When Anheuser-Busch InBev, the multinational beer company, promoted Alissa Heinerscheid to vice-president of marketing for Bud Light in July 2022, she became the first female VP in the beer’s 40-year history. “It’s just old white men,” says one former employee of the company leadership. “That’s why we were excited to at least have Alissa in that role.”
In a March 2023 interview with the lifestyle podcast Make Yourself At Home, Heinerscheid spoke of her remit. “I had a really clear job to do when I took over Bud Light, and it was: ‘This brand is in decline, it’s been in a decline for a really long time, and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.’” Part of that involved updating the marketing to be “lighter, brighter” and more inclusive. “Bud Light had […] a brand of fratty, kind of out-of-touch humor,” Heinerscheid said.
Instead of ensuring a prosperous future for Bud Light, Heinerscheid’s tenure was marked by a sharp decline in sales and one of the biggest boycotts of a brand in US history, after a minor social media partnership with Dylan Mulvaney was attacked by rightwing anti-trans groups. Over the past month, the Guardian has spoken with insiders at Bud Light and the agency the company contracted about what exactly happened and why the brand refused to back Mulvaney during the backlash. Former employees, who wish to remain anonymous, spoke of leadership incompetence and said that executives were operating from a place of fear and were now vetting public comments under the brand’s Instagram posts to remove any hint of negativity. Anheuser-Busch did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
‘It’s more than just beer’
The collaboration that sparked rightwing ire was actually Mulvaney’s second project with Bud Light; the first, just six weeks earlier, had gone unnoticed. In February, the actor and comedian was among about a dozen creators hired to “remix” the beer brand’s latest advertisement, which showed the actors Miles and Keleigh Teller dancing goofily to retro hold music and premiered during the Super Bowl. Mulvaney posted a 60-second video tagged #BudLightPartner, in which she sipped beer in a bubble bath, blowing clouds of foam into the air. The video showcased the enthusiastic, slightly daffy personality that had won her a following during her 365 Days of Girlhood TikTok series, which documented her journey as a trans woman with reflections on coming out, assembling a new wardrobe, and undertaking gender-affirming care.
For a subsequent sponsored video for Bud Light, posted on 1 April, Mulvaney sought to send up gender stereotypes: she dressed as Holly Golightly, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s character, and played the ditz: “I just heard about this thing called March Madness. Turns out it has something to do with sports!” The video showed a personalised Bud Light can Mulvaney had been given by the company to celebrate what she called her “day 365 of womanhood”.
During that year of transition, Mulvaney, a former musical-theater kid, had attracted some negativity for her more campy moments, as well as a post in which she held up a box of tampons. (“I’m always going to have one on hand for anyone who needs it,” she said.) In late 2022, her partnership with Ulta Beauty was targeted by trolls, but their calls to boycott the makeup brand did not gather steam.
The backlash to Mulvaney’s March Madness post was swift, brutal, and unprecedented. It also seemed somewhat random: she was hardly better known than she had been six weeks before, but high-profile rightwingers stumbled on the video and their outrage went viral. One conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, posted a vitriolic 12-minute video in which he repeatedly misgendered Mulvaney called trans identity “a lie”. Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Caitlyn Jenner and Marjorie Taylor Greene piled on. Kid Rock and the former NFL player Trae Waynes filmed themselves shooting cans of beer, and rightwing influencers flooded their feeds with calls to boycott. (Kid Rock was later photographed apparently drinking Bud Light.) “It was extreme,” says Jon Springer, a senior beverages and sports reporter at AdAge. “Kind of terroristic. It hit a nerve and said to people that this was something they should be really angry about, and not just uncomfortable about or just prefer that it didn’t happen.”
Two weeks after Mulvaney’s post, Bud Light’s year-on-year sales had dropped 17%. In May, Modelo overtook it as the bestselling beer in the US, ending Bud Light’s two decades of dominance. In the second quarter of 2023, Anheuser-Busch noted a 10.5% decline in US revenue; in the four weeks ending in early September, Bud Light sales were down 27% year on year, per Bump Williams Consulting.
“A lot of people drink Bud Light,” says Beth Demmon, author of The Beer Lover’s Guide to Cider. “But at its core it usually appeals to white American men and represents a certain lifestyle. Football, nachos, BBQs, traditional suburban family dynamics, that sort of thing. It’s a stereotype that exists from years of very careful, specific, and strategic marketing studies and campaigns, and it’s worked for a long time.”
