April 14, 2024
How a conservative boycott of Bud Light could create a backlash to the backlash

How a conservative boycott of Bud Light could create a backlash to the backlash

After Bud Light’s recent partnership with a transgender influencer, sales of the beer may take a hit as a result of conservative calls for a boycott — or they may get a boost from other consumers buying more of the product in response. Whatever the effect, analysts say, it will likely evaporate quickly.

What’s more, a broader downtrend could overshadow any blip in sales figures. Bud Light’s relevance has been fading for years, as seltzer and canned cocktails compete for the attention of younger consumers and as more health-conscious customers shy away from alcohol consumption altogether.

See: Anheuser-Busch CEO on the Bud Light backlash: ‘We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people’

No hard data exist yet on the nationwide sales impact for Bud Light brewer Anheuser-Busch and its parent company, AB InBev, after some right-wing social-media accounts this month began attacking the brand for partnering with Dylan Mulvaney, a trans actress and social-media star. But some marketing experts say that, at least from a financial perspective, the effects of similar boycotts in the past have been short-lived.

“When we see these social-media firestorms, a lot of times they’re very short in nature,” said Beth Fossen, an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University. “There’s this short burst of outcry or anger, or even very high levels of positive support on the other end.”

Some Wall Street analysts, while hinting at caution, have also said it’s too early to tell what effect the protests against Bud Light will have on sales. Bar owners and distributors quoted in some media reports have cited a recent decrease in demand for Bud Light, or at least concern about it. As for AB InBev’s stock BUD, +0.34% ABI, +1.03%, U.S.-listed shares are down overall this month. But it has suffered worse months, and the company is still worth around $130 billion.

The stock this week has seesawed, falling around 2% on Monday, rebounding a bit on Tuesday and then slipping 2.7% on Wednesday. Shares finished up around 1.5% on Thursday and crept higher on Friday.

“ ‘Companies will not end the standard business practice of including diverse people in ads and marketing because a small number of loud, fringe anti-LGBTQ activists make noise on social media.’ ”

— Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD

Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney is the latest branding campaign that has elicited anger on one side of the political aisle — and, in response, support on the other. On Friday, Anheuser-Busch’s chief executive, Brendan Whitworth, issued a statement that appeared at the outset to please neither side — one that mentioned “accountability” and “respect for one another” but few specifics and no apology — something the most vocal opponents on the right appeared to be hoping for.

Either way, the phenomenon raises questions about how politics influences purchases, both for an older, more conservative faction pushing back on what it perceives as “wokeness” and for a younger, more liberal one that is likelier to be more accepting of transgender people and gender fluidity. Fossen said some research has shown that in some instances, a practice known as “buycotting” — in which consumers purchase something they wouldn’t normally buy as a show of support in response to a boycott — outweighs the effects of boycotting campaigns.

Nike Inc. NKE, -0.38%, for instance, saw a 31% jump in online sales, according to some estimates, shortly after the athletic-gear maker’s 2018 ad campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick prompted a boycott. And Fossen pointed to a paper published this year in the journal Marketing Science, in which researchers at Cornell University, Northwestern University and London’s Imperial College Business School noted that after calls for boycotts piled up in response to praise for then-President Donald Trump from the chief executive of Goya Foods in 2020, sales took a sharp turn upward, albeit only briefly.

“Boycott-related social-media posts and media coverage dominated buycott ones, but the sales impact was the opposite: Goya sales temporarily increased by 22%,” the researchers said. “However, this net sales boost fully dissipated within three weeks.”

Kristen Walker, a professor of marketing at California State University Northridge who has done research on boycotts, also said that for a boycott to have any tangible financial impact, it generally needs to have backing from more than one political camp.

“Boycotts are ‘successful’ — and I’ll put quotations around ‘successful’ — when what the brand has done is not socially responsible and many parties agree about that,” she said.

AB InBev didn’t respond to a request for information about the financial impact of the Bud Light backlash. A representative for Mulvaney did not respond to a request for comment. In an earlier statement, the company said that it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics.”

The backlash surfaced at first in conservative corners of social media and was then perpetuated by press coverage. It comes as concerns are being raised about insufficient protections against the harassment, hate speech and violence that transgender people face both online and offline.

The uproar began after Mulvaney, 26, as part of a March Madness promotion with Bud Light this month, posted a video to promote the beer’s “Easy Carry Contest,” in which participants posted videos online showing how much attitude they could bring to the act of carrying multiple of cans or glasses of Bud Light for a chance to win $15,000. She said in that video that Bud Light had sent her a can with an illustration of her on it to celebrate her 365th day as a woman.

Positive reactions rolled in from Mulvaney’s millions of followers across social media. But antitransgender sentiment also foamed up elsewhere.

In an Instagram post, country-rap-metal performer Kid Rock, wearing a hat emblazoned with “MAGA,” used a semiautomatic rifle to shoot up cases of Bud Light, flipped his middle finger and said, “F— Bud Light. F— Anheuser-Busch.” Country musician Travis Tritt tweeted that he was “deleting all Anheuser-Busch products from my tour hospitality rider.” U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, threw her support behind Tritt, while controversy-courting former major-league baseball player Aubrey Huff, reacting to a video showing Mulvaney in a bathtub with a three-tier tray of Bud Light cans behind her, said, “Can’t wait to see the next quarter sales.”

