On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discuss the recent controversy surrounding Bud Light’s association with Dylan Mulvaney and the lackluster statement the company released in response. Tune in for more.
*Editor’s note: This podcast was recorded prior to Ab-InBev placing executives Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, and Daniel Blake, who oversees marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s mainstream brands, on leave. You can read about it here.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, how you doing, man?
Z: I’m hanging in there, pretty good. Just OK, ready to face down another week. Got through a week of — again, not to turn this into a fathering podcast. Weekend of kids’ birthday parties. Not my own, just others, always just a nightmare. I love them in a way, but taking your kid to birthday parties is — well, you’ll see.
A: What have you been drinking, then?
Z: A couple of things. The highlight, for me — I have been, as I mentioned last week, on this West Coast Chardonnay kick. Had a bottle from Oregon, since I had left it out of my previous conversation. Some Chardonnay from Brick House, producer up on Ribbon Ridge, in the Willamette Valley there. 2018 Chardonnay. Just a lovely bottle of wine. Nice texture, crisp, long, elegant finish. Then I think the other thing that I have been drinking is — despite the relative paucity of good weather that would perhaps befit drinking this, and based a little bit on our conversations, I’ve been moving back into the tequila and rum world. One of my favorite drinks, that I had forgotten about in the winter, because it’s just not something I drink very often, is — I made myself a Daiquiri, which I know you love too.
A: I love Daiquiris.
Z: One of my Daiquiri cheats is to use just a small amount, about a half-ounce of Stiggins, which is like a pineapple rum, but it’s not the kind of pineapple rum that you think about, where it’s like, oh, intense artificial pineapple flavor. It’s actually made with pineapples in the distillation process. Yes, Plantation makes a bottle that I really like. A Daiquiri, as a three-ingredient cocktail, is itself delicious, and I have no problem with that, but there’s something about just adding that other note to it, which I’ve done with some care — I’d like to think I do that with care. Is just really beautiful, and it brings just another dimension to the drink, where even I think a really nice, great Daiquiri can sometimes be — I don’t want to say simple, that’s not quite right, but it can sometimes lack as much complexity as sometimes I want. Adding that little bit of Stiggins Pineapple Rum in is just a nice little — It’s a little accent mark on there. How about you, what you been drinking?
A: Not a lot, man. The one thing that I have been drinking is freezer Martinis. One of the things I rediscovered through having had those Tip Tops that were sent to me, was just how much I like having a super-cold Martini, and how I can just have one and be fine. I was like, “Well, I’m going to make a batch up, because I have the specs I like.” I made a batch and put them in the freezer. It’s been nice to be able to, at the end of the night, as I’m cooking dinner or whatever, after we’ve done our thing, just pour from the freezer, because it’s already pre-diluted, into my glass, garnish it really quickly, no other dishes to do besides the glass, right? No mixing stuff, no spoons, no strainers, just the glass, and it’s been really nice. Then I also had a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir, but I forget the producer, it was one of the — I’ve just got a blank brain here. We had that a few nights ago, and then, otherwise, again, just realized that if I drink too much right now, if I have even more than one glass of wine, I just fall asleep. I have not been doing that as much. I really have not been doing much, and I haven’t been out to drink in quite a long time, at least over a month. That would be nice to do, sometime soon. Sorry, I’m not as interesting as I usually am.
Z: You’ll find your equilibrium soon, I’m sure.
A: What we wanted to talk about today is a news item that, unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, has been dominating the cycles of both mainstream as well as alcohol-based news. I want to use this peg as a way to discuss the larger world of outreach in alcohol. For those of you who are unaware, Anheuser-Busch has been getting it from both sides, due to a piece of outreach that they did to a woman, who they sent a bunch of cans to, with her face on it, for — I think it was a milestone. Was it her birthday, or an amount of followers? I can’t remember that.
Z: I think followers, but I’m not actually sure.
