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Navigating Controversies and Shifting Demographics

Alfred DuPuy
08 August 2023

In the ever-evolving media landscape of brand management, the ability to navigate controversies and effectively engage with a diverse consumer base has assumed paramount importance.

Recent events surrounding Bud Light's marketing partnership with transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney have sparked vigorous discussions regarding the potential impact on the brand's reputation and strength. Bud Light, aiming to showcase its commitment to greater inclusion and diversity in brand marketing, tapped into the growing influence of social media platforms and sought to engage with a diverse set of consumers. However, this collaboration has instead led to a damaging fallout for what was once America's favorite beer brand.

In this instance, the initiative was perhaps at odds with the original Bud Light brand with its classic blue-collar appeal and perception. This triggered an initial conservative-led backlash and quickly stimulated an over-reaction from the brand, which in turn upset and alienated the very audience that Bud Light was trying to include. Perceptions matter and with every generation prepared to mobilize around their social medium of choice, missteps travel fast.

Assessing the Impact on Brand Strength and Brand Value

The fallout from Bud Light's controversial marketing campaign with Dylan Mulvaney has had significant repercussions for the brand, resulting in its dethronement as America's top-selling beer after a remarkable two-decade reign. This swift decline serves as a stark reminder of the complex and sometimes compounding media dynamics at play.

Brand Finance employs a comprehensive approach to evaluate brand strength, incorporating metrics such as marketing investment, stakeholder equity, and business performance, all of which contribute to the overall brand value. When assessing the aftermath of a controversy, it is essential to consider both short-term and long-term effects on brand strength.

In the case of Bud Light, while the campaign may have initially garnered increased promotion and heightened ad recall, we must acknowledge the potential detrimental effects on brand strength. Consumers may now question their association with Bud Light, leading to decreased consideration, reduced recommendation, and diminished brand loyalty among certain segments. The controversy may have also tarnished the brand's reputation, as some consumers may view Bud Light less favorably.

For brand value, Brand Finance's valuation methodology considers annual performance, allowing ample time to observe meaningful changes in brands over time. By focusing on long-term trends rather than recording fleeting highs and lows, Brand Finance provides a comprehensive evaluation of brand value. As of 1st January 2023, Bud Light holds the position of the world's fourth most valuable beer brand, with a brand value of US$5.9 billion. However, it is in the upcoming valuation where the true impact of the scandal will be reflected in its performance, providing insight into the repercussions on Bud Light's overall standing.

Recovery: A Key Component of Brand Value

The path to recovery holds greater significance than the crisis itself in determining a brand’s value and strength. Bud Light now faces the challenge of getting back to basics, regaining trust, and re-establishing its market position. This necessitates increased investment and a more meaningful engagement strategy to reconnect with its core audience. In a recent announcement, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth revealed plans to triple their investment in the brand for the remainder of the year.  

Proactive crisis management and a swift response is vital when a controversy arises. By promptly addressing the concerns, offering genuine apologies, and maintaining transparent communication, brands can mitigate the potential damage and demonstrate their commitment to rectifying any missteps. This proactive approach to crisis management is vital in safeguarding brand value and reputation.

Going beyond tokenism

Brands must strive to establish a genuine connection with their target audience based on enduring needs and perceptive insights. Authenticity is not just a buzzword; it is fundamental in building brand strength and loyalty. Brands that successfully navigate the changing tides of consumer preferences understand the importance of staying true to their roots and core category motivations. People are drawn to authenticity, and they seek brands that align with their values and needs. Identifying and owning a core need state such as ‘reward’ or ‘recognition’ is clearly central to any marketers’ thinking. Turning this into a brand awareness ‘multiplier’ requires finding a compelling, empathetic, and inclusive creative vehicle to illustrate how Brand X can fulfil that user’s requirements to create a memorable story.

In the case of Johnnie Walker Red Label, a global brand team used qualitative research groups and depth interviews to uncover and refine a core positioning concept for the brand around ‘dedicated progression’. This was a first for JWRL as previously it had been running five regional campaigns using different insights. The task at hand was to find a unifying and universal core need state – a highest common motivator rather than a lowest common denominator and then dramatize this with a powerful creative application that would create impact, affinity and talkability. The result led directly to the first ever global campaign for the brand - ‘Keep Walking’.

