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Anheuser-Busch's Clumsy Marketing Retreat

Mon., Apr. 17, 2023


Dylan Mulvaney
Dylan Mulvaney

It started innocuously enough. Kid Rock did his typical Midwestern badass redneck act by blowing up some 12-packs of Bud Lite with his trusty semi-automatic rifle to protest trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney’s debut promotion of the brand on Instagram.

Now, the controversy is bubbling over like an overheated beer vat, with A-B back on its heels and changing its advertising to show a solo Clydesdale galloping through flat fields past planted rows of soybeans or whatever and probably wondering where the hell he is, while farmers raise the American flag and Budweiser proclaims its “Heartland” standing. (Note: the Clydesdales have been temporarily stabled for safety reasons.)

This was followed by Bud’s CEO, Brendan Whitworth, proclaiming in a news release published on Instagram (where else?) that “As the CEO of a company founded in America’s heartland more than 165 years ago, I am responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew.”

There it is again: Heartland. For those of you who live in blue states, that is redneck code for “one of us.” As H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway who made his bones in PR once observed, “NASCAR is a heartland sport, and the heartland is everywhere in this country.”

Well, St. Louis is in the heartland, even if the Budweiser brand is owned by AB InBev, a Belgian multinational beverage company with $57.8 billion in U.S. dollar revenue, according to its 2022 annual report.

One half expects to see the brewing giant change Bud’s corporate name to Heartland Brewing.

In a headline, TIME Magazine called A-B’s response “tepid,” and so it is. The company is trying to advertise and spin its way out of an enormous strategic blunder, and it shows.

What to do? First, stop running away from the problem. Fire or re-assign the marketing exec who made the colossal blunder, the way Coca-Cola exiled Sergio Zyman after New Coke flopped.

Next, repackage Bud Light with pictures of mean-looking dogs on the cans to show Bud means business. And no more women in the commercials, unless they are scantily clad as in beer commercials of old, or accompanying a manly man beer drinker to a rock or country concert.

Then, sponsor a Heartland Tour with Garth Brooks, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Trace Adkins as headliners, emceed by Sam Elliott.

Get the Clydesdales back on the road and go to every middle-of-nowhere, Heartland hick town parade and festival you can find. Sponsor chili cookoffs and beef jerky eating contests. This could take years and cost millions, but you are trying to rebuild a brand here.

And bring the bars on board. New signage, clocks with mean dog faces on them, napkins, koozies—the whole catalog of beer promotional paraphernalia.

When all that is accomplished, A-B will likely be accused by its detractors of “neck washing” rather than “pink washing,” but isn’t that the point?


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model. Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.

Category: Crisis Communications

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