In the 90s, Bud Light’s testosterone-fueled advertising sold the beer as a way to win friends and influence people – especially women. The customer base was very loyal, says William Knoedelseder, author of Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer. “They came to think: ‘This is our beer, this means something about us.’”
Bud Light has been supporting LGBTQ+ causes since the 90s, with targeted ads in gay publications and Pride sponsorships, though they flew under the mainstream radar before the internet. And the way companies reach us now – a dizzying mix of paid posts, micro-campaigns and influencer seeding, as well as traditional billboard and TV spots – is so Byzantine that the fact that Mulvaney’s role was small, as one of many brand partners, got lost in the crosshairs.
To some, the firestorm was a cautionary tale of a corporate colossus failing to grasp its core customers’ values (in conservative commentators’ parlance: “Go woke, go broke”). Bud Light then went silent, when its words mattered most – in a move that led many to question the sincerity of the company’s LGBTQ+ support.
“People say, ‘It’s just beer,’” says Demmon. “No, it’s more than just beer.”
‘Incompetence on a national level’
The idea for Mulvaney’s March Madness post came from a Bud Light team member who “wanted to push and make change”, says a former Anheuser-Busch employee. The team member was excited to “slowly but surely plant the seeds of inclusion”.
The brand then went to Captiv8, a top California-based influencer marketing agency. “Bud Light was trying to advertise to the LGBTQ+ community,” says a former employee of Captiv8. “They obviously wanted to pick an influencer who was part of that community.” The actor and singer Reneé Rapp was also considered, they recall, though it’s unclear if those conversations ever got off the ground. “I was surprised [at the LGBTQ+ focus], given the Bud Light name, but I was interested to see where it would go from there.”
Mulvaney was contracted for the sponsored post and received an estimated four- or five-figure fee for her trouble, the former employee says. (Representatives for Mulvaney did not reply to multiple requests for comment.) The Bud Light brand team assigned draftLine, Anheuser-Busch’s in-house creative agency, to design Mulvaney’s customised tallboy can. No one there batted an eye. “We do cans for everything,” says the ex-Anheuser-Busch employee. “For athletes, or for other brands – we did a can for Ruffles. It’s really just a gimmick in a social media post.” After Mulvaney filmed the video, it was sent to Captiv8 and Bud Light for sign-off, and it was greenlit shortly after.
In a statement to the Guardian, a Captiv8 representative says: “In every influencer partnership, both the brand and the collaborating media agencies define the creative strategy, approach, and talent. However, the final decisions regarding content and talent selections rest with the brand.”
Later, as the controversy raged, Bud Light went silent on social media, turned off comments, and ordered its publicity department to “stop communicating while everyone regrouped”, as a second former Anheuser-Busch employee put it. “From then on, my job was not normal. It was completely different and very strange.”
“There was a lot of panic and a lot of rash decision-making,” says a third former employee. “We didn’t hear anything from leadership for over a month, and then after a few weeks, someone high up at Anheuser-Busch released a statement that pretty much said nothing.” That statement, issued by the Anheuser-Busch CEO, Brendan Whitworth, two weeks after Mulvaney’s post, said: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
Meanwhile, conservative commentators unearthed Heinerscheid’s podcast comments and targeted her with vicious attacks that reportedly included death threats. Within weeks of the post, Anheuser-Busch announced that she had “decided” to take a leave of absence along with Daniel Blake, VP of mainstream brands. (Heinerscheid and Blake did not respond to requests for comment; when Heinerscheid was approached by a reporter in June, a friend accompanying her said: “She’s not supposed to talk about it.”)
“I felt real sympathy for the marketing directors who were scapegoated,” says Ila Byrne, a beverage brand consultant and co-founder of Parch, a non-alcoholic spirits brand. “I really believe that some of those people were trying to do the right thing and do more progressive marketing to engage the new consumer.”
“Alissa Heinerscheid was blamed for all this when she had nothing to do with it,” says the first former Anheuser-Busch employee. “She just came into this role, and all of this strategy was previously established by men that were previously working in these positions.” They say Heinerscheid advocated for employee mental health, and encouraged employees to set personal boundaries to avoid burnout. “She was like a mother at the company.”
The same employee describes an “incompetence in the leadership on a national level” at Anheuser-Busch, and characterises Benoit Garbe, the company’s chief marketing officer, as someone who “doesn’t really understand a lot of the political battles” in the US. The employee also claims that Garbe nixed a proposed campaign to market the Mexican beer Estrella Jalisco to Latino drinkers in the US, fearing backlash from “conservative wholesalers” in certain states. Garbe has been CMO since September 2021. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence,” added the third former employee, “but Benoit being put in that position coincided with the negative downturn that I experienced.”
