In early 2023, Bud Light collaborated with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a promotional social media post. The collaboration received backlash from conservative figures, who ended up boycotting Bud Light products. This became one of the biggest brand boycotts in the US, resulting in a major drop in Bud Light sales.

At Business2Community, we analyzed Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser Busch InBev’s revenue reports, news websites, and expert interviews to provide a comprehensive overview of the Bud Light controversy.

Bud Light Controversy – Key Facts

  • In April 2023, Bud Light partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, for which Mulvaney created a promotional Instagram video.
  • After the collaboration, the company received an anti-trans backlash from its conservative consumers, who boycotted Bud Light products.
  • The Bud Light boycott cost Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser Busch InBev $1.4 billion in 2023.

The Story of the Bud Light Controversy

The Bud Light controversy started in April 2023, when transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney promoted the beer brand on social media. Following this, conservative figures in the US called for a boycott.

Bud Light and Dylan Mulvaney Partnership

On 1 April 2023, Dylan Mulvaney posted a video on her Instagram account promoting Bud Light’s Easy Carry Contest linked to March Madness. For this campaign, Bud Light provided Mulvaney with a selection of special edition commemorative cans.

Dressed as Holly Golightly from Breakfast in Tiffany’s, Mulvaney took the opportunity to celebrate a personal milestone: her “Day 365 of Womanhood,” as a part of her viral TikTok series where she had documented her gender transition.

 

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A post shared by Dylan Mulvaney (@dylanmulvaney)

One of the largest beer companies in the world, Anheuser Busch InBev (AB InBev) owns Bud Light. Yet, despite its position as the world’s largest brewer, it had been experiencing a decline in Bud Light sales in the US for several years. This pushed the company to change its marketing and branding strategy, which prompted partnerships with more diverse voices.

“Bud Light’s been in decline for a really long time. If we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light,” said Bud Light’s VP Alissa Heinerscheid in an interview with the Make Yourself at Home podcast on 23 March 2023, a little over a week before Mulvaney’s Instagram post. Heinerscheid also mentioned that the former Bud Light brand used to be “fratty” and out-of-touch.

Backlash Against Bud Light

The partnership caused an anti-trans backlash among Bud Light’s conservative consumers, who started the #BoycottBudLight hashtag online.

Across various platforms, users shared videos of themselves pouring out Bud Light beer and actively destroying cans. Besides consumers, several conservative figures joined the boycott — singer Kid Rock posted a video of him shooting Bud Light cans, and country musician Travis Tritt announced he would remove Anheuser Busch products from his tour hospitality rider.

As the boycott gained momentum on social media, disinformation began to circulate, with some social media users claiming that Bud Light had fired its marketing department. In a statement to the Associated Press, AB InBev confirmed that these claims were false and the marketing team was still working in the company.

Announcement from AB InBev CEO

AB InBev’s CEO of the North America Zone, Brendan Whitworth, shared on 14 April 2023 that the company never intended to divide people, instead, it aimed to bring people together over beer. The statement also mentioned Bud Light’s history of supporting communities, military, first responders, sports fans, and hard-working Americans, however, there were no mentions of Dylan Mulvaney or the boycott.

We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer… I care deeply about this country, this company, our brands and our partners.

Announcement from Dylan Mulvaney

In June 2023, Dylan Mulvaney shared a video on TikTok and Instagram, saying that she faced extreme bullying and transphobia, which put her off from making an announcement. “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse in my opinion than not hiring a trans person at all,” she said, expressing her disappointment in Bud Light not reaching out.

@dylanmulvaney

Trans people like beer too. 🏳️‍⚧️🍻

♬ original sound – Dylan Mulvaney

The Consequences of the Bud Light Controversy

From lost sales to long-term brand damage, Bud Light has experienced several consequences of the controversy.

Here are the main consequences that affected the brand, in 2023 and beyond:

Drop in Bud Light Sales

Three months after the boycott, Bud Light’s sales had dropped by 28% compared to the same period the previous year. The beer brand experienced a decline in both Republican and Democratic US counties, with a steep decrease in Republican counties right after the social media promotion. According to the Harvard Business Review, among the Bud Light boycotters, 38% switched to Coors, 23% to Miller, 14% to Yuengling, and 7% to Modelo.

Graph showing year-over-year change in weekly Bud Light sales in Republican counties in 2021, 2022, and 2023

In Democratic counties, the sales decline grew larger over time. Analysts predict that this is due to retailers reducing shelf space for Bud Light as a result of lower demand. This then limited customer access, making it more difficult for clients to find Bud Light products.

Graph showing year-over-year change in weekly Bud Light sales in Democratic counties in 2021, 2022, and 2023

Decline in Anheuser Busch Revenue and Market Share

In 2023, AB InBev’s global revenue was $57.83 billion, and its profits rose despite the boycott. However, the company experienced a significant drop in US sales, with Q4 2023 sales data showing a 17.3% decline. Overall, the Bud Light controversy cost AB InBev $1.4 billion in 2023.

While Bud Light’s market share also declined, the company began to see some recovery. Between May 2023 and February 2024, it recovered 1.2 percentage points of lost market share, at a slower pace than expected. CEO Michel Doukeris announced that the recovery pace was 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points per three to four weeks.

Losing the #1 Spot as the Top Beer Brand in the US

In May 2023, Modelo outranked Bud Light, which had been the best-selling beer in the US for more than two decades. While the conservative backlash accelerated Modelo’s sales, it is not entirely responsible for it. According to analysts, Bud Light had already been on the decline for the past ten years, while Modelo’s sales were constantly increasing.

Drop in the Corporate Equality Index Score of Anheuser Busch

Less than two months after the controversy, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) suspended Bud Light’s Corporate Equality Index 2022 score. As the largest LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group in the US, the HRC publishes the Corporate Equality Index every year, aiming to shed light on companies’ LGBTQ+ workplace inclusion.

Anheuser Busch lost its score of 100, as well as its right to use the Best Places to Work Distinction. According to the HRC’s Senior Director of Programs and Corporate Advocacy Eric Bloem, Bud Light’s inclusive marketing campaign was promising, however, it should have been standing by its decisions, suggesting that the beer giant didn’t handle the backlash well.

As of 2024, Anheuser Busch’s Corporate Equality Index score is 70, scoring lower on the gender transition and inclusive culture section.

What Can We Learn From the Bud Light Controversy?

Partnering with Dylan Mulvaney was not a mistake on Bud Light’s part — many companies collaborate with influencers and content creators to grow their audiences. However, it is important to consider the responsibility and consequences of taking stances on social issues.

“You don’t want to get caught in the middle of these fights, unless it’s really key to your brand positioning or key to what your organization stands for,” said Timothy Calkins, Professor of Marketing at Kellogg School of Management. This is why most companies won’t go beyond vague support for the most popular cultural issues like changing a logo to a rainbow-colored version during Pride month.

The LGBTQ+ community expected Bud Light to provide more support to Dylan Mulvaney. While the company donated a six figure sum to LGBTQ-owned small businesses after the controversy, it still lost trust, as seen in its Corporate Equality Index score.

In a 2024 interview, Dylan Mulvaney said she found that corporations were not really on her side, expressing once again her disappointment. According to Timothy Calkins, Bud Light’s VP referring to the company’s existing customers as “fratty” may not have been the wisest decision, suggesting that this approach potentially alienated the customers.

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