A: Then, basically, a bunch of conservatives jumped on this. I’m sure Anheuser-Busch has this a bunch, it’s a special thing that they do. She posted it on Instagram. She has well over 4 million followers. Then the right took hold of this, because this female is trans, and basically was like, “We’re going to boycott Bud Light.” You had people like Kid Rock, and all these other people, posting videos shooting the cans, saying they would not be on their tour riders anymore. Just a bunch of really gross stuff. First of all, my first question to all of this, before we get into this, with those people. How does this hurt you? I really don’t get it. The bigger issue here, and what I wanted to talk about, is the response by AB InBev. As I said, there was a lot of controversy around this. I actually think a lot of the controversy was for some news places to get more ratings, but whatever, but finally, Anheuser-Busch released a statement. I mean, anyone who’s an expert in crisis PR — This is not how you do PR. You don’t wait this long. This has been now a few weeks, since the controversy started, where Ms. Mulvaney was gifted the cans. Basically, it still took them forever to release something. You would think that when it takes you this long, it’s because you’re going to make a really strong statement, and instead, AB InBev both-sided it. I’m going to read the statement from their North American CEO. “As the CEO of a company founded in America’s Heartland” — cheers to the right — “more than 165 years ago. I’m responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew. We’re honored to be part of the fabric of this country. Anheuser-Busch employs more than 18,000 people” — so they want you to know they create jobs — “and our independent distributors employ an additional 47,000 valued colleagues. We have thousands of partners, millions of fans, and a proud history supporting our communities.” First of all, he also wants you to know that — we talk to everybody. Then he says the military first, first responders, sports fans, and hardworking Americans anywhere. Everywhere. He’s saying here, “We’re for everybody, so that everyone shuts up on the right, but we’re going to name the hot-button things that are important to you.” First responders, the military. People who like sports, because people on the left can’t like sports, and hard-working Americans, because I guess people on the left aren’t hard-working Americans. Anyways. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” This is the point I want to talk about, after this. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” Again, at this point, in America, whatever, we all can’t just have a beer together anymore. These are important issues that we need to have — we’re literally banning drag brunches in parts of the country. This part is just so tone-deaf. “My time serving this country” — he wants to remind you he was in the military — “taught me the importance of accountability and the values upon which America was founded — freedom, hard work, and respect for one another.” Again, I have a lot of respect for people who serve. A lot of people who serve are very much supportive of LGBTQ. People who serve can be on the right, and can be on the left. That also pisses me off, that it becomes this signal that’s sent to you, on the right. Like, “I side with the military, so I side with you.” It’s such bullsh*t. Anyways. “As the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, I’m focused on building and protecting our remarkable history and heritage. I care deeply about this country, this company, our brands, and our partners. I spend much of my time traveling across America, listening to and learning from our customers, distributors, and others. Moving forward, I will continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.” He said nothing. Dave Infante, one of our writers at large, and our columnist for Hop Take every Thursday, basically said the same thing. They’re both-siding this, and it’s actually getting an even worse look for the company. Again, someone who specializes in crisis PR should have helped this a lot more. I think what they should have done is, basically said what they needed to say, which is like, “We are very happy that this person who’s now getting hate online is a consumer of our beer, because our beer is for everybody. If you have a problem with that, don’t drink us.” I think that instead of trying to think that people who are doing nothing but preaching hate are people who should also be considered — honestly it’s reminded me of that “there were good people on both sides” statement. The people who are preaching hate towards a group that is constantly targeted are not good people, but I think the bigger thing here is the line he states in the statement, which I said I wanted to come back to, which is, “We never intended to be a part of a discussion that divides people.” It has become very much part of marketing, in this day and age, to align brands with movements, align brands with different groups of people, to try to raise the voices and profiles of groups that have been historically