On the diversity, equity and inclusion section of its website, Anheuser-Busch says it aims “to make our company as diverse as the communities we serve”, and the company holds monthly inclusion modules. But a glance at the company’s website shows that 16 of 18 people in leadership are male; employees say that executives lacked the “nuance” to smartly market to racially diverse or younger drinkers. That the company is apparently now trying to sweep the whole saga under the rug feels characteristic. “Anheuser-Busch was operating always from a position of fear,” says the third former employee, adding that the company vetted all marketing initiatives to make sure they were “safe”.
Representation in the C-suite doesn’t solve everything – and Anheuser-Busch is far from the only company without it – but former employees say that a more diverse boardroom might have led to a more empathetic handling of the controversy. This spring, Anheuser-Busch stayed quiet while videos circulated online of its beers untouched in grocery stores. Some self-described “anti-woke” voices seemed to take the boycott’s success as tacit permission to air prejudice. “The beer has become a manifestation of people’s uncomfortableness with trans people,” says Springer. “And so not buying Bud Light is sort of a socially acceptable way to say ‘I don’t like trans people’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with trans people in the world’.”
‘Give them the Bud Light treatment’
Five months on, “give them the Bud Light treatment” has become a conservative rallying cry. This summer, Target was hit by backlash for a Pride collection which included LGBTQ+-positive children’s apparel (the store’s revenues fell 4.9% in 2023’s second quarter). Users of the social media platforms Truth Social and X, formerly Twitter, urged boycotts of companies including Best Buy, Disney and Nascar for perceived “woke” policies and marketing initiatives.
Whitworth, Bud Light’s CEO, appeared on CBS on 28 June for an interview where he dodged questions about Mulvaney and used Bud Light’s historical support of LGBTQ+ causes as a smokescreen for recent inaction. The following day, Mulvaney broke her silence. In an Instagram video, she said that she had endured “more bullying and transphobia than I could have ever imagined” and had been stalked and afraid to leave her home. “I was waiting for the brand to reach out to me, but they never did,” she said. “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all.”
Anheuser-Busch employees had been worried about Mulvaney’s welfare for months. “Are we doing everything we can as a company to support this person?” the first former employee recalls asking their boss. The response was: “Yes, don’t worry about it. We’re constantly talking to her.”
When the second former employee brought up Mulvaney’s June comments to their team, they were informed that the post hadn’t told the full story. “I was told that there was more communication than perhaps what she was saying,” they say. “I don’t know the full truth of that.”
Workers felt rudderless, frustrated by the inaction from corporate leadership and worried about their job security. “I don’t remember there being much assurance,” says the first employee. “It’s possible that there was a canned response given in some town hall [meeting].” In retrospect, they say, there was a pattern of “a lot of trickled-down lies from leadership”. The second former employee adds: “I really wish that we had stuck to our guns and said: ‘We did this; beer is for everyone; get over it.’”
This summer, a letter from the Human Rights Campaign suspended Anheuser-Busch’s Corporate Equality Index score, stripping the company of its listing as one of the best workplaces for LGBTQ+ people. “In this moment, it is absolutely critical for Anheuser-Busch to stand in solidarity with Dylan and the trans community,” Jay Brown of HRC wrote. “However, when faced with anti-LGBTQ+ and transphobic criticism, Anheuser-Busch’s actions demonstrate a profound lack of fortitude in upholding its values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Anheuser-Busch suffered a $395m loss in North American revenue in 2023’s second quarter, and announced it would lay off 2% of its US workforce – about 350 employees – in July. Some found it bitterly ironic that, just weeks before, Bud Light had unveiled a glossy advertisement which focused on employees and partners who “bring our beers to life”, showing the creation of the beer from hops to table. “I know that directive is directly from Brendan [Whitworth] to be like, ‘Let’s make ourselves look good,’” says the second former employee. “I don’t think they actually care about their employees.”
Bud Light’s treatment of Mulvaney confirmed a belief long held by LGBTQ+ progressives: that corporations only support the community when it benefits their bottom line, and they turn away when it becomes too much trouble. “I don’t think I’ve actually fucked up majorly,” Mulvaney said in a September story on the Cut. “I think that the world is fucked up.”
