Budweiser, Who Are You? – When Big Brands Get Caught in The Cultural Crossfire

Last month saw the release of a revealing new documentary about comedian Steve Martin. Steve Martin: A Documentary in 2 Pieces was created by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville and chronicles the expansive career of one of America’s best known comics, now almost eighty years old. In it, Martin shares one thing he’s learned is that, as we grow older, we either become the best or the worst version of ourselves.

Recent events may have consumers wondering which version of itself another old brand is becoming. Budweiser, now 148 years old, was originally introduced by Anheuser-Busch in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1876. The current buzz over Budweiser began with its recent campaign on Tik Tok, the fallout that came after, and their resultant new campaign, “That’s Who We Are,” that could either be seen as an apology to their traditional consumer base or damage control or equal parts of both.

Before I imbibe, be assured that I have no axe to grind in any of this. When it comes to the current culture war, I cheerfully wave my Swiss passport to remind everyone that I remain neutral on these kinds of issues. The reason I chose to write about it is to show what can occur when you abruptly try to rewrite your brand story after almost 150 years. I’m all about taking risks when it comes to marketing as long as they’re calculated risks. If you plan to go out on a limb, it’s best to test and see how much weight that limb will bear before you shinny all the way out there.

The flak began when Budweiser enlisted Dylan Mulvaney—the transgender Tik Tok sensation with ten million social media followers—to pitch Bud Light. We can’t judge their intentions. Budweiser may have sincerely desired to be perceived as more inclusive. One thing I do know is that brands don’t launch an initiative without at least some expectation of increasing market share. And the truth of the beer market is that Budweiser has steadily been losing share—particularly to Mexican imports like Modelo.

In my last post, I referenced a Heineken campaign that also broke on social media with the theme of inclusiveness. However, there’s a clear difference between these two campaigns. While the Dylan Mulvaney campaign was aimed at a single cultural constituency, the Heineken spot cast a wider net. Though it touched several social hot buttons, they spread the risk around between a variety of points of view. Broadly, the Heineken campaign was more about saying, “We can disagree and still be friends.”

The backlash to Budweiser’s Tik Tok campaign was swift and vehement. Protest videos popped up on social media—one showing a woman dramatically shooting cans of Bud Light with a semi automatic rifle. People dumped out gallons of Bud in what looked like a modern-day sequel to the Boston Tea Party. It would seem that traditional Budweiser consumers have a very specific idea of how they want their brand portrayed, and Dylan Mulvaney wasn’t it. At Budweiser, the question, “What will our loyal Bud fans think about this Tik Tok thing?” apparently went unasked.

In response to the backwash, Anheuser Busch hurriedly launched another campaign called “That’s Who We Are.” The spot is pure Americana, complete with banjo music and a parade of Anheuser Busch employees at every stage of the beer production chain. It reads like an annual report in video form, an impassioned plea to forget the flap and know that this Bud’s still for you.

Time will tell if Budweiser caught all this in time—if the new campaign succeeds in calming Bud loyalists or if long-term damage was done. But lack of foresight forced Budweiser into a position marketers should avoid at all costs: creating reactionary advertising. The brands we admire most are always in the lead. They may even get ahead of us at times, which can be slightly daunting, but they seldom find themselves behind the crowd, waving their arms and screaming, “Hey, come back!”

Is it possible for brands steeped in tradition to be seen as more inclusive? Absolutely. However, marketers should assess the best path. If Budweiser wants to age into the best version  of itself, a more gradual evolution is the way. As for their recent Tik Tok experiment, let’s call it one brand revolution that was over before it even began.                    


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