marginalized. Let’s be clear, often, that is for financial gain. Bud Light very loudly, and in large amounts of dollars, is a sponsor of Pride. They do that because they would like the LGBTQ demographic to be consumers of Bud Light. Let’s be honest, I think that beer has a declining amount of sales, in the same way that we’ve talked about for wine. Beer is losing market share, and beer needs a younger generation. The younger generation is supportive of all groups of people, and is much more aware of how people can be exploited, marginalized, taken advantage of, left out of opportunities, et cetera, and they are not OK with it. When the brand manager of Bud Light was told — also I think this is what’s really important. The brand manager of Bud Light, I feel so badly for her. She’s been all over the news. This outlet decided to go after her, broadcast her name, and say that she’s the reason that this partnership happened, et cetera. She’s just a brand manager, she’s doing what she was told, and what she was told was to create campaigns and do outreach that expands the conversation, the community, and the tent of Bud Light. That’s what she was told to do, and that’s what she’s doing, by just reaching out to a Bud Light fan. I think this is something that is going to continue to happen. If a company wants to align their brands with the next generation, and they, therefore, want to support these communities, then they have to be prepared for the f*cking backlash. The backlash isn’t going to go away. If they don’t want to align themselves with these communities, then just accept what’s going to happen to your sales. If you’re OK, look, there are some marginally successful brands that speak to only a certain part of the country, and that’s OK for those brands if that’s what they want to be. Have you seen these brewers now, that are releasing their freedom beers and stuff, in reaction? Good for you. I’m sure you’ll sell more than you normally do, but you’ll never be at the size of Bud Light. To be the largest light beer, and I think largest beer in America, the only way you can do that is by talking to all these groups. What they’ve done here is basically show that the second they get called out by a group of people who are filled with hate, they will not support the group they actually claim to be supporting. It’s unbelievable to me. Anyways, that’s the end of my tirade, but I do think what I’d like to talk about with you, Zach, is this continued desire, by these large alcohol companies, to claim to support groups, but then show who they really are when the going gets tough.
Z: A couple of things here. One of them is that I think one of the challenges that Anheuser-Busch, and other very large companies, whether they’re drinks companies or not, face in a modern landscape, is that more so than any other time in our lifetimes, and maybe in the — I can’t speak so much about what this was like previously, but where people no longer see your taste preferences in drink, or in anything, as being, in some way, divorced from your political identity. This notion that, as you pointed out in the statement, that Bud Light, or any brand, can “bring people together.” When you’re talking about bringing people together who have impossible-to-reconcile differences. It’s not just empty words. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern American, and maybe global political landscape, where, for a variety of reasons, these cultural signifiers are now — they become central to people’s identity in a lot of ways. Your political affiliation now, I think, your belief system, and all that, seems to say not just a lot more about who you are as a person, but in a lot of ways, what you would choose to consume. Bud Light, and these entrenched brands, that may, in terms of demographics, cut across a larger range of these than some, still are, as we’re seeing, susceptible to, vulnerable to being dragged into this fight. I don’t think anything is off limits. By even acknowledging the, I guess, existence of a trans woman, Bud Light has now done something that at least a certain segment of far-right blowhards deem a subject that they can drum up interest, agitation, spotlight, probably money, and things via. I think you’re living in a no longer existent world if you think that you can just be like, “We want to be the beer for everyone.” The way you do that, I guess, is by just trying to be as detached from politics as possible. Again, as I’ve been saying, politics is everywhere, all the time now. Again, we’re seeing it in so many different ways, that you just — I don’t think you can pretend to be apolitical as a company or a brand anymore, because if not the actions you take, then people are going to go look at who you, your board of directors, and your executives, who do they donate money to? What are their politics? This stuff is out there. It’s harder to speak to these communities and be like, “Oh, we’re apolitical. We just want to make beer, man. That’s all we’re about.” It’s never been true, but I think that that level of empty statement is just not being listened to by either side, at this point.
