Is This Bud For You?: A Look Into the Modern Brand/Consumer Relationship

Social media has changed the way brands interact with consumers. As our relationships with brands increasingly reflect our personal ones, trust, more than ever, is key for sustained loyalty.

In April of this year AB-InBev’s Bud Light brand partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a social media campaign. Mulvaney posted a photo with a custom can of Bud Light bearing the influencers likeness, name and pronouns. Social media did what social media does and the post quickly went viral, spilling out from its intended audience of Mulvaney’s followers and sparking a backlash with conservative commentators, celebrities and eventually consumers.

This controversy is reflective of the deep divisions that exist in American society surrounding the issues of gender and sexuality. Beyond these issues it’s also a fascinating case study in the way brands function in our society  as well as the ways social media is changing the landscape of advertising and marketing.

These Hoes ‘Aint Loyal

Many previously loyal Bud Light drinkers are switching to competing brands like Coors and Miller as part of a boycott of the company. During a recent concert in Nashville, country singer Riley Green changed the lyrics of his song “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” to reference Coors Light instead of the originally recorded Bud Light.

As the controversy pushes more and more previously staunch Bud Light consumers to their main competitors it becomes clear that the loyalty does not lie in the beer itself. There’s no shortage of videos on the internet of blind taste tests between the 3 major American style brewers Anheuser Busch, Coors and Miller. Much like this episode of BeerBusters, from brewing supplier Clawhammer Supply, the results trend towards one conclusion; the taste across the major breweries is indiscernible. The major differentiation lies in the brand’s identity, rather than the contents of the can.

What’s Your Brand?

The modern idea of a brand began in the 1950’s. Following World War II the United States saw a boom in economic prosperity that led to a spike in the production and consumption of consumer goods. This influx of goods created more options for consumers to choose from as the market became flooded with nearly identical products. Companies began to focus less on advertising the subtle differences in their products and more on spinning a compelling narrative around the brand in order to outsell their competitors. This shift has increased over the years as the focus becomes increasingly on lifestyle perception and less on the product itself. Just examine two Coors ads, one from the 1970’s and this one from 2022 the difference in approach are quite notable.

A study conducted by The Association for Consumer Research found that beer drinkers are more likely to be loyal to a brand if they have had positive experiences with the brand in the past. The study also found that beer drinkers are more likely to be loyal to a brand if they feel that the brand is relevant to their lifestyle. As we’ve seen with the controversy, the converse is also true; association to lifestyles deemed unfavorable to a certain audience creates a negative response and can change perceptions of the brand.

Even beyond the beer industry, this is the way brands function within our culture. In his book The Brand Gap,author and designer Marty Neumeier explains the nature of a brand as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company”. A brand extends far beyond the identifying logomark, it’s an emotional response or connection with a consumer that creates a loyal customer base that chooses one product over another based on this relationship.

Neumeier continues that a brand “must become a guarantee of trustworthy behavior”. The brand/consumer relationship shares many similarities to our interpersonal relationships. We tend to choose social circles of like-minded individuals who share similar opinions, interests and moral values. It’s in these same choices that our cultural identity is formed. The way individuals define themselves as members of a particular group creates a sense of belonging and identity and, according to social psychologists Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams, is a fundamental part in the formation of the self.

Much like the company we keep, the brands we consume become a reflection of ourselves and our social identity and much like the company we keep, these relationships are grounded in trustworthy behavior. In both instances, when this trust is broken the relationship becomes fractured. We’ve seen this more and more as people take hard stances on polarizing issues; Friends and even family relationships breaking down based on who someone voted for or whether they’re vaccinated. In the corporate world we’ve seen this lead to many similar controversies with brands like Nike and Chick-fil-a, but the Bud Light controversy feels different and a bit more surprising.

In the cases of Nike and Chick-Fil-A, while a certain portion of the population had negative reactions, certain ideas and values were reinforced, creating a positive response  amongst the brands core demographics. Bud Light’s core demographics tend to be straight, conservative, middle-class, young white males. The brand has  spent decades cultivating this identity by running ad campaigns like “Real Men of Genius”  during NFL games and sponsoring sporting events and concerts that their target audience attends. This makes the partnership even more puzzling, at least until you examine the current advertising and marketing trends and the state of the Bud Light brand.

Shift from the Traditional Advertising Model

In addition to the rise in consumer goods, the middle of the 20th Century also saw an increase in popularity of television. This gave rise to the television first traditional advertising model and the golden age of advertising (think of AMC’s hit show Mad Men). During this early period of television, programming was limited by today’s standards. Audiences had a handful of programs to choose from on just a few networks and the content had to cater to a broader audience, including the advertising.

As programming became more diversified advertisers were able to target more specific audiences. Toy manufacturers ran ads during Saturday morning cartoon blocks, household items like dish soap were advertised towards housewives during daytime dramas (yes, the term “soap opera” is derived from the advertising during these programs) and beer was largely marketed to men during televised sports. Anheuser-Busch is the all-time leading advertiser during the Super Bowl, spending nearly $500 million on advertising, according to Statista. Bud Light is currently the official sponsor of the NFL and until recently the two had been so inextricably linked that it would be hard to imagine one without the other.

The internet, specifically social media, has taken this targeted marketing approach to a whole new level. Media is created and consumed by and for very niche audiences. Through the use of algorithms and content creator partnerships brands are able to tailor their voice and individually market to more diverse audiences than previously. A brand tailoring their voice for specific audiences goes along with the psychological idea of self-monitoring.

Social (Media Marketing) Chameleon

More commonly known as being a social chameleon, the idea of self-monitoring was first coined by Social Psychologist Mark Snyder in the 1970’s. It’s the process in which we change certain behaviors based on different social groups. You might tell a raunchy joke while out with a group of close friends but might be pretty hesitant to tell them the same joke during a happy hour with your co-workers. Bud Light told a raunchy joke to a friend not realizing a co-worker was in the room and now they’re reporting to HR. To be clear, we’re not likening the trans community to a raunchy joke and we’re not downplaying the major issues deeply rooted in the controversy. We’re merely examining the situation through a brand psychology lens in order to better understand it from an advertising and marketing angle. It’s not that Bud Light doesn’t understand their core demographic. They were looking to expand into new markets through hyper-targeted social media marketing and they weren’t expecting their efforts to spill out of these niche areas. But as we’ve seen time and time again, the viral nature of social media tends to spread content like wildfire, whether intended or not.

“OMG, She’s Soooo Fake”

As we begin Pride month we know to expect brands to roll out the rainbow version of their logo. We also expect debate around the authenticity of this trend. According to Snyder, a major drawback to people that are high in self-monitoring is that they can seem inauthentic or manipulative. We often hear this as someone being described as “fake”. Bud Light’s response, or more, lack of response to the controversy certainly airs in the realm of disingenuous, with both sides on the issue feeling a sense of betrayal. If a brand must be a guarantee of trustworthy behavior than looking inauthentic and manipulative is a near death sentence.

As brands interact with consumers on an increasingly personal level, authenticity has never been more important. While we navigate the ever changing landscape of marketing and advertising we must be careful not to lose ourselves on the way.