The main reason to study marketing efforts is to learn. If we can understand what is happening, we can identify things that seem to work and capitalize on those. We can also see mistakes and try to avoid making the same ones again.
All of this brings us to two brands in the news: Bud Light and Northwestern Football.
If you follow marketing, you’ve likely watched the Bud Light disaster unfold. The brand did a partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Country music rocker Kid Rock then posted a video of him shooting at Bud Light cans in protest. Travis Tritt, another country music singer, joined the effort, announcing he wouldn’t sell Bud Light at his concerts.
In response, Bud Light said nothing. Eventually the CEO of AB InBev released a statement with many words but no substance at all. Later still, the two Bud Light marketers behind the Mulvaney promotion were put on leave.
The result? Disaster. People who are against LGBTQ+ acceptance are now opposed to Bud Light for running the Mulvaney promotion. People who support LGBTQ+ acceptance are also opposed to Bud Light for not standing up for Mulvaney in the face of opposition. The brand caved.
So now everyone dislikes Bud Light and sales are plummeting. The #1 brand of beer in the U.S. is no longer on top.
There is a lot to learn from Bud Light. Here are a few things.
1. Be careful with controversial issues. Any time a brand touches a hot issue, it should proceed with caution. Is there a need to get involved? If not, perhaps it is best to stand back.
2. Gain alignment. If a brand is going to deal with controversy, senior management should be aligned. That clearly wasn’t the case with Bud Light, and that explains much of what happened.
3. Don’t waver. Changing positions on a controversial issue is almost always a problem. Bud Light got into trouble because the brand didn’t stick with the program. If Bud Light had stood up for Mulvaney, perhaps getting influencers like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Garth Brooks behind it, the outcome might have been very different.
4. Move quickly. Bud Light didn’t do anything for weeks. This delay caused the story to spiral and made the company seem reactionary.
5. Be empathetic. The AB InBev team didn’t think through how people would react. How would employees respond? How would retail partners?
Northwestern Football is having a bad week. Here is a short summary of the story. Several months ago, the university learned of reports of hazing on the football team. In response, school leaders brought in a law firm to investigate, and the study concluded that there was evidence of hazing but it wasn’t clear who knew what.
In response, Michael Schill, the new president of Northwestern, put Pat Fitzgerald, the long-time and much-loved football coach, on leave for two weeks and instituted a series of policy changes. Schill announced these moves last Friday afternoon.
On Saturday, the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper, released a story detailing the hazing. It was an astonishing piece, complete with descriptions of dry humping, naked showers, and physical abuse of players. The reports were from multiple players.
Later Saturday, President Schill announced that he might have made a mistake.
Sunday, the players released a statement supporting Pat Fitzgerald, signed the: “The ENTIRE Northwestern Football Team.”
On Monday, Northwestern fired Fitzgerald.
So how well did Northwestern apply the learnings from Bud Light? The situations are different, of course, but there are a lot of similarities, too. Let’s take a look at the Bud Light learnings.
1. Be careful with controversial issues
There are a lot of controversial issues in the world of college sports, but one thing that everyone can agree on is that hazing and abuse are unacceptable. Reports in this area must be taken seriously.
And, after terrible stories like Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and Larry Nassar at Michigan State, the argument that leadership should be excused because they weren’t aware of the problems just doesn’t work.
Given all this, Schill completely missed. His initial punishment seemed a bit like, “Hey Pat! Why don’t you take a couple weeks off this summer. Enjoy the time at the lake.”
2. Gain alignment
A big question in all this: was the Northwestern Board of Trustees in agreement with the initial response? I can’t imagine that was the case. Surely someone would have questioned the decision.
3. Don’t waver
It took all of a few hours for Schill to backtrack after the Daily Northwestern story came out, and then a couple of days to dismiss Fitzgerald. Which means that everyone paying attention to Northwestern Football will now be upset. People who support Fitzgerald will be angry. People who don’t support Fitzgerald will be angry.
While changing course was the right move, this was not a good week for the new Northwestern leader.
4. Move quickly
Northwestern deserves credit for moving quickly after the initial flub. Schill said he made a mistake within hours. He dismissed the coach just days later.
5. Be empathetic
The Northwestern Football team needs particular improvement in this area. The team’s statement was embarrassing.
When you have a group of people accused of abusing a few of its own members, sending a statement signed by the “The ENTIRE Football Team” just makes things worse. Where are the names? Why is ENTIRE in all caps? It sounds vaguely threatening, to the players voicing concerns, the outstanding reporting team at the Daily Northwestern and anyone opposed to Pat Fitzgerald.
The statement from the football team doesn’t sound at all like a group of individuals concerned about credible reports and committed to improving. It was just denial in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
This is an opportunity for Northwestern Football to start fresh. The quick dismissal of Fitzgerald opens the door to a new leadership approach.
The situation is also a reminder to business leaders to take the Bud Light learnings to heart.