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Bud Light faces boycott calls, but punishing brands is harder than it looks

Bud Light is the latest of a series of boycotts fueled by partnerships between companies and social-media influencers, occurring among both parties.

Bud Light’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney has led some conservative critics to call for a boycott, generating headlines and social-media posts including a video of musician Kid Rock shooting a rifle at cases of the beer, but such campaigns often have failed to deliver a meaningful blow.

Many social media-fueled boycott efforts do no material damage to the businesses in question, studies suggest, and may even have an opposite effect by increasing awareness and briefly boosting sales.

Social-media activity and news coverage regarding Bud Light’s partnership with Ms. Mulvaney, who has nearly 11 million followers on TikTok and has been documenting her gender transition, could overstate the potentially negative effects on the brand, according to some marketing experts.

"Bud Light just needs to withstand the 72-hour media storm and to hold on to what they already know: that the product cycle for profit is longer than the media cycle," said Kate Wolff, founder and chief executive of marketing agency Lupine Creative.

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Bud Light parent Anheuser-Busch InBev AB says that it works with hundreds of influencers and that a commemorative can with Ms. Mulvaney’s face that she featured in TikTok and Instagram videos on April 1 isn’t for sale.

Bud Light was mentioned 1.08 million times on social media in the 11 days following Ms. Mulvaney’s video, up from 20,400 mentions in the 11 days prior, with most of the activity occurring on Twitter, Reddit and community forums, said Amy Gilbert, vice president of social innovation at marketing firm the Social Element. The most commonly shared sentiments included disgust, anger and joy, according to the firm’s research.

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Misinformation circulated. The Associated Press published fact checks to debunk claims that AB InBev had fired its entire marketing department and that its chief executive had stepped down as a result of the partnership with Ms. Mulvaney. Both were based on satirical articles that many social-media users appeared to believe were legitimate, according to the Associated Press.

Positive impressions of the Bud Light brand have improved among millennial, Gen X and Gen Z consumers, on average, in the days since Ms. Mulvaney’s video went live, according to data from market research firm YouGov, which polls 1,700 to 1,800 different people about the brand every day. 

Bud Light’s overall approval score declined during the same period, however, due to an increase in negative opinions voiced by male consumers, members of the baby boomer and silent generations, and those who describe themselves as conservative or very conservative, according to the data.

Bud Light’s decision to partner with Ms. Mulvaney may spark new interest among the younger consumers that are critical to the brand’s growth but is unlikely to counter a years long sales decline for AB InBev’s core products as American consumers shift toward wine, spirits and craft beer, said Ronald Goldstein, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

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AB InBev has a history of marketing to LGBT consumers and receiving criticism for those efforts from some conservative leaders, said Allyson P. Brantley, associate professor of history and director of honors and interdisciplinary initiatives at the University of La Verne in California.

In the past, Bud Light benefited from a boycott of a competitor that was more successful than recent campaigns, said Ms. Brantley.

Groups including union organizers and the same LGBT activists who embraced Anheuser Busch as a company friendly to their community led a decades long boycott of Coors over allegations that its leadership was antilabor and antigay, said Ms. Brantley, whose book "Brewing a Boycott" details that campaign. The boycott played a role in helping Bud Light become America’s top-selling beer after its debut in the 1980s, she said.

BUD LIGHT USING DYLAN MULVANEY TO BOOST THEIR 'CORPORATE EQUALITY INDEX' SCORE: 'THIS IS BASICALLY A RACKET'

"Unless you have a really well-organized boycott with clear messaging…the boycott just becomes kind of vindictive and performative. We see this on both sides of the political spectrum," she said.

Social-media-driven boycott movements have grown more common in recent years amid increased political and cultural polarization and a desire among many consumers for brands to take stances on sociopolitical issues, marketing experts said.

When the chief executive of Goya Foods Inc. praised then-President Donald Trump during a White House visit in 2020, for example, some advocates on the left tried to punish the brand with social-media messages using hashtags such as #BoycottGoya and #Goyaway.

Yet data revealed that Goya sales increased by 22% nationally in the days following the initial story, with much of that growth coming from households in heavily Republican-leaning districts that purchased Goya products for the first time, said Jura Liaukonyte, associate professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School for Applied Economics and Management and co-author of the study. 

This phenomenon quickly faded, however, with sales reverting to baseline levels less than a month after the boycott calls first surfaced, Ms. Liaukonyte said.

In another incident, hashtags such as #CancelSpotify began trending on social media last year after rock star Neil Young said Spotify Technology SA was spreading false information about Covid-19 vaccines through Joe Rogan’s podcast. Extensive media coverage followed, but research found no evidence of a corresponding change in Spotify’s subscription and revenue growth, said Ms. Liaukonyte, who co-wrote a study on the Spotify case as well.

Goya and Spotify didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The results echo what happened after boycott calls from both sides of the political spectrum against companies from Nike Inc. to Nordstrom Inc.: Many shoppers returned to their usual patterns after the activism faded.

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Consumers are more likely to express a belief than to change their long-term behaviors to embody that belief due to a phenomenon called the intention-behavior gap, Ms. Liaukonyte said.

"Outwardly saying ‘I support the brand’ or ‘I don’t support the brand’ is costless, but the action is costly, and the gap persists," she said.

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