Bud Light’s transgender influencer backlash—what brands can learn from the controversy

Does this mean marketers should think twice before working with trans creators?

“By and large it shouldn’t,” said Ian Johnson, CEO of Out Now, an LGBTQ+ inclusion consulting firm, pointing to millennials and Gen Z having a higher level of acceptance of trans people.

“If this was a Pride campaign, I don’t think it would have been as striking to people,” Evan Horowitz, CEO and founder of agency Movers+Shakers, said referring to Mulvaney’s Bud Light social media post, where she joked about learning about March Madness and promoted Bud Light’s #EasyCarry Contest. “Any good marketer understands that if you engage in a social conversation, there is a risk of backlash. But to some extent, I think it’s random. It’s like throwing matches—they usually hit a stone and die out.”

But the backlash against Bud Light was particularly fierce, and long-lasting, compared with typical flare-ups. 

‘Take a look at who is saying what’

Experts say it would not have received this level of backlash if not for Kid Rock’s initial response video posted on Twitter on April 3—in which he shot cases of Bud Light—which fueled more reaction, including the creation of Conservative Dad’s Ultra Right 100% Woke-Free American Beer. Bud Light sales fell 6.9% on a year-over-year basis in the week after Mulvaney’s post, as the total beer/seltzer category rose 5.6%, according to NielsenIQ data cited by Beer Business Daily. 

“Social media ‘outrage’ is something all marketers have needed to learn to adapt to,” said Johnson. “What is important is to take a look at who is saying what. If those who are expressing strident negative views can be seen to represent a niche slice of society, with a track record of ‘taking offense’—and they are likely to again soon be upset at another equality issue that offends them—then a brand could be expected to consider that this is not representative of majority views.”

Bud Light is working to reach younger, more inclusive drinkers, according to Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s VP of marketing.

“This brand is in decline, it’s been in decline for a really long time, and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand there will be no future for Bud Light,” Heinerscheid said on the podcast Make Yourself at Home on March 23. “So I had this super clear mandate, we need to evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand … [This] means inclusivity. It means shifting the tone. It means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter and brighter and different, and appeals to women and to men. And representation is at the heart of evolution.”

But after the Mulvaney backlash, the brand did not exactly jump in to voice support for LGBTQ+ rights. Its initial statement simply reiterated that it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics.” Then it went silent on social media for days before issuing a vague statement from U.S. CEO Brendan Whitworth that did not directly address the controversy, saying the brewer “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”

Sibling brand Budweiser on April 14 seemingly tried to change the conversation with an overtly patriotic ad that included a subtle 9/11 reference, which was posted to social media. It was met with a wave of criticism, mostly from conservatives, including one person who tweeted “Far too late for this pandering now. I’ve drawn my line in the sand against ridiculous wokeismcriticism.”