That the so-called transgender movement (catchier than the “gender dysphoric movement”) is politically divisive should be news to exactly nobody. It apparently was to Bud Light marketing executives. As a March Madness basketball tournament campaign, they sent a personalized cans to a transgender social-media star (“celebrating 365 days of womanhood”). The resulting furor and boycott caught Bud Light execs off-guard to say the least. 

How Bud Light Blew It :


The company’s response made matters worse. Anheuser-Busch stayed mostly silent for two weeks, then released a general statement about bringing people together, prompting criticism from all sides for both waiting too long to respond and also not taking a clear stand.


When the furor continued, the company placed [the two Bud Light marketing executives] Heinerscheid and her boss, Daniel Blake, on leave. Heinerscheid was replaced in the role of head marketer for Bud Light by a seasoned beer executive and Blake’s role was eliminated to give senior marketers closer oversight on brand decisions. Heinerscheid and Blake remain on leave. Anheuser-Busch declined to comment on their future at the company, citing the executives’ privacy and safety.

The result angered pretty much everyone: core Bud Light consumers, supporters and opponents of transgender rights, wholesalers, retailers, bar owners and company staff.

Anheuser-Busch employees shared concerns with one another about the personnel changes and about the company’s silence as Heinerscheid came under personal attack. “It just feels like I work for a company that caved,” one employee told The Wall Street Journal.

By the second week of May, Bud Light sales volume was down more than 28% compared with the same period last year in U.S. retail stores, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by consulting company Bump Williams. It was a rare case of a politically inspired product boycott working.

Most Bud Light drinkers are exactly who you’d expect: Older, Republican, country-music listeners, non-voters, social conservatives, etc. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to that market and using another of Anheuser-Busch’s numerous other beers to appeal to the younger, more liberal crowd (who by and large don’t drink light beer anyway). 

Another part of the problem is that Dylan Mulvaney, the social media star in question, is famous almost solely for being transgender and hyping gender transition. With no other reported reason for being famous, Mulvaney’s star-turn courtesy of Bud Light aligned the brand with a political position many if not most Bud Light consumers find objectionable. 

Anheuser-Busch stayed quiet and hoped that the boycott would blow over.

That is not a good marketing strategy. 

On April 14, two weeks after Mulvaney’s post, the company posted a written statement on its website and on Twitter from Brendan Whitworth, the chief of AB InBev’s North American business. It didn’t mention Mulvaney or the personalized can.

“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” Whitworth said in the statement. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

This is the correct position to have had, as brands should by and large stay the hell away from politics. But it’s a terrible statement to make in the aftermath. The genie will not go back in the bottle. If Bud Light didn’t want to be part of the discussion they wouldn’t have been aligning with Mulvaney in the first place. That Bud Light has promoted and supported LGBTQ groups for a number of years similarly makes it difficult to claim they have no political agenda (whether one considers that agenda right or wrong). 

Anyone on the other side of the Bud Light boycott will condemn the brand’s silence in the face of criticism. Even this statement, they’ll say, means that Bud Light doesn’t support or no longer supports the transgender political movement. 

The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization, said Anheuser-Busch had showed a “profound lack of fortitude” and should have stood in solidarity with Mulvaney as people attacked her on social-media and conservative news outlets. The group this month suspended the brewer’s Corporate Equality Index score, which ranks companies on their policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees.

That’s lose-lose for Bud Light. I don’t expect the HRC condemnation to have much effect on sales—again Bud Light drinkers are generally on the right—but we’ve yet to see how far the sales numbers will fall due to the boycott. It’s at about 28% down right now and though it may grow a little worse in the short-run, I think it will shake out with Bud Light having permanently lost 20% to 25% of their drinkers.

What that should mean to brands is this: Stay away from politics. 

How it is likely to be spun: Brands should stand up for what they believe in.