A: I think whether you like it or not, what has happened over the past, you could say six years, but really 10 years, in this country, has fully changed how we look at each other. The fact that you have a governor of Florida going after Disney. So much in this country has become political. There have been article after article after article, published by us, published by other publications, that — stop saying wine isn’t political. Stop saying that spirits aren’t political. Stop saying that beer isn’t political. We’ve talked about this a bunch, that people are going to vote with their dollars, and support who they support. I think this is the classic lesson of old-school marketing, where you think you can take advantage of a person’s reach and celebrity. To a certain group of people — I’m talking about generationally, especially a lot of Gen Z. Dylan Mulvaney is very famous. She has over 4 million followers. They listen to her. She’s documented her journey through her life, her transition, all that stuff. She’s been very open about it. She is very beloved. The reason Bud Light sent her this beer wasn’t to be just like, “Hey, congrats, yo.” It was also to be like, “Please post us,” which they knew she would, so that her fans would drink Bud Light. That’s what they did, and to think that they didn’t think a little bit longer about what the reaction might be, and be prepared to say, “No, we did this intentionally, we support her. We support anyone who is about creating a larger community for Bud Light, a more open, inclusive community for Bud Light,” is mind-boggling to me. I think that that just shows you how so many markets, but especially in alcohol, still think we’re in this old world, where you can slap your logo on a concert tour and not think that it might have any ramifications. Like, “Oh, no, it’s cool man. No one else is aware of them, besides people that listen to that artist.” Not anymore, man. If that artist is at all problematic, is misogynistic, is anti any other groups of people, et cetera, you can’t align with them anymore. Could you imagine if you’re a brand and you decide, in this day and age, to support the next Kanye West tour? You can’t do that anymore. You can’t.
Z: You certainly can’t without being ready to take on what that means. I’m sure if that happens, there will be sponsors, but they will be doing so, presumably, with eyes wide open.
A: Yes, and when people come for you to say, “Yes, we’re cool with conspiracy theorists and antisemites,” you would have to be able to say that.
Z: Sure. That might be your brand.
A: That might be your brand, totally. Totally. I think this is that classic lesson of a large brand that did not learn that. I think it’s also a lesson to consumers, I know we’ve said this a bunch, but you need to do your research and figure out which brands, actually, that support causes that you care about truly support those causes, and truly support these groups, et cetera, and do so throughout their culture, and who is clearly doing that in order to take advantage, very quickly, of someone’s celebrity reach, et cetera, for that quick hit of sales. Those are the brands that need to be continued to be supported, and those other brands, they workshopped it, they know it’s a possibility, but it’s not going to work for them. I think that’s what you’re going to see too, is probably a change in a lot of marketing strategies, moving forward. We’re not in the age anymore, where bunch of marketers can sit in a boardroom and say, “This is our target demo for this quarter,” if that hasn’t been their target demo for the last four or five years, and that’s also been a target demo that they’ve actively gone against, in how their company has supported government policies, et cetera. People are going to now look into that and find that out. You have to bring all of that into your consideration set when you decide that you want to support a demo that you think will help increase your sales. That’s just the truth now. Or you have to be willing to address, head-on, that you have not been supportive of that group in the past, that you apologize for it, and that is why you are making amends by supporting that group now. I think a lot of companies aren’t prepared to do that. You can tell by this statement by the Budweiser North American CEO, that he was just trying to, “Hey man, kumbaya, just kumbaya, kumbaya.” No, man, it’s not that way anymore.
