When trans activist and actress Dylan Mulvaney shared this past weekend on social media that she was featured in a Bud Light BUD,
But this wasn’t the first time a major brand found itself in such a situation. Just last month, Hershey, arguably the biggest name in chocolate, faced a similar response after its Canadian division featured a trans woman as part of a campaign. In Hershey’s case, there were even calls from critics to boycott the brand.
All of which raises the question: Why are major brands mounting such campaigns, given their potential to alienate some customers? Is it about supporting the trans community, a group that has faced enormous persecution, or are there also other reasons?
Marketing experts say the brands do look to be supportive, but they also see these campaigns as ways to tap into a different audience — one that goes beyond the trans community. And they fully understand they may offend some customers along the way, but they see a larger payoff in the end.
“They’ve made the calculations,” said Matthew Berman, the chief executive of Emerald Digital, a marketing company based in New York and New Orleans.
Bud Light is an established brand that likely appeals to an older demographic, Berman noted. By working with Mulvaney, whose Instagram post showed her holding Bud Light cans with her image on it, the brand, which is part of the Anheuser-Busch family, could be aiming to appeal to a younger, Gen Z demographic that is often supportive of the trans community, Berman said.
“‘They’ve made the calculations.’”
— marketing executive Matthew Berman on why brands are willing to promote trans activists, even if it results in backlash
In a sense, Anheuser-Busch doesn’t deny that point. In a statement to MarketWatch, a company spokesperson said: “Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics.”
The spokesperson added that the commemorative can with Mulvaney’s image is not available to the general public, but was “a gift to celebrate a personal milestone.” Mulvaney, who didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment, recently marked what she billed as 365 “days of being a girl.”
Marketing expert Thomas Donohoe, author of “The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook,” said Bud Light’s strategy speaks to the way brands are starting to think in an age of multiple media outlets. A couple of generations ago, brands had limited options to promote themselves, with broadcast television being the biggest, Donohoe noted.
Now brands can target messages to specific communities over specific platforms, Donohoe added, as in Bud Light reaching out to trans activist Mulvaney, who in turn touted the brand over Instagram.
And while the brand might risk losing some customers with its Mulvaney promotion, Donohoe said this will be seen as a smart move by Bud Light years from now — with the idea that the trans community will be more widely accepted over time and not face the prejudice it does today.
Donohoe added that it’s no different from how brands now feature other minority groups, such as the gay community, as part of campaigns in a way they didn’t generations ago.
“In 20 years, concerns like this are going to be laughed at,” Donohoe said of the fear of backlash.