The Pitfalls of Leaning into DEI Issues without Conducting Customer Research

Internal Pre-Campaign Research and Social Listening Could Have Informed Bud Light’s Advocacy Strategy

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become a major issue for both companies and the customers that purchase from them. But the backlash and boycotts against Bud Light and its parent, Anheuser-Busch, began nearly immediately after Bud Light partnered with Dylan Mulvaney, a popular transgender influencer with more than 10 million TikTok followers who rose to fame chronicling her gender transition on social media. After finishing her “365 Days of Girlhood” video series, the beer brand sent Mulvaney custom-made cans featuring her face, which she promptly highlighted in an Instagram post.

The decision to partner with Mulvaney, and the resulting kerfuffle has raised questions about whether the brand had misread its own customer base’s willingness to support the brand as it waded into a contentious issue. Indeed, a Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey of 1,041 American adults conducted between April 12-13 and April 16 found that that 40% of respondents say Anheuser-Busch’s transgender promotion makes them less likely to purchase Bud Light, while 19% say the Mulvaney promotion makes them more likely to buy Bud Light. The survey also found that 54% of respondents support the boycotts of Anheuser-Busch, compared to 30% who oppose the boycotts.

Questions remain about whether the marketing team adequately sought feedback from its customer base before launching the campaign to be sure the influencer or message aligns with the brand and its customers’ core values, according to Cheryl Ryan, Global Head of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Hogarth Worldwide, a WPP-owned global company that provides marketing implementation services to international companies.

“The role of marketer is to do their homework, to connect with the audiences to make sure that whoever they partner with in terms of advocacy, is authentically linked to their values as well,” Ryan says. “Really, whoever you’ve partnered with in terms of influencers to advocate for your brand and be an ambassador for your brand should really reflect your own kind of view of society, and most importantly, your customer base. So, I think what’s gone wrong here is that maybe they haven’t done enough of their homework, or they’ve done the wrong homework, or handed in someone else’s homework.”

A day before Mulvaney shared news of the partnership, Bud Light marketing vice president Al’ssa Heinerscheid was interviewed on the podcast “Make Yourself At Home,” where she discussed her work in transforming the Bud Light brand from its “fratty” and “out of touch” humor to a beer company that embraces inclusivity.

“I’m a businesswoman. 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,‘” Heinerscheid said on the podcast.

Heinerscheid said that she had a clear mandate to “evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand,” which meant “having a campaign that’s truly inclusive.” However, Heinerscheid did not mention conducting internal customer research to assess which issues resonated with Bud Light’s existing customer base.

Indeed, Ryan says that Bud Light should have conducted additional research and social listening with its customer communities, in advance of the promotion. “Data and statistics can only get you so far,” Ryan says. “There should have been some listening work that was done as well to see what their communities were talking about, what kind of content they were engaging with, to see whether it would be a good match and a good fit, and that just wasn’t done.”

Ryan also believes that Bud Light may have been trying to simply latch on to Mulvaney to take advantage of her large base of followers, without really assessing whether the brand’s commitment to what Mulvaney stands for. Ryan points to Anheuser-Busch’s lack of a firm statement supporting Mulvaney or its campaign immediately after the boycotts began, as well as its decision to put both Heinerscheid and Daniel Blake, who oversees marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s mainstream brands, on leave.

“If you think about Dylan’s 10 million followers, I mean, what were they expecting?” Ryan says, noting the brand probably was hoping to boost its sales by partnering with the influencer. She adds, “I think advocacy is about building relationships; where it’s kind of fallen down is the fact that maybe there was little authenticity there. Maybe they genuinely didn’t believe or support that community.”

For her part, Ryan says that companies willing to advocate on contentious issues need to stand by their decisions, or quickly issue a mea culpa to their customers. “I think that if really they see this as an error of judgment, and actually it’s not what we represent, it’s not what we stand for, then I think they have to have an adult moment and grow up and accept that and say, ‘Actually we made an error of judgment and this is what we stand for and this is what our base is, and we are now going back to our core base.”

Ryan says that if the brand still wants to evolve and be relevant, it need to establish relationships with social influencers, and come out with strong statements about what that support means, and what that means to the brand and its customer base.

“What I would’ve done differently is once it came out, go out with a strong point of view,” Ryan says. “Either way it’s going to be polarizing, but you’ll be respected for having a point of view, and making a stand,” referencing Nike’s controversial support of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which featured the tagline, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

“That’s a perfect example of how to kind of turn something around and say, even if it means we might lose some of our loyal followers, this means more to us than that because what we’re about,” Ryan says.

Author Information

Keith has over 25 years of experience in research, marketing, and consulting-based fields.

He has authored in-depth reports and market forecast studies covering artificial intelligence, biometrics, data analytics, robotics, high performance computing, and quantum computing, with a specific focus on the use of these technologies within large enterprise organizations and SMBs. He has also established strong working relationships with the international technology vendor community and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events.

In his career as a financial and technology journalist he has written for national and trade publications, including BusinessWeek,, Investment Dealers’ Digest, The Red Herring, The Communications of the ACM, and Mobile Computing & Communications, among others.

He is a member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP).

Keith holds dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in Magazine Journalism and Sociology from Syracuse University.


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