‘You’ve got to stay the course’
This summer and fall, Bud Light has pivoted to all-American marketing, with sponsored country and rock shows, sun-dappled ads depicting summer barbecues, and costly marketing around NFL and college football. For some, it has felt like a cop-out. “They tried to appease everybody [and say] ‘This is us with our American values,” says Brian Wenke, executive director of the LGBTQ+ youth non-profit It Gets Better. “They lost the LGBTQ+ people, they lost the conservative people and nobody wanted to engage with them any more. You’ve got to stay the course, because you will do exponentially more damage than if you had just stuck to what you believed was the right path.”
In the CBS interview, Whitworth said Bud Light would “continue to support the communities and organizations that we’ve supported for decades”. The evidence so far is spotty. The brand sponsored Orlando Pride for the last two years, but will not be returning for this year’s October event. (“We have noticed a reduced interest or involvement from a few organizations,” says Tatiana Quiroga, Orlando Pride’s executive director.) But it will go ahead with the planned “presenting sponsorship” of Phoenix Pride festival the same month, an event that typically attracts a quarter of Orlando Pride’s 200,000 attendees. “We’re going to be putting on a full weekend of family friendly drag entertainment, less than three miles from the Arizona capitol, where they’re trying to shut down that entire culture,” said Jeremy M Helfgot, a spokesperson for Phoenix Pride. “It’s only because of the support of corporate partners like Bud Light that we can do that.”
When asked whether brands and agencies are shying away from queer and trans-centred activations, Lauren Gray, a senior vice-president at the PR company Edelman and member of the its LGBTQ+ taskforce, Out Front, points to an Instagram post from the writer Fran Tirado. Tirado argues that many companies are using “the recession as an excuse to boot marginalized storytelling” and that Bud Light’s Mulvaney partnership has “stoked fear” of potential backlash. A Guardian report from June noted that some corporations have scaled back Pride activations this year, but it was business as usual for many. Gray adds that it is “particularly meaningful to see brands and companies speak out and lead when others won’t”.
“I think the climate has made brands more hesitant to take leaps in general about things that can be politicised,” says Pierre Lipton, co-chief creative officer at the advertising agency McCann. But some are going the other way, he adds, noting that Smirnoff “doubled down” on an inclusive message in its latest campaign. Wenke says It Gets Better’s partners, including American Eagle and Converse, “didn’t flinch”. Ashley Rudder, chief creator officer at the company Whalar, pairs influencers with corporations like Google, H&M, and Spotify. Whalar’s clients are “not distancing themselves from the LGBTQ+ community”, she says.
Alyssa Nitchun, executive director of New York’s LGBTQ+-focused Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, has an idea of how companies can form more meaningful partnerships with queer and trans creatives. “In light of what happened with Bud Light and other canceled brands, they should trust organizations like ours to drive the conversation,” she says, adding that internal employees shouldn’t be forgotten. “You want to support the LGBTQIA+ community? Ask the queer folks working for you what they want and need.”
Modelo remains America’s bestselling brew. “When I heard that, I thought: ‘Oh my God,” says Byrne, of Parch. “That’s a Hispanic beer! I mean, that’s progress, to me, in a way.” But there’s not much separating Nos 1 and 2, which is Bud Light, despite everything. And as of 19 August, Modelo had logged 8.4% of beer sales this year compared with Bud Light’s 8.2%. “I imagine Bud Light’s decline in sales will level out,” says Demmon, the beverage writer. “It’s already started to. It was never going to be the powerhouse that it once was, but that was going to happen anyway. At the end of the day, the corporations will come out just fine.” And some believe that Bud Light is primed for a comeback. This month, reports said that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust had invested $95m in Anheuser-Busch shares.
Bud Light turned its Instagram comments back on in mid-June. Read them and you’d think that the backlash had died down. “They’re filtering them,” says the second ex-Anheuser-Busch employee. “So if you think that everybody’s praising whatever they’re doing, it’s because they’re filtering out all the bad ones.”
No global corporation is a moral compass. But if queer and trans creators do choose to partner with brands, it’s only fair that they are protected by the corporations that are co-signing. The third former employee remembers a favourite mantra of a person high in the Bud Light chain of command. His words were supposed to instil a risk-averse mentality in staff at Anheuser-Busch. In the wake of the company’s mass layoffs and negligent treatment of Mulvaney, they land a little differently. “After every brief, or every project that we had to work on,” the employee says, “he always used to say that the first rule of marketing was ‘do no harm’.”
#Panic #rash #decisionmaking #exBud #Light #staff #biggest #boycotts #history #LGBTQ #rights