Z: Yes. We are very much not at a kumbaya place in this country right now. The other thing I want to add to that is that, in addition to not just being able to be like, “Oh, OK, yes, here are our key demos to target for this quarter, or this year, or whatever,” that may be ringing more hollow. It is to echo something that I said before, and I think it’s really important to mention here, which is just — there is so little you can do in marketing, in promotions, in, perhaps, celebrity, or at least influencer engagement, that isn’t, in one way or another, going to be viewed through the lens that so much of what happens in this country is viewed through, these days, which is through a political, cultural lens. Again I think it’s not just about thinking you can advertise to a demo and target them, that you’ve never talked to, that you’ve been dismissive of, or just ignorant of, in the past. It’s also in a way that any decision to do that is going to bring upon it a reactionary blowback, because, as we pointed out, unclear exactly how big a Bud Light boycott is, how much it might be affecting Anheuser-Busch’s bottom line. I think probably not as much as you would think, given the controversy, but regardless of the scope of it, it’s certainly been a big pain in the ass for AB InBev, at a minimum, and outright damaging to individuals, as you pointed out, like the brand manager, who’s been subjected to a lot of hate and vitriol. The piece of it that, I think, just has to be kept in mind, is that there are a lot of people on the right and far-right who are looking for an excuse to whatever it might be. Whether it’s virtually unimpeachable brands, like Bud Light, Coca-Cola, Disney, or whatever. Your very classic, all-American brands. The truth is that, as I understand it, the zeitgeist in that movement is — any example of acknowledging the existence of marginalized or persecuted groups of people, is basically some betrayal of whatever that other group is. Not only can you not both-side it in an apology, but you can’t even really both-side it if you acknowledge the existence of, say, trans people. There is no way, I don’t think, to do that, that isn’t going to draw this kind of vitriol, because it is an animating force in that political movement, looking at these actions by companies, and things like that, as a betrayal. I think any listener to this show knows where Adam and my political sensibilities, and whatnot, lie. I’m not really interested in discussing it in the standpoint of who I think is right, or — well, I think you all know who we think are right and wrong, but again, just as a practical matter for brands, companies, and stuff like that, I just think — it’s not just that you can’t appease afterwards. It’s like — if you even choose to acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ community in any way, or others, you might be in the scope for this group of people, and you better be prepared for what that means.
A: I think what that means is that — that’s OK. If these-
Z: Yes, it might be.
A: If these are your values, I think actually just owning that these are your values — all the data points of what we’ve talked about. People being more accepting in this country is a much larger group, and you just need to own it. I think that that’s the case, and let another brand have the deplorables. I’m sorry, but it’s just true, and stop trying to be both-sides. Because at some point, it is what it is, or just admit that you have the problem. If you’ve become a brand that really has only spoken to a group of people, that is very hateful of other groups, then the only way to fix that is, you’re going to have to fully embrace openness, inclusivity, et cetera, and be OK with losing that group for a while. I think that’s the issue of why so many people attacked this statement by AB InBev. It was just trying to still appeal to both groups. As I was dissecting that statement, it’s like trying to — the buzzwords that speak to both of them, and it’s like — No, man, you either needed to come out and say — obviously, everyone knows what we think the CEO should have said, which is like, “We support trans rights. Trans rights are human rights. We support Dylan Mulvaney, we send her beers, everyone calm the f*ck down. She likes Bud Light. We like that she likes Bud Light. If you like her, we hope you like Bud Light. If you don’t like her, kind of f*ck off,” or they should have said, “We made a f*cking mistake. We’re sorry. We will never embrace anyone in the LGBTQ+ community again.” Those were their two options, and we’d much rather have Kid Rock and his listeners as our drinkers. Those were the two options at this time and place, and they didn’t do either. It just comes off as what it is. It’s just very, very transparent to a consumer, that all of this is just a f*cking marketing tactic. The best marketing in the world is when you don’t know you’re being marketed to, and when you don’t know that — yes, while the brand does hopefully believe in these things, they believe in these things, also, a lot of the times, because you’re the audience they’re trying to reach, but it feels genuine. Everything is workshopped, and data’s always examined, et cetera. That’s a capitalist society, but this was just such a stupid — like, “Oh, no, we don’t look at marketing at all. We want everyone to love us.” That just doesn’t exist, guys. It’s never existed in marketing. It’s never existed in marketing. If you look at other brands and groups that are loyal to those brands, the groups that are loyal to those brands are groups for whom those brands have been loyal to them for long parts of history. We’ve written about that before, and talked about it on the podcast. I don’t know, just an unfortunate reminder that, first of all, people are terrible, and also, that what they drink represents who they are politically, and you need to understand that as a marketer. I would love to know what you think. Hit us up at [email protected], and Zach, I’ll talk to you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
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