$3-6 billion gone: Bud Light Marketing Campaign

It’s important that we, as marketers and business leaders, pay attention to the marketing stories going on around us. There is much to learn for any of us. One of these events is the recent story of the Bud Light marketing campaign which lost the makers of the world-renowned beer a reported $3 – 6 billion (there are varying numbers out in the public).

So, what happened?

To get some of the backstory, do an online search on ‘Anheuser Busch loses + Bud Light’ and you will find the story.

But let’s have a look at the marketing side of things.

First, all of marketing is, despite all the data we try and collect, to some extent ‘trial and error, empirical exercise’. It is never perfect, it never fully addresses customers’ needs and will get it wrong in one way or the other. The Bud Light story is one of these, albeit a more extreme version.

How did it come about?

If you have followed our posts, you will know that we forecasted an increase in culture-war related marketing for 2023. As the culture wars continue, a number of brands such as Nike, Jack Daniels, Twitter, Ben and Jerry, Jeremy’s Razors and most recently, Anheuser Busch, Bud Light’s parent company, have ventured into the culture war space. 

The approach has left brands at risk of losing existing customers – as Bud Light’s VP of Marketing has just found out. Her recent marketing EDI (Equality, diversity and inclusion) campaign resulted in a powerful backlash from customers and key influencers. Following this, she is currently on leave of absence according to Bloomberg.

We could argue that, to some degree, brands have always considered political leanings when developing their target audience profiles. What we are seeing now, however, is the use of political messaging in spite of customer needs, leanings or wants. It is not that seasoned marketers don’t know that they are risking customer support when pursuing politically charged content. They are making a calculated choice, but on occasion miscalculate the outcome.

So what was the reason for this campaign?

Multi-billion dollar organisations depend on a multiplicity of stakeholders, not simply customers. Yet, in this case, it would seem that one of the stakeholders, that is the core customer segment was not considered or dismissed. The purpose of Bud Light’s campaign is not really clear. From a marketing point of view, let’s look at four potential motivating factors behind the campaign:

Potentially, the marketing team at Anheuser-Busch, wanted to change their target audience completely.

How likely do you think that is?

Maybe their aim was to provoke their existing customers and make a political statement.

Which other brands are you aware of that do just that?

Maybe they really did not understand their customers at all.

Is this likely?

Could it be that the ESG and ECI (DEI) score and resulting financial benefit was behind the decision?

If you are a marketer, have you considered the impact of investors’ requirements around ESG on your ability to freely market to the customer?

Let’s look at these options. 

Did Bud Light want to change its target audience completely?

Accordingly to the VP of Marketing in charge of the Bud Light brand, the company was hoping to make the brand less ‘fratty’ and more inclusive. This is an interesting term considering that Bud Light drinkers would not consider themselves ‘fratty’ at all. Surmising here, but, potentially, there could be a disconnect between Harvard educated marketing leads and more down-to-earth consumers of the brand. The company’s US CEO, Brandan Withworth’s comment about not wanting to do anything to divide, seems to indicate that a complete change of audience was not envisaged. 

Did Anheuser Bush want to provoke existing customers and make a political statement?

This is a timely question considering that US presidential elections are nearing with a number of pre-election milestones ahead. Potentially, the brand was signalling who they are siding with or, quite simply, the VP of Marketing used the brand to make her own personal stance clear. Again, it is not clear. If this was the motivation for the campaign, it would tell us one thing for sure: playing with politically charged content was not a good idea. Key customers and influencers who perceived the campaign as politically motivated, made it very clear that they did not agree with the beer maker’s approach. Several influencer Country singers boycotted the brand and went as far as using video to make their point: shooting at a table full of Bud Light. A number of restaurants no longer serve the brew as a result.

So why is this a problem from a marketing point of view?

Losing your customer base and influencers over a political point, is forgetting that you, as a marketer, have a dual responsibility. The first responsibility is to create an ROI for your brand either through sales or through the strengthening of the brand for long-terms success. Neither happened here. The opposite, in fact. 

Secondly, when a marketing campaign has the potential to create a backlash of this proportion, it might damage your brand’s reputation, but, more importantly, it can impact jobs. Using politically motivated promotion in this way might well indicate that you neither care about your job, nor about – in the case of Anheuser Busch – the 30,000 plus employees of the firm which pays your salary. It is, to say, at the least, irresponsible. Again, we can only guess if this was the reason for their approach. 

Did the marketing team simply not understand its customer base?

According to statements made in the press, the the brand was trying to add to the customer base by adding a different type of target audience. Sure. As brands develop they will, of course, consider attracting other segments of the market. Doing so while losing a brand’s core customer base, means that the business is not adding, but replacing their audience. The latter potentially being a strategic choice.

Assuming that the CEO really did not want to lose customers, it would seem that the brand did not understand its customer base enough.
It missed the most potent of all segmentation aspects: culture.

It is here that the deepest emotions and values sit. It is also here where customers’ resolve comes from to either defend a brand or to shed it. It is this culture, the strength of feeling among the core Bud Light audience, which backfired on the brand. The timing of this campaign was not ideal either considering current debates around women’s sport and campaigns by women sport activists Riley Gaines and Taylor Silverman in the USA.

It is possible that the lack of understanding of the customers’ culture and the strength of feeling in the current Zeitgeist of culture wars which to led to a failed campaign and resulted in a ‘we will spend our money elsewhere.’ 

This takes us on to the fourth option which does speak to ROI and potentially, tells us that the campaign might not have really failed, in fact, could have done exactly what it was meant to do, at least for now.

Could it be that the ESG and ECI (DEI) scores and resulting financial benefit were behind the decision?

This option is slightly more complex, but in many places of today’s world of business linked to creating a return of investment. The return, in this case, does not come from customers, but from investors. 

Many investors use the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) score to assess which businesses they want to fund. Contributing to the ESG score is an index which Anheuser Busch signed up to around 2008, called the CEI (Corporate Equality Index). This index can lead to investors favouring brands which use marketing that clearly supports diversity-led themes. So, potentially, this campaign was indeed very stakeholder-focused (minus the customers) in that it was meant to raise the brand’s investment rating and therefore create greater ROI. It is certainly part and parcel of today’s corporate strategies. Marketing for the purpose of attracting dollars by any other means than through your customer base can be high risk if investors and customers do not see eye-to-eye. In the case of Bud Light, this very well seems to have been the case. 

If this was the reason for the approach, then Bud Light’s marketing team actually did play to its target audience – that is to investors and the wider stock market. And if this was the reason the campaign potentially will have succeeded long-term to convince investors that the EDI criteria is being met. It would have succeeded in signalling to investors what they want to hear.

“It just simply ‘forgot’ to factor in in its customers.” 

Whatever the reason was, to overlook customers or ignore their views, attitudes, cultural leanings, misses the heart of marketing. 

The culture wars continue. Money from investment is potentially outweighing the purchasing power of the customer – yet, at some point, if customers leave, the investors, too, will say ‘no’ – even if it is their requirement that causes the demise of the brand they had hoped to cash in on in the first place.

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