“ ‘Be whatever you f—ing want. As long as you ain’t hurting anybody, I’m on your team.’”

— Howard Stern

But other high-profile figures threw their support behind Mulvaney and Bud Light. Shock jock Howard Stern, whose show airs on Sirius XM SIRI, -2.22% satellite radio, explained why he wasn’t bothered by transgenderism.

“You want to be a woman? Be a woman,” he said. “You want to be a dude, be a dude. Be whatever you f—ing want. As long as you ain’t hurting anybody, I’m on your team.”

Actress Rosie O’Donnell also expressed her support for Mulvaney in a recent podcast where she interviewed the influencer. “Gay people, trans people — we drink beer too, man,” O’Donnell said. “Put down your gun, Kid Rock. It’s in bad taste.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, chief executive of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said in a statement that companies understood that inclusion was good for business and strengthened their relationships with customers. And she said that while it was still rare for companies to include trans people in their marketing, the practice has been increasing, as trans influencers gain popularity.

“Including our community in marketing is nothing new, but what is new is the extreme right-wing politicization of a company’s creative and business decisions,” she said. “Companies will not end the standard business practice of including diverse people in ads and marketing because a small number of loud, fringe anti-LGBTQ activists make noise on social media.”

As for AB InBev’s sales, the company will report first-quarter results on May 4. Jefferies analysts, in a research note on Wednesday, said it was too early to gauge any longer-term impact the conservative snub might have on the company. They noted that Google search trends for “Bud Light” had eased since April 6. But they also said Bud Light was less important to AB InBev than it used to be.

“In the U.S., the reliance on Bud Light as a driver of sales has fallen over the last decade,” the Jefferies analysts said.

Citing Euromonitor data, the analysts said that Bud Light in 2021 represented 36% of AB InBev’s U.S. volumes, or measure of liquid sold. In 2012, it represented 45%.

Truist Securities analyst Michael Roxland, in a research note on Tuesday, expressed a note of trepidation on beer-can maker Ball Corp. BALL, -3.36%, for which AB InBev was responsible for 13% of sales last year. Results for the aluminum-packaging producer, Roxland said, “could be pressured should this issue persist.”

Other beers, like Coors Light TAP, -0.30%, have also run campaigns supporting the LGBTQ community. In 2021, Michelob Ultra, which is also produced by AB InBev, said it would partner with CeCe Telfer, a track-and-field athlete and the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA title. Mulvaney, meanwhile, has also partnered with Nike, worked with Tapestry Inc.’s TPR, +0.48% Kate Spade and last year appeared on a podcast run by beauty-product and salon chain Ulta Beauty Inc. ULTA, +1.18%.

Similar to Bud Light, those brands were bombarded with a chorus of boycott calls. For Ulta, the dent, if any, appeared to be negligible: It closed out its fiscal 2022 with net sales up 18.3% to $10.2 billion and a same-store-sales gain of 15.6%, bolstered by ongoing wellness trends, higher prices and the return to public life after pandemic lockdowns. Hershey Co. HSY, -0.67%, which reports first-quarter results on April 27, also faced calls for a boycott after it put a trans woman on one of its candy bars earlier this year. But even if there were heavy fallout from that, food producers have leaned on price increases to drive up sales.

Marketing analysts have said companies typically go to influencers when they want to reach an audience they haven’t been successful in attracting.

“ Marketing teams are increasingly willing to absorb short-term political backlash from an older audience in order to gain longer-term relevance with a younger one. ”

“It’s not a unique partnership,” Walker said of Bud Light and Mulvaney. “Beer companies, companies — especially large companies — they often have large campaigns with influencers and more niche campaigns with influencers. So, to me, this isn’t a strange kind of partnership. It’s probably a smart choice for them, especially since they want to attract new [customers].”

With members of Gen Z likelier to be more accepting of transgender people, analysts said marketing teams are increasingly willing to absorb short-term political backlash from an older audience in order to gain longer-term relevance with a younger one. The beer industry, meanwhile, has had to navigate multiple shifts over the decades, from a focus on drinkability in the 1980s and ’90s — and the deluge of Bud Light ads over that time — to the craft-beer boom of the aughts to the explosion of seltzers and canned cocktails over the past decade.

Light-beer volume sales fell 11% from 2017 to 2022, said Caleb Bryant, an analyst at market-research company Mintel. Data from the company also indicate that Gen Z members drink less than millennials, with a quarter of the younger demographic saying they haven’t consumed alcohol in the past three months.

“There are just fewer younger legal-drinking-age consumers in the market right now, which is a group that all alcohol brands have traditionally targeted, so many of these big brands are fighting for a smaller pool of consumers,” Bryant said.

Kelli Burns, a professor of public relations and social media at the University of South Florida, said that AB InBev was a massive multinational company that is able to ride out any revolt from a small segment of the U.S. population. And given the company’s size, customers trying to steer clear of Bud Light could still end up buying another beverage under the AB InBev umbrella, she said. Finally, in a news cycle driven by short attention spans, she said there were plenty of other companies doing things to attract social-media attention, positive or negative.

“In a competitive environment, where brands are trying to please as many customers as possible, they can’t please everyone,” she said.

“As time goes by, people forget,” she observed. “People may forget about this campaign as they move on to other brands that are in the news.”

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