Bud Light sales dip after trans promotion, but such boycotts are often short-lived
Sales of Bud Light have dipped after conservatives on social media lashed out at its best-selling beer over a social media promotion with a trans influencer earlier this month.
And even as research has shown that other social media-fueled boycotts were short-lived, two Anheuser-Busch executives are on leave amid the firestorm.
The beer brand's rocky stretch began April 1 with a March Madness promotion with a trans influencer named Dylan Mulvaney, who has more than 10 million followers on TikTok and nearly 2 million on Instagram.
In a video posted to her Instagram, Mulvaney sipped a can of Bud Light as she discussed March Madness, adding that the company had sent her a custom-made tallboy can to commemorate the anniversary of her transition, with an image of her face printed on the side.
Issues involving trans people — like access to gender-affirming medical care and participation in youth sports — have become politically contentious in recent years.
Bud Light's promotion with Mulvaney caught the ire of conservatives on social media, who called for a boycott. Three days after Mulvaney's post, Kid Rock posted his own video in which he wore a MAGA hat and fired a rifle at a few cases of Bud Light.
Over the past week, sales data appears to show that the boycotts have affected the company's bottom line, at least in the short term.
Sales of Bud Light fell 17% in the week ending April 15 when compared to the same week in 2022, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Bump Williams Consulting published in The Wall Street Journal. By contrast, for the week ending April 1 — the day Mulvaney posted the video — Bud Light sales had declined only 1.6% year-over-year, the same data showed. Meanwhile, sales for rivals Coors Light and Miller Lite jumped.
And in restaurants, sales of Bud Light were 6% lower than other light lagers from April 2 to April 15, according to data from BeerBoard, a company that tracks beer sales at about 3,000 restaurants nationwide. Bud Light had outperformed that category in late March, Axios reported.
Last week, Anheuser-Busch confirmed that two marketing executives are on a leave of absence — Alissa Heinerscheid, the vice president of marketing for Bud Light, and Daniel Blake, a marketing executive who oversees several Anheuser-Busch brands. The company has not publicly said when they will return or whether their leave is paid.
Boycotts driven by social media often last only a few weeks, researchers say
Yet research shows that social media-driven boycotts are often short-lived, said Jura Liaukonyte, an economics professor at Cornell University.
Liaukonyte and a team of colleagues examined boycotts of the food company Goya, which was targeted by liberals when the company's CEO praised then-President Donald Trump, and the streaming service Spotify, which faced calls for account cancellations after it signed a contract with controversial podcaster Joe Rogan.
"What we found is that the patterns were very similar," Liaukonyte said. "They followed one news cycle, coming from zero to a maximum again to zero within two to three weeks."
The boycotts did not impact sales or account signups in the long run, the researchers found. And in the case of Goya, the brand actually experienced a short-term sales boost from first-time buyers in predominantly Republican counties, Liaukonyte said.
The boycott of Goya was most effective when its products were easily substituted, like beans, Liaukonyte said. Sales of other Goya products with fewer comparable substitutes, like adobo seasoning, were less affected.
That could be one factor working against Bud Light, she said. "If there is a very easy-to-switch-to product that is perceived by the customer base to be a very, very close substitute — then it might be a factor that would contribute to the boycott's effectiveness," she said.
"Eventually the media spotlight will dim, the buzz will fade and alongside it, consumer zeal for the boycott will wane as well," said Doreen Shanahan, a professor of marketing at Pepperdine University.
Shanahan, who worked for 15 years at The Coca-Cola Co. before becoming an academic, helped to outline a set of strategies for managing boycotts in 2019.
A challenge for companies under fire: weathering the storm
Chief among them: "Weather the storm," Shanahan and her colleagues wrote.
"It's difficult sometimes — when a company starts to see an effect on sales — to hold the line. And when that effect is more than they might anticipate, then they definitely start to question holding the line," she said.
Although Bud Light has long been the best-selling beer brand in the U.S., beer sales were down slightly overall in the U.S. in 2022, and the percentage of the market held by larger brewers like Anheuser-Busch has shrunk as craft beers have surged.
In an interview last month, Heinerscheid, the first woman to lead Bud Light in the brand's 40-year history, said the beer brand was "in decline."
"If we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light," Heinerscheid said on the business podcast Make Yourself at Home.
In a diversity, equity and inclusion statement posted to its website, Anheuser-Busch says it is committed to a workplace and consumer base that is inclusive of all people "whatever our personal characteristics or social identities," including gender identity.
Yet with two marketing executives on leave, Anheuser-Busch leadership appears to fear that the boycott's effects could be longer-lived. "It's not what we would have wanted to see from a boycott management perspective," Shanahan said. (The company has not responded to a request for comment.)
That could backfire for Anheuser-Busch. Other companies will not shy away from efforts to diversify their own consumer bases, she said. "We will continue to see the inclusion of more diverse people in ads and marketing. That's not going away," Shanahan said.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.