Wiser Than Bud

What lessons does the recent Bud Light brouhaha hold for the rest of us? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

  • We’ve all seen the headlines. Yikes. Clearly some mistakes were made.
  • Mistakes can be useful teachers. So what can we learn here?
  • If we put aside the specific political and social issues at play, this debacle illustrates the importance of brand management.
  • When things went awry, Bud Light was in the midst of a pivot. VP Alissa Heinerscheid was on a mission to “elevate” the brand—making it more inclusive and less “out of touch”.
  • This was no flight of fancy. Her strategy was tied to a real business issue: “This brand is in decline … and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand there will be no future for Bud Light.”
  • Sounds good so far. So where did things go wrong? And—more to the point—what should they have done differently?
  • It’s important to say at the outset that we strongly believe this is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of having an actual point-of-view.
  • Brand is about differentiation. Successful brands have a clear and distinct set of values and beliefs that connects them to the audiences they care about.
  • Just as watering down beer robs it of flavour, watering down these values robs your brand of its power. As a wise person once said, trying to please everyone leads to pleasing no one.
  • So please, don’t let this story scare you away from standing for something. Instead, let it remind you what good (and bad) brand management looks like.
  • First off, brand management requires us to understand and respect our audience. And be very careful when seeking to shift the profile of that audience and pursue new customers.
  • The way Mark Ritson sees it, Bud Light got excited about a growth audience and forgot about their current loyalists. They shifted their strategy too abruptly.
  • Second, good brand managers take partnerships seriously. Real partnership comes with real responsibility, in both directions.
  • But when things went wrong Bud Light did not protect Mulvaney: “I was waiting for the brand to reach out to me. But they never did”.
  • Third, good brand management requires a commitment to your strategic choices.
  • Strategy, as Michael Porter tells us, is about making choices. These choices come with risks and trade-offs.
  • For any strategy to work, all parties must be aware of these risks and trade-offs, aligned on the choices being made and committed to giving these choices enough time to bear fruit.
  • This was clearly not the case at Bud Light. As soon as the backlash began, the strategy was unceremoniously abandoned and CEO Brendan Whitworth issued an utterly toothless statement that has been widely described as “waffling”.
  • If brand management is about creating distinctiveness, this had the opposite effect.
  • As Tony D’Angelo put it: “You have to make a commitment. If you waffle, people are going to rightly question what you really stand for. That’s exactly the position that you don’t want to be in.”
  • For an example of what real commitment looks like, consider Nike. Back in 2018, the company stood its ground while facing a boycott.
  • They honored their partnership with Colin Kaepernick.
  • They focused on the audiences they cared about most, not the loudest voices online.
  • Sales initially declined but then quickly bounced back.
  • However you feel about Nike’s message, this is undeniably an example of great brand management.
  • For the final word on the topic, we leave it to Nike’s former VP of brand marketing Duke Stump:
  • “The purpose of what we’re here for is to optimize the resonance and relevance for those we serve.
Issue #172
Jul 9, 2023

Further Reading