Chris Daniels
May 1, 2023

‘A big step back’: Creative leaders fear brands will retreat from LGBT support after Bud Light backlash

Experts worry about a broader chilling effect on brands speaking up on divisive social issues after the backlash to Bud Light’s partnership with influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Mulvaney at the opening night of the musical
Mulvaney at the opening night of the musical "Parade" in March. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The backlash to Bud Light’s collaboration with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney is bound to put a chill on other brands expressing support for LGBTQ+ rights and individuals, say Fortune 500 CCOs and agency leaders.

To recap, Bud Light sent Mulvaney a custom-made beer can, marking her first year of womanhood, as part of a March Madness influencer campaign. After she showed off the can on social media, right-wing pundits called for a boycott not just of the beer brand, but also its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. Musician Kid Rock, for example, posted a video of himself wearing a MAGA hat and firing a rifle at Bud Light cans, shouting “Fuck Bud Light. And fuck Anheuser-Busch.”    

AB InBev would eventually release a statement from U.S. CEO Brendan Whitworth, which was roundly criticized, and put two executives who oversaw Bud Light’s collaboration with Mulvaney on leave. The latter action made it clear that the company was apologizing to opponents of trans rights much more than Whitworth’s vague statement. 

The influencer campaign took place as legacy brands like Bud Light are courting younger customers and have data indicating that embracing a diverse range of influencers is a path to winning over young brand advocates. One of the execs on leave, Bud Light VP of marketing Alissa Heinerscheid, the first woman to lead marketing for the brand, appeared on a podcast days before the Mulvaney collaboration, saying: “This brand is in decline, it’s been in decline for a really long time, and, if we do not attract younger drinks to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.”

“Their analysis was correct,” says Jason Mandell, co-founder and partner at LaunchSquad, in that Bud Light needs to evolve for the next generation of beer drinkers.

“But the marketing people, whom I assume are enlightened human beings, didn’t seem to realise the bear that they were poking, which was people who are anti-gay and resisting the social change that is necessary to reach ideals of equal rights and equal justice,” he says. “I am concerned that this is going to put a lot of fear into large, established, middle-America brands from supporting change.” 

Current and former chief communications officers at Fortune 500 companies fear that Bud Light’s retreat from supporting a trans influencer will have a harmful effect on companies’ embrace of LGBTQ+ rights — and their relationships with their own employees. 

“Budweiser’s decision to publicly support Dylan Mulvaney — and then, to suspend its campaign and punish those leading its creation and implementation in the marketplace — sends a chilling message not only to marketers and communications professionals, but to the LGBTQ community and its allies overall,” says the CCO of one Fortune 500 company. “[It’s] Incredibly disappointing and a big step backward that hurts Budweiser and others who would seek to oppose hatred and bigotry.” 

Adds a former CCO of another global company with major consumer brands: “Other brands will certainly be more careful.” 

Yet in doing so, “they risk alienating younger audiences who don’t carry the same biases. My guess is that this action will only accelerate the decline of Budweiser over time,” the executive says. 

AB InBev did not return requests for comment. Its agency partner, Weber Shandwick, shared a statement with PRWeek: “We work across a number of brands at A-B but can’t comment on this issue.” 

Comms leaders at brands say their companies are steadfast in their commitment to inclusion. While not directly addressing the Bud Light-Mulvaney collaboration, Brian Hoyt, head of global communications and industry affairs at Tripadvisor, says the online travel site “is, was and always will be a brand that stands up for equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Tripadvisor’s position, he adds, extends to “how we operate and how we try to reach and speak to the entirety of the global travel community we serve and try to represent.” The brand also spells out its diversity, equity and inclusion philosophy online.

Yet what may be even more chilling to brands is that Bud Light’s embrace of a trans influencer didn’t come out of left field. One of the brand’s taglines is, “Bringing people together for a better world.” Anheuser-Busch InBev’s DEI commitment reads, “We all feel we belong whatever our personal characteristics or social identities.” It includes “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in the list of characteristics and identities. 

Bud Light has also supported LGBTQ+ communities. In Canada last year, it created a limited-edition pronoun-inspired Pride can and gave $100,000 to organizations supporting LGTBQ+ groups. In 2019, it also sold Bud Light in rainbow bottles

This track record would put celebrating Mulvaney within Bud Light’s brand mission. However, the influencer outreach also took place as trans rights are being curtailed in many states

“The difference is the political climate has shifted,” says a former Fortune 50 comms executive. “Conservatives are not winning on abortion, so they have gravitated very quickly to a new lightning rod with trans. And they can’t go after LGBTQ+ writ large, because they are just too big of a population. So they are picking on this very small subset within LGBTQ+.” 

Mandell agrees: “Generally speaking, it is not acceptable to take on gay people anymore, thankfully. So how do Conservatives, especially very religious Conservatives, try to yield their power and influence and get people to vote for them and support their ideology? Well, now the boogeyman isn’t gay people, they’ve made it transgender people.” 

Some LGBTQ+ advocates say Whitworth’s letter may have made the situation worse for trans individuals. In his statement, Whitworth said, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” Yet it’s hard to imagine trans people feel like they “belong” with Bud Light now. The statement also failed to include a single line denouncing people who could have incited violence against the trans community. 

“[Whitworth’s] comments made the haters dig deeper, and now all hope is lost for the company, because he did not speak out against hate,” writes John Casey, director of JTC Communications and senior editor for The Advocate in a column for the magazine. “Whitworth's statement was indefensible, and it exacerbates the disgust for trans people that is seething in Republican-led state legislatures all across the country.”

AB InBev’s actions may also create a chilling effect on marketers themselves, after Heinerscheid became the target of online rage because of her work on the campaign. In-house marketing and comms staff may not only fear having to navigate backlashes and boycott threats. They could fear for their very jobs and pull back from trying to spurn the social change that has become a large part of purpose-driven communications. 

“The worst part of all this is the fact that they essentially have suspended their marketing people. It’s disgraceful,” says Mandell. 

A former Fortune 500 CCO agrees, saying that Bud Light didn’t even attempt to defend its position and instead blamed its own team. “It comes across as corporate cowardice,” the executive says. 

While Bud Light pours declined in April after the backlash to the Mulvaney campaign began, according to several reports, its impact on the long-term fortunes of the brand remain to be seen. 

“My question for brands is, ‘Do you want history to remember you for being at the helm of a temporary stock price hit?’” Mandell asks. “‘Or for being one of the Fortune 500 brands to do the right thing and show support and alliance with a community of people that are being attacked by hate discrimination?’” 


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