Brands in the News

Bud Light and Northwestern

11 Jul 2023  

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.

The Bud Light Debacle

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.

Bud Light Lessons

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?

The Northwestern Football Mess

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.

Evaluating Northwestern

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.

What’s Next

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.

3 Responses

  1. Dave Tuchler says:

    Interesting and insightful assessment as always. I have a somewhat different take on one line: “People who are against LGBTQ+ acceptance are now opposed to Bud Light for running the Mulvaney promotion.” Respectfully, I think it’s a little different. More like Bud Light turning its back on its current users.

    Brands are of course a promise to consumers, and to varying degrees, a brand’s marketing reflects its users. Bud Light advertising has traditionally been safe.

    The Dylan Mulvaney video was NOT an attempt to stretch the brand’s footprint by an diversity/acceptance strategy, which many brands have artfully done recently. Rather, the DM video was a shock-and-awe attempt to radically redefine the brand (per the recently departed Marketing VP). The resistance was not that Bud Light drinkers were universally against LGBTQ+ acceptance. Although it no doubt applied to some, overall probably far from that.

    Rather, the resistance was to the ‘I dare you’ poke in the eye, implicitly positioning Mulvaney as a person just like everyone else in the BL loyal drinker family. And it was so cartoonish, so flagrantly over the top different to what BL has stood for and how most BL users saw themselves, that it ultimately came across as a lack of respect. Brand loyalists who might have been ‘live and let live’ with a more subtle or elegant approach, at that point said ‘Bud Light obviously doesn’t give a s*** about me, screw them, I’ll take my business elsewhere’, and did.
    There are a few more lessons in there; hope to post about it soon.

    • Tim Calkins says:

      Thanks for sharing your take on BL! Interesting to think that the DM move was a clear effort to distance from current users. I never thought of BL as having a point of view on gender identity. If it was, then it is even a more debatable strategy. Who would do that?

      • Dave Tuchler says:

        Ha! Crazy stuff. This is what happens when marketers appear to market to their peers or some other audience, rather than to their brand constituents…more amusing was the utterly transparent self-consciously patriotic follow-up damage control ads, which fooled exactly no one. (another lesson: when it comes to electronic media, there is no such thing as a test anymore). Cheers, enjoy the summer. Thx for the response.

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