Memorial Day is usually a time for families to fire up the backyard grill, invite the neighbors over and enjoy the sunshine over hot dogs and hamburgers—and yes, beer.
But when the coolers were cracked open this weekend, fewer and fewer Americans reached for Bud Light. Instead people competed on social media who could post their best picture of fully-stacked shelves next to signs advertising rebates for every case of Bud Light bought.
Thanks to the continued backlash over an April 1 Instagram post—in which the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney opened a Bud Light can with their likeness on it—the most popular beer brand in the United States could soon come from Mexico.
A combination of a 26% drop in sales of the Anheuser-Busch InBev brand with a 9.2% gain in Modelo Especial means the two may end up swapping rankings in 2023, according to data from Bump Williams Consulting and NielsenIQ.
“That’s a monumental decline,” Williams told the New York Post. “If this continues, Modelo will surpass Bud Light for the year.”
For parent company AB InBev, this might not seem like a problem at first glance since it owns and distributes Modelo Especial throughout the global beer market—with one notable exception: the United States. There it belongs to Constellation Brands.
Not just Bud Light
Consumers are not just punishing Bud Light. Culture war advocates lashed out at Miller Lite for an advertisement released in March, in which AB InBev’s other major U.S. brand sought to call time out on the objectification of women when marketing beer.
Attempts by Budweiser to backpedal with patriotic imagery of America’s heartland have not had the desired effect, however, as the Memorial Day week sales drop proved the worst since the controversy began.
Politicians across the world are embracing LGBTQ rights as a wedge issue to stoke support among their base. Just hours after he was re-elected on Sunday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rallied his supporters in another attack against Turkey’s LGBTQ community, while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán earned fans among U.S. conservatives like Tucker Carlson for his strident opposition to gay rights.
At the advice of market researchers, companies are increasingly wading into this political powder keg, only to find themselves under fire from both the left and the right for their often ham-fisted attempts to position themselves on broader social issues. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad that addressed the hot button issue of race riots is a perfect example of a campaign that backfired horribly on the company.
The message from communications consultants, however, is ‘keep trying’. Without earning credibility among consumers on important activist causes, the fear goes, people will shop elsewhere.
For example, the latest annual Trust Barometer report published in June 2022 by the respected public relations firm Edelman argued that speaking out on climate change or gender and racial equality is a winning strategy. Their polling data indicated this approach should earn corporations net-net more new business than they will net lose.
“Gen Z is the tipping point for action,” it recommended. “If you can activate them, you can shape behavior of all.”
However, the push to partner with influencers like Mulvaney forgets that the 29-year-old transgender TikToker isn’t the only influencer capable of shaping opinions on the internet. Conservative musician Kid Rock stirred up support for a Bud Light boycott by responding with his own social media message in which he emptied an entire clip of ammunition into cases of Bud Light.
The backlash appeared to have caught Bud Light by surprise. Days before the Mulvaney post dropped, Bud Light marketing head Alissa Heinerscheid, who wanted to bring broader appeal to a brand she felt was “fratty” and “out of touch”, was focusing on making a positive social impact in her role: “It doesn’t mean anything unless I am positively impacting other people,” she said.
The 39-year-old has since been removed from her position and placed on a leave of absence amid a broader restructuring of marketing across the parent company.