Flipping the Mindset of a Massive Brand Failure

No, this is not another article about Dylan Mulvaney. That disastrous Bud Light campaign had nothing to do with the social influencer but was just a symptom of Bud Light’s bigger disease. Now that the dust of all the self-righteous commentary and political propaganda has settled, it’s time to do a postmortem and diagnose the real problem. Bud Light’s real mistake was turning the reins of the brand to executives with so little marketing acumen, who not only didn’t understand their brand lover, they despised them.

It’s public knowledge that sales of Bud Light had been declining for a few years leading up to the appointment of the marketing leadership that oversaw the campaign (who have since resigned). Because of this, it’s naturally expected those marketing executives would look for new consumers to get the brand growing again. They said as much in multiple interviews, things like “if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink the brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.” They also talked about wanting the brand to be more inclusive. Both of those are worthy goals – and if they’d left it at that, no one would have cared. But their attitude and approach from that point on was all wrong.

They failed to do the basic work of learning about their consumers. It demonstrates the arrogance that some corporate marketing executives bring to these roles, that they’re smarter, better educated, and know what best for a brand better than any consumer or lower level people in their organization.

First of all, the executives didn’t understand Bud Light’s distinction. Every brand has something about them that distinguishes them from their competitors, even when selling practically the same product. Mostly, beer is beer, so many brands don’t take the time to discover what makes them distinct, opting instead for easily-copied solutions, like low price, humorous commercials, and temporary promotions. Bud Light became the top-selling light beer brand because its mild flavor appeals to many different palates and their marketing became synonymous with sporting events and parties. There are undoubtedly other brand merits the team could have discovered through some simple distinctive attributes research, which then could have been used as the foundation for a pivot in marketing to regain their lost share.

Next, and most importantly, they failed to understand the narrative of their brand lover. Every brand in existence has brand lovers — those ambassadors who know everything about your brand and still love you — much like we love our romantic partners despite knowing all their shortcomings. These brand lovers are the core of a brand’s business from a consistent revenue standpoint, and they have the added emotional connection of feeling ownership of the brand, celebrating it, posting about it, talking about it to their friends, and defending the brand in the face of criticism of others. Brand lovers are treasures that provide the key to your distinct brand narrative through their emotional connection with your brand. The brand doesn’t really own the brand, the brand lovers do. Like Marty Neumeier said in his book Zag, “Your brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.”

And here’s where Bud Light started to go badly off the rails. Not only did they not take the time to understand their brand lovers’ narrative, let alone not celebrate or build on their brand love, but did the worse thing possible—they actively fought against who they perceived was their typical consumer. They negatively talked publicly about their lovers, using derogatory terms like “fratty,” “immature,” “out of touch,” and “unsophisticated.” In fact, as we looked into the social narratives over the past year about Bud Light, this was far more insulting to the Bud Light brand lover (who should matter far more than political or social commentators) than Dylan Mulvaney. Here’s some quotes from the social narratives that encapsulate this sentiment:

For some reason, the focus has been on the boycott being about Dylan Mulvaney, but to a man, every person I have asked about it was faaaaar more upset with being called “immature, juvenile, sophomoric and unsophisticated” by that marketing exec.

Insulting your clients like the Bud Light marketing chick calling their customers moronic frat boys???

Bud Light executives walked right into a pre-existing relationship, albeit a faltering one, and didn’t spend any time trying to get to know the other entity in the relationship. Instead of understanding them, developing empathy for them, and figuring out the conflict they face in their lives that Bud Light helps them overcome, they went the route of calling the Bud Light consumer insulting names and making their dislike of them obvious.

The two key things they wanted the brand to become was “younger” and “inclusive.” By taking the time to find, listen to, and develop empathy for their brand lover, Bud Light could have found a way to build a brand story that was meaningful to this young and inclusive consumer they desperately wanted to attract. Instead, in an effort to force their own misconceived ideas of brand inclusivity, they made the error that triggered the accelerated decline. Again, this isn’t about Dylan Mulvaney; they could have used an Ivy League professor, a politician, or even an opera singer. All those options would have been just as wrong as Mulvaney. It may not have ignited the far-right conservatives in the same way, but it still would have continued Bud Light’s decline.

This is the point that was completely lost in all the instant reactions to Mulvaney: It’s the fact the Bud Light marketing executives didn’t understand their brand lover well enough to know how to reach out to them in an authentic and meaningful way. And it turned out to be their fatal mistake. Instead of getting the young, inclusive consumer they so desperately wanted, they alienated and ignited criticism from their brand lovers and pretty much everyone else. The irony of it all is that even left wing and LGBTQ advocates heavily criticized Bud Light because of how they handled the entire situation, so they made enemies on both sides. And it’s guaranteed Bud Light has brand lovers on both sides of the political aisle.

It brings to mind the Nike marketing campaign with Colin Kaepernick. It received public backlash from the same conservative voices who protested the Bud Light campaign—but with significantly different outcomes. Nike’s sales increased after that campaign, not declined. Why? Because the Kaepernick campaign was absolutely on target with the Nike brand and resonated soundly with their brand lovers because of the shared values Nike has with them. All those who protested and complained against Nike’s campaign? Nike simply didn’t care about them because they knew they were being true to who they were as a brand and reflecting the values of their brand lover, whom they know so intimately. So being controversial wasn’t Bud Light’s problem; their problem was they didn’t do it authentically.

Ironically, all Bud Light executives needed to do was look at the brand causing much of Bud Light’s share loss, Modelo Especial. Modelo is a great example of a company that focused on building its brand instead of only focusing on short-term business results or imposing executives’ personal beliefs on to their consumer base. Modelo has risen to the heights of now being the U.S. beer share leader (replacing Bud Light) by being laser focused on their impeccable, timeless storytelling which has given them a clear identity and a differentiated brand identity. Modelo celebrates their brand lovers, rather than despising them, with their “The Mark of a Fighter” campaign, which celebrates the fighting spirit among all types of their brand lovers. It’s a unique, ownable brand story only Modelo can tell and it’s obvious Modelo loves and embraces their brand lover. That consistent story has helped propel them to be the top beer brand in the U.S.

Only time will tell if Bud Light can regain its popularity and brand share. But the only way they’ll have a chance is to embrace their brand lover and build their brand’s unique stories through them.


Quester loves brand building, and our DRIVE approach prevents the key missteps many brands make. Discover highlights what’s distinct about your brand; Reveal uncovers your unique brand lover narrative; Inspire works with your brand’s core insights to create your unique brand story; Visualize and Evaluate allow you to develop and test the creative execution. This process ensures resonant execution based in a bottom-up process that originates from the consumer. Quester’s DRIVE process can help you build your brand in an organic way that promotes long-term, sustainable growth.


  • Brett Townsend

    As SVP of Strategy, Brett is future-focused by offering clients consulting about Brand and Innovation Strategy, always focused on building muscular brands and organic growth.

    Brett is always quick to drop a movie or TV quote, a historical anecdote, or music lyrics to any situation. He’s happy to give you travel or eating tips to many domestic and global destinations, as well as advice on being a girl dad.

    As a client of Quester for over 10 years before joining the team, Brett’s favorite thing about Quester is our desire to never settle, we’re always looking for better ways to solve problems, and to offer our clients the art and science that tells story behind the story—because human behavior is rarely linear and can’t be explained with data points.

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