Modelo Especial takeover

Mexico’s Modelo Especial has overtaken Bud Light in sales in America and presents a compelling narrative of strategic adaptation and market expansion. Initially catering to the preferences and needs of the Hispanic market, Modelo Especial astutely recognized the value of tailoring its brand to specific consumer segments. However, in 2015, the brand decided to broaden its appeal to the wider population, through running ad campaigns in English and partnered with sports teams in the areas where it performed well. This shift allowed Modelo Especial to tap into the increasing influence and purchasing power of diverse consumer groups, exemplifying the importance of understanding, and adapting to shifting demographics while staying true to the brand's identity. This is reflected in Brand Finance’s consumer equity research, with Modelo Especial’s Brand Strength growing 12% from 73 out of 100 in 2019 to 83 in 2023.

The brand line ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from – it’s what you are made of’ is a very effective example of flipping diversity into a powerful vehicle of unity. ‘E pluribus unum’ – the traditional motto of the United States, powerfully applied.

Unlocking the key to consumer preferences in the US

According to Brand Finance's comprehensive market research on the US beer sector, the top five key metrics defining a strong reputation are: innovative; genuinely offer something different; luxurious; cool;and is professionally, ethically, and responsibly managed.

Top Reputation Drivers Across Beer Sector in US
2Genuinely offer something different
5Is professionally, ethically, and responsibly managed

Despite its historical status as the top-selling beer across the country - until recently - Bud Light does not feature in the top three beer brands for any of these metrics.

Consumer preferences are ever evolving and being innovative plays a significant role in brand appeal. Hard seltzers have captured the attention of certain American consumers, with Millennials leading the charge in exploring the more diverse range of alcoholic beverages. Our data shows Truly Hard Seltzer has claimed the top spot in the Innovative metric. Kirin and Samuel Adams sit in second and third, respectively.

In a competitive market, establishing a unique identity is vital. Guinness tops the metric for genuinely offering something different with its distinctive taste and heritage, while hard seltzers also display potential in disrupting the beer landscape with their unique positioning. For brands seeking to carve a niche, offering something authentically different becomes crucial in enhancing reputation and market standing.

Interestingly, Guinness also claims the top spot in the luxurious metric adding a touch of opulence to its reputation. Kirin and Stella Artois secure second and third positions, highlighting the perception that foreign beer brands often carry an air of luxury among US consumers. The appeal of these brands lies not only in their unique offerings but also in the allure of indulgence, making them coveted choices for beer enthusiasts seeking a premium experience.

The Power of Research

In such a dynamic brand management and marketing environment, conducting thorough research is a vital tool for brands to truly understand their customers, while maintaining their authenticity. At Brand Finance, we recognize the significance of research in uncovering valuable insights and guiding strategic brand decisions. By investing in comprehensive research programs, brands can forge meaningful connections, build trust, and navigate the complexities of the market with confidence, ultimately ensuring their long-term success in a rapidly evolving landscape.

About the Author

Alfred DuPuy
Valuation Director
Brand Finance

Alfred is a brand specialist with 15+ years’ experience working in and leading client engagements encompassing research (qualitative and quantitative), analytics, insights, strategy, architecture, valuation, modeling, and ROI across a wide variety of sectors, markets, and geographies. He has developed innovative techniques for clients’ most interesting brand challenges and has led diverse teams of researchers, strategists, designers, architects, and namers.

As Valuation & Strategy Director for North America, Alfred leads project teams, liaises with and develops key client and senior leadership relationships, supports new business development, and drives the team to extend Brand Finance’s extensive analytical abilities to deeper, more strategic insights that can help our clients accomplish their most pressing business goals.

In his career, Alfred has worked with clients across a variety of sectors including financial services, industrial, manufacturing, logistics, automotive, retail, hospitality, higher education, and not-for profit. One of his very first projects (leading a ground-breaking segmentation technique to support strategic development and an identity refresh) was for one of his very favorite boyhood brands, John Deere. He has appeared on media channels and news programs (especially during his time in Toronto) commenting on Brand Valuation and the importance of brand as an asset.