Why Anheuser-Busch’s CEO’s gender identity response was the worst of all options

April 25, 2023

Sometimes, the best communication is silence.

Someone should tell Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth. His statement in response to the company’s entrance into the gender identity cultural debate was bland, accomplished nothing good, and alienated everyone. Instead of stopping the bleeding from an avoidable controversy, Whitworth fueled anger from both sides and kept the controversy in the headlines.

Whitworth’s failed crisis communications effort is a perfect example of why companies should typically stay out of political and cultural debates. A-B subsidiary Bud Light hired transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney as a marketing and branding partner. This led to tremendous backlash across social media and in the press, though the financial harm is debatable. A-B is a diversified international firm with stock value higher than it was a month ago. On the other hand, the company initially lost almost five billion dollars in market cap value and Bud Light sales were down due to conservative boycotts.

We’ve long advocated for companies to focus on customer value instead of politics. Public anger often passes quickly, but it can be damaging to your reputation. And every minute engaged in defense is a minute not spent on growth and profits. For example, Whitworth was taken away from leading the company to engage in badly executed damage control.

Again, companies should generally avoid wading into social commentary. However, if you think it makes business sense to engage, keep three rules in mind:

1. Know the risks and rewards in advance. Will you make gains by engaging in the cause? Are you prepared to lose money for the cause? Companies should give themselves plenty of time to consider all facets of engaging in politics, even though it’s hard to keep up with our fast-changing, social media-driven cultural norms.

Bud Light could have a) avoided controversy by appealing to younger consumers without delving into hot-button cultural issues or b) kept the controversy’s impact minimal by accepting that they would lose some customers. Its top executive said the Mulvaney partnership was intended to reverse a brand in “decline” by attracting younger consumers through “inclusive” branding. We won’t know for some time whether that goal will be accomplished.

2. Have your messaging down pat from Day One. This includes having crisis communications plans ready to pull off the shelf. Bud Light’s move forced Whitworth to take time away from growing his company to try to stop the bleeding. And while his statement was clearly intent on offending nobody, it upset everybody because there was more about patriotism and “tirelessly” bringing “great beers to consumers” than the actual controversy.

3. Accept on