after transgender influencer backlash. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/24/business/anheuser-execs-on-leave/index.html#:~:text=%E2%80%9CFrom%20time%20to%20time%20we,sale%20to%20the%20general%20public.%E2%80%9D

Kid Rock. [@kidrock]. (2023, April 3). [Video]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CqmUBDegYwN/?img_index=1

Mulvaney, D. [@dylanmulvaney]. (2023, April 1). Happy March Madness!! Just found out this had to do with sports and not just saying it’s a crazy month! [Video]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CqgTftujqZc/?hl=en

National Beer Wholesalers Association-NBWA. (n.d.). Industry facts. https://nbwa.org/resources/fast-facts/

Phillips, A. (2023, May). Bud Light backlash is hurting other Anheuser-Busch brands, data shows. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/bud-light-backlash-anheuser-busch-sales-data-1799487

Revell, E. (2023, June). Bud Light sales slump as Modelo takes top spot. https://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/bud-light-sales-slump-continues-amid-dylan-mulvaney-controversy

Schechter, S. (2023, April). Public Relations: From Strategy to Action. PressBooks. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/publicrelations/

Springer, J. (2023, April). Bud Light’s Marketing Leadership undergoes shakeup after Dylan Mulvaney controversy. AdAge. https://adage.com/article/marketing-news-strategy/bud-light-dylan-mulvaney-brands-marketing-leadership-undergoes-changes/2489431

Stewart, E. (2023, May). The Bud Light boycott, explained as much as is possible. Vox. https://www.vox.com/money/2023/4/12/23680135/bud-light-boycott-dylan-mulvaney-travis-tritt-trans

Tulp, S. (2023, April). Bud Light maker didn’t fire marketing team over LGBTQ ads.  Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/fact-checking-ap-check-656908474339

Walsh, S. (2023, March). TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney shares Laverne Cox’s advice with Drew Barrymore. Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2023/03/tiktok-star-dylan-mulvaney-shares-laverne-coxs-advice-with-drew-barrymore

Wile, Rob. (2023, May). Nobody imagined it would go on this long’: Bud Light sales continue to plummet over Mulvaney backlash. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/bud-light-sales-falling-amid-mulvaney-backlash-no-end-in-sight-rcna85832

Zymeri, J. (2023, April). Budweiser Clydesdale events canceled as Bud Light boycott grows. National Review. https://www.nationalreview.com/news/budweiser-clydesdale-events-cancelled-as-bud-light-boycott-grows/