Here’s how Bud Light became the latest corporate bogeyman for Ron DeSantis

New York

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has sets his sights on Bud Light, the latest development in what has turned into an ongoing crisis for the beer brand following its brief partnership with influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who is trans, four months ago.

DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, suggested that Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev

“breached legal duties owed to its shareholders” as a result of its “decision to associate its Bud Light brand with radical social ideologies” in a Thursday letter to the state’s pension fund manager. Mulvaney made a couple of bubbly promotional posts on social media featuring Bud Light with the hashtag #budlightpartner to signal a sponsorship.

The governor urged Lamar Taylor, the interim director of the State Board of Administration, which manages Florida’s retirement funds for public workers, to consider legal action against AB InBev. It’s not totally clear what legal consequence the multinational corporation might face for making business decisions.

The state should “prudently manage” the money of Florida’s police officers, teachers, firefighters and first responders, DeSantis wrote in the letter to Taylor. Not “[subsidize] an ideological agenda through woke virtue signaling.”

In a statement to CNN, an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson said that “Anheuser-Busch InBev takes our responsibility to our shareholders, employees, distributors and customers seriously,” adding that “we are focused on driving long-term, sustainable growth for them by optimizing our business and providing consumers products to enjoy for any occasion.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the state's pension fund manager to consider legal action against AB InBev.

Bud Light’s recent troubles began in April, after a sponsored social media post from Mulvaney started a wave of anti-trans backlash and criticism against the brand for working with her. Bud Light’s early efforts to back away from the controversy, a public comment from the CEO that failed to address the issue directly, didn’t make things better. In the following months, Bud Light has lost share to competitors and its sales have dropped. The brand has tried desperately to stem the losses, offering support to distributors and leaning into a sunny marketing campaign.

But now it’s made an enemy of DeSantis, prolonging the negative attention and the brand’s status as a punching bag for some conservative voices.

Here’s how we got here.

The backlash started with one commemorative can of beer.

Bud Light sent the can to Mulvaney to mark a milestone in her transition. She mentioned and showed the gift briefly in a sponsored video she posted to social media in early April as part of Bud Light’s March Madness advertising.

It’s easy to see why Bud Light would have wanted to partner with someone like Mulvaney.

Big brands, particularly those that have been around for years, need to constantly tweak their images to stay relevant to young consumers, and working with social media influencers is one way to do it. Mulvaney has 10.7 million followers on TikTok, and another 2 million on Instagram.

To stay fresh, many companies have turned to more inclusive marketing in particular. Partnering with a young, popular trans woman could help a brand like Bud Light reach a more youthful demographic. According to a Gallup poll from last year, about 21% of adults born between 1997 and 2003 identify as LGBTQ.

But what may have seemed like a low-stakes partnership sparked a firestorm.

Mulvaney’s April post went viral, with some supporting Mulvaney and the company, and others responding with anti-trans reactions and calls for a Bud Light boycott.

At first, Bud Light offered a straightforward response.

“Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics,” an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson told CNN in a statement in April. “From time to time we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers, like Dylan Mulvaney. This commemorative can was a gift to celebrate a personal milestone and is not for sale to the general public.”

But as the backlash to the post stayed loud — and sales dropped, and Anheuser Bush workers faced threats — Anheuser Busch’s CEO came out with a bland response that called for unity, without addressing the situation head on.

“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” Brendan Whitworth said in an April 14 statement titled “Our Responsibility to America.” He said the company has “a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere” and that he would “continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.”

The milquetoast statement angered people on both sides: those who thought Bud Light owed them an apology, and trans rights advocates who wanted a stronger defense of the at-risk community.

Someone holds a Bud Light beer during day three of the LIV Golf Invitational - DC at Trump National Golf Club on May 28, 2023 in Sterling, Virginia.

Sometimes, boycotts inspire buycotts — calls from people who oppose the boycotters to buy a product. But because Bud Light managed to alienate everyone, it hasn’t gotten the benefit of a buycott.

Instead, some members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies are themselves abandoning the brand because of its failure to stand by Mulvaney, who recently said the backlash against her was so bad she has been afraid to leave her house.

With people angry on all sides, Bud Light’s sales have taken a dive.

Modelo Especial became the country’s top-selling beer in May, replacing Bud Light at the top spot — where it had been sitting for over two decades — according to NIQ data given to consulting firm Bump Williams. In June, Modelo Especial captured 8.7% of overall beer sales, compared to Bud Light’s 7% share.

In the week ending on July 8, Bud Light sales, by dollar, fell nearly 24% year-over-year, according to data provided by Williams.

In addition to those April comments from the CEO, Anheuser-Busch has tried to stabilize sales by offering financial support to distributors and pursuing a breezy summer ad campaign.

In June, Whitworth shared a plan to provide financial assistance to the company’s wholesalers to offset falling sales, and reimburse fuel for distributors’ trucks.

“We recognize that over the last two months, the discussion surrounding our company and Bud Light has moved away from beer, and this has impacted our consumers, our business partners, and our employees,” Whitworth wrote in a letter. He noted that a new ad campaign could help shift the conversation.

Some commercials center around the farmers, delivery drivers and servers who help get Bud Light to consumers. Others are more breezy, showing people enjoying Bud Light despite the inconveniences of summer (sunburn, thunderstorm). Bud Light’s campaign includes partnerships with country singers and others.

Bud Light is “coming back,” said Marcel Marcondes, AB InBev’s chief marketing officer, during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June. He also said that “when things get divisive and controversial so easily, I think it’s an important wake-up call to all of us marketers to be very humble.”

It’s not unusual for companies to upset customers when they make decisions that some may see as ideological.

But in the past, politicians generally stayed out of the fray. Now, it “feels that we are moving into a new phase… where politicians are getting much more involved,” Daniel Korschun, associate professor of marketing at Drexel University, previously told CNN. And political interference is “mobilizing consumers in a way that they might not have mobilized otherwise,” Korschun said.

AB InBev is not the only company being targeted by right-wing politicians. Republicans have recently increased their political attacks on transgender people, creating “a terrifying environment for trans people and for LGBTQ people at large,” Erin Reed, a transgender legislative analyst and researcher, previously told CNN. Republicans believe the strategy will ignite their base, but it did not help much at polls in 2022.

Republican attorneys general in seven states recently wrote to Target

claiming that merchandise in its Pride month product collection could violate their states’ child protection laws. Target

had previously removed some merchandise that it said caused the most “volatile” reaction from opponents.

DeSantis in particular has made a sport of targeting corporations over their actions.

In early 2022, he threatened to hold Twitter shareholders accountable if they didn’t sell the social media company to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

And he’s been involved in a high-profile battle with Disney over the company’s objections to a Florida law that restricts how schools teach about sexual orientation and gender identity. DeSantis and Disney are currently engaged in two separate lawsuits over the Republican’s move to strip the theme park giant of its longstanding special government powers in Central Florida.

Disney has flexed its own significant muscle in response. In May, the company said it was scrapping plans to build a $1 billion office complex in Florida, a move that would have created 2,000 white-collar jobs.

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