Brands in the News

Brands in the News: Bud Light and Max

19 Apr 2023  

Two brands are getting a lot of attention this week: Bud Light and HBO Max. Here is my take on what’s happening.

Bud Light

You’ve probably read about the Bud Light situation. The brand sent custom cans to Dylan Mulvaney an outspoken trans influencer. This resulted in backlash from Kid Rock, Travis Tritt and others. The brand didn’t comment, though the brand manager discussed the move, and the CEO finally issued a statement over the weekend.

Let’s try to make sense of this.

1. Was Bud Light right to partner with Dylan Mulvaney?

Yes. Bud Light wants to expand its user base and connecting with influencers in an authentic way is an important part of this effort.

Working with influencers and celebrities is always somewhat risky. This partnership was particularly so; Bud Light walked right into one of the most controversial issues in society. This makes it more debatable. Why immerse a brand like Bud Light in a controversy not directly related to the brand proposition?

2. Were Kid Rock and Travis Tritt smart to attack Bud Light?


Kid Rock and Travis Tritt used this situation to promote their own personal brands. Do I understand why they did this? Sure. Did it work for them? Yes, it got them lots of attention. Was it the right thing to do? No.

3. Was Bud Light’s response inappropriate?

Yes and No.

The basic response from Bud Light was to say nothing. The brand went dark on social media. The CEO put out a statement that said absolutely nothing.

This is all understandable. Bud Light can’t back down from supporting Mulvaney. But the brand also doesn’t want to double down on the endorsement. Saying little was the correct move.

The Bud Light VP Alissa Heinerscheid, however, did an interview talking about the need to evolve the brand and move on from its frat boy roots. This was not smart. Anytime you disparage your existing customers, you are not helping your brand. This was an unforced error by the team at Bud Light.

4. Will this have a long-term impact on Bud Light?


This event will have no long-term impact on sales of Bud Light. People will move on. Bud Light will focus on creating interesting marketing efforts. Travis Tritt is a fading country music star, so losing his business just isn’t a big concern.

5. What can we learn?

The big lesson here is to be intentional about who you partner with and be particularly careful if you wade into hot social issues that aren’t part of your brand’s overall positioning. Do you really need to get your brand involved in the debate over medical abortion or gun control? If not, well, it is best to leave those debates to others. Pick your battles.

The Wisdom Behind Max

Last week Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it was rebranding HBO Max as just Max. The change, effective on May 23, will bring together HBO, Discovery + and HGTV content on a single streaming platform.

From a branding perspective, the move makes a lot of sense.

HBO is a powerful media property. The franchise includes edgy programming such as The White Lotus and Succession. For many years, HBO has brought high impact shows such as Game of Thrones to consumers.

The problem with HBO is that the brand features mature content. It isn’t a brand for kids or families. Some of the material pushes the boundaries in terms of violence and nudity.

This makes HBO Max a limited platform. It represents distinctive content, but largely for adults.

Warner Bros. Discovery has a range of content. Putting all this content under HBO Max wouldn’t make any sense; it would dilute HBO Max and restrict the audience. Advertising that HBO Max now has kids programming just wouldn’t work.

Shifting to Max makes sense for several reasons.

First, Max can be a broader brand; Max isn’t just HBO. It is also Discovery + and HGTV and potentially other platforms.

Second, it protects HBO. To succeed, HBO needs the freedom to be polarizing. As just one of the brands available on Max, HBO can resist pressure to broaden its appeal.

Third, it should lead to better financial results. If you break it down:

– Current HBO Max customers are likely to stick around. Someone who enjoys HBO Max is likely to remain when it becomes Max. Nothing is going away.

– Retention might get better. Someone who subscribes to see a particular HBO show might stay after seeing all the other offerings.

– New customers might sign up now that there is programming beyond HBO.

JB Perrette, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery Global Streaming explained the move well, saying “HBO is not TV. HBO is HBO. It needs to stay that way. We will not push it to the breaking point by forcing it to take on the full breadth of this new content proposition had we kept the name in the service brand. By doing so, we’ll better elevate and showcase our unparalleled array of other content and brands that will be key to broadening the appeal to this enhanced product.”

It is interesting that HBO and Disney, two strong media brands, are taking different paths. HBO is moving to narrow its positioning and retain a distinctive voice. Disney is broadening its brand to be more than just family friendly programming. Branding theory here gives the edge to the HBO approach.

Of course, the fact that the move makes branding sense doesn’t mean it will work. The problem is that competition is intense: Hulu, Apple +, Netflix, Disney +. Financially, this competition puts significant financial pressure on all the players; there is a need to create terrific content, which is expensive, and consumers have a big incentive to switch based on particular shows.

Ultimately, we are likely to see further consolidation. Going into this process, protecting HBO is key. Max doesn’t have a lot of financial value. HBO does.

2 Responses

  1. Karen Levine says:

    I am curious to hear your perspective on the longer-term impact on Bud Light and how things unfolded along the way with executives leaving their roles. It’s quite sad to think something like this could bring a brand down. I worked on the “Born the Hard Way” Budweiser ad, and there was not this level of fallout.

  2. Justin Kim says:

    On the point about being intentional about wading into hot button topics, I’d be interested to hear about companies or brands that have done this well. Especially those who have ventured outside their comfort zone and done so successfully.

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