ABInBev has felt the impact of Bud Light’s missteps in handling the aftermath of its partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
In April, an Instagram partnership between Mulvaney and Bud Light led to calls for boycott and violent outbursts from transphobic consumers opposed to the brand’s alignment with a trans woman.
Since then, the company laid off approximately 380 corporate workers in late July due to a continuing dip in sales. ABInBev’s second quarter earnings showed a 10.5% slump in U.S. sales, and it recently announced it would sell eight of its beer and beverage brands to cannabis company Tilray in an effort to make up losses.
Bud Light’s mishandling of the partnership alienated both sides of the political aisle, from the transphobic subgroup that initiated the boycotts to LGBTQIA+ people and allies who were angry about its abandonment of Mulvaney.
The issue was no doubt exacerbated by a video that Mulvaney posted at the end of June addressing the situation, during which she drank a beer and alleged that a “certain brand”—presumably Bud Light—never reached out to her in the aftermath of the backlash and amid the threats of violence she received.
Meanwhile, though the impact on ABInBev constantly generates news coverage, the continued effect on trans influencers at large goes widely ignored.
The ripple effect on trans influencers
Bud Light and ABInBev’s actions directly correlate to the company’s loss in U.S. sales. But the trans creator community at large is also dealing with the ripple effects of an event they didn’t participate in.
By caving in to transphobic backlash and walking back its support of the LGBTQIA+ community, Bud Light paved the way for brands such as Target and Starbucks to do the same during Pride month.
Influencer marketers noted a shift in conversations with brands around Pride month this year, too.
“Across the board, influencers’ incomes ebb and flow all the time,” says Jess Phillips, founder and CEO of The Social Standard. For the LGBTQIA+ community, this was especially apparent during Pride Month this year, during which brands were noticeably quiet.
LGBTQIA+ creators receive the most brand partnership opportunities during Pride Month, and therefore make the bulk of their income for the year during this time. Influencers have noted that they received fewer opportunities this year, as many brands stopped responding to ongoing partnership discussions for Pride month content.
Natalie Silverstein, chief innovation officer at influencer marketing agency Collectively, says that conversations with trans creators revealed a “significant drop in brand deals” during Pride month. “There are a lot of ripple effects on people's actual livelihoods.”
Bud Light’s lack of response shows holes in influencer contracts
In her Instagram video on the topic, Mulvaney noted during the heat of the backlash she “felt scared to leave [her] house” and was “ridiculed in public” and “followed.”
Many of the influencer marketers interviewed voiced shock that the brand did not reach out to Mulvaney in light of the subsequent events.
“For a brand to align with someone, they're collaborating and leasing each other's voices for that moment in time,” says Movers+Shakers co-founder and chief creative officer Geoffrey Goldberg. “This also means that they're standing behind each other's voices, so it's quite shocking to see when a brand doesn't stand behind someone that they've partnered with.”
But, according to experts, there is typically no contractual obligation for brands to offer protections—or even reach out—to an influencer in the case that backlash occurs.
“There’s typically an understanding that [the influencer] is now a partner of the brand and the brand wants to support the partnership,” says Mae Karwowski, founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency Obviously, adding that reaching out to Mulvaney would be considered the “normal course of business.”
“While I'm not surprised there wasn't anything contractually written, I am extremely surprised that the brand didn't reach out and say, ‘We're going to do some things here to make sure that you're safe,’” she adds. “I think it's egregious and I think most people who are in positions of power in marketing arms would agree.”
Phillips notes that there are some protections for influencers written into brand partnership contracts. For instance, if a bottle of water was contaminated with E. coli bacteria and an influencer was partnered with the brand, the influencer would be protected from repercussions for promoting the product.
Influencers are also often protected from the volatility of social media platforms’ changing terms and algorithms. “What we put in our contracts as an influencer marketing agency is that we cannot control the platforms and what the platforms do; if they shift their algorithm or if they take a post down, we can't control that.”
But recent events may lead to a reconsideration of whether brands’ obligations to influencers need to be spelled out in writing, especially for those who do not have the same resources that a celebrity partner may already have, including security.
“You're trying to get in front of [an influencer’s] audience… you need to step up in some capacity” when things go wrong, says Karwowski. “You can't work with someone, see some backlash, then back away and put them in a threatening situation.”
Holding a company to moral and ethical standards is becoming more commonplace, particularly for Gen Z consumers, whom Goldberg notes are “willing to pay more” to buy from a brand that ethically aligns with them.
Phillips, however, says it’s not reasonable to “hold brands accountable for things that they can't really control.” After all, for-profit companies are focused on protecting their bottom lines, even when doing so it doesn’t match their stated values.
“We would all expect and hope that brands would approach this with some sort of compassion, but I think there's a difference between that expectation and binding them legally,” she says.
Not all brands are backing down
Even as brands shy away from working with trans influencers, the topic of such partnerships is front of mind for leadership.
Karwowski notes that typically, influencer marketing is handled by more junior brand marketers. But as a result of Bud Light’s situation, she says her agency is now meeting with CMOs as brands attempt to “grow up when it comes to how [they] work with creators.”
“We're talking a lot about Bud Light in these meetings with the C-suite,” she says, adding that these events have led to a “huge push for wanting and needing more strategy when it comes to influencer and creator marketing.”
While situations like the Bud Light fiasco gives some brands an excuse to shy away from trans talent, which Karwowski notes is “misguided in the long run,” she says that “the really strategic brands will continue to work with the creators that make a lot of sense for them, and trans influencers definitely play that mix for a majority of brands.”
Instead of viewing working with trans creators and members of the LGBTQIA+ community as a risk to manage, Goldberg advises brand clients to consider their “meaningful engagement with the community.”
“For many brands we work with, I recommend that they be clear in what they stand for as a company—and if they're not clear, get clear,” he says. “If you're clear on what your values are as a company, it should not be a question as to how to uphold those values in the world.”
He notes that despite the recent retreat, he has seen clients “take a beat to consider their actual engagement with the community” and whether they have “a right to participate in the conversation.”