I don’t usually write follow-ups to pieces already published, but there has been such an extraordinary outpouring of commentary about the Bud Light disaster that I have been collecting notes about what Anheuser-Busch is doing and saying to bring its floundering brand back to prominence. As things stand, Bud Light is about to lose its leadership position to rivals like Miller Lite and Coors Lite.
As I suggested weeks ago, A-B has placed the author of the festering marketing flub on leave and replaced her with an experienced marketing executive (not that Ms. Heinerscheid was inexperienced; she just messed up). They have also created a new commercial showing men and women at a country music concert enjoying the music and the brew. At the stakeholder level, A-B has held town hall meetings—some of them rather touchy—with distributors concerned about the dive in Bud Lite sales.
But A-B and its parent InBev persist in refusing to own the problem, and in trying to finesse the precipitous drop in sales by countering that it represents only about 1 percent of InBev’s global revenues.
A dismissive angle was also taken by AB InBev CEO Michel Doukeris during an earnings call with investors last week, in which he also averred that the Dylan Mulvaney promotion was a mere one-off. “This was the result of one can,” Doukeris said on a video call. “It was not made for production or sale to general public. It was one post, not a formal campaign or advertisement,” as though the tremendous blowback was all out of proportion to the original miscue.
Mr. Doukeris displayed the kind of corporate casuistry that creates further trouble by putting shareholders ahead of customers. And, by waving off the matter because it represents such a small percentage of sales, we see in spades how out of touch AB InBev is with the passionate reactions that the Mulvaney affair has caused.
I know of one local restaurateur who not only trashed three cases of Bud Light on TikTok, but refuses to sell any A-B product in his restaurants. No Bud, no Michelob Ultra—nothing. That kind of infectious resentment can eventually take a big bite out of U.S. revenues.
And of course Donald Trump, never one to miss a chance at publicity or notoriety, has come out calling for the GOP to boycott Anheuser-Busch and all “woke” corporations, who are apparently an affront to conservative principles and values.
A gaggle of former Anheuser-Busch marketing executives and crisis management experts have weighed in on what A-B is doing wrong, yet no one has called upon the company to take ownership of the problem and publicly apologize, admitting that they were wrong to disrespect the tastes and preferences of their most loyal customers. It is no longer a matter of MBA marketing or fancy crisis management, but the rather old-fashioned PR characteristic of the Harold Burson or John Hill school.
In fact, that may be the reason A-B cannot seem to work their way out of this mess. They are marketers, not PR people.
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.