ST. LOUIS – Anheuser-Busch’s distributors from around the country met in St. Louis on Thursday. They heard firsthand about changes being made regarding the Bud Light transgender controversy.
Anheuser-Busch invited the distributors to the downtown Hyatt hotel for a yearly meeting on summer marketing plans. It was the first such meeting since transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney’s viral social media posts with Bud Light in early April. She received a special edition can with her picture on it.
Market analysts report Bud Light sales are still down more than 20% for the past month. Bud Light boycotts appear to be driving down sales of fellow Anheuser-Busch brands like Budweiser and Michelob Ultra, which are down but not as sharply.
“It can be risky for a brand to jump in and align itself with a certain cause, even with the best intentions,” said Dustin Smith, a business professor at Webster University.
He teaches “corporate strategy” and has written works on “brand repair.”
“[The Bud Light controversy] is the only thing we’ve really talked about in my business ethics class for the past week,” he said.
Anheuser-Busch executives needed to address core customers more directly and much earlier about the issue, according to Smith. They appeared to adopt a “deflect and downplay” strategy, which almost never works, he said.
The distributors’ meeting may be a signal of change.
An Anheuser-Busch spokesperson confirms the company informed distributors of major changes in marketing structure, issuing the following statement:
We regularly bring our wholesaler partners and leadership together to share upcoming brand and business plans. Hosting our May meeting in St. Louis is something we started last year and is an opportunity to bring our partners together in our hometown.
We have communicated some next steps with our internal teams and wholesaler partners. First, we made it clear that the safety and welfare of our employees and our partners is our top priority. Second, Todd Allen was appointed Vice President of Bud Light reporting directly to Benoit Garbe, U.S. Chief Marketing Officer. Third, we made some adjustments to streamline the structure of our marketing function to reduce layers so that our most senior marketers are more closely connected to every aspect of our brands activities. These steps will help us maintain focus on the things we do best: brewing great beer for all consumers, while always making a positive impact in our communities and on our country.
Anheuser-Busch and its distributors have also sent letters to bars and other retailers explaining the situation, pointing out that a single marketing official engaged with Mulvaney.
Larry Kerperine, the owner of Larry J’s bar in south county, has posted the letters for customers to see for themselves.
“Then they can determine what they want to do: boycott it or not. I don’t care,” Kerperine said. “It’s up to them, but I wanted them to know Budweiser’s point of view.”
The brewer has been supporting “Pride” events for years with no backlash. Smith predicted its brands would recover and most of its core customers would return.
“The old adage is true. What we’ve seen time and time again, in case study and case study again, is that time heals all wounds,” Smith said. “(This) will probably be talked about years down the road in a marketing class about things you don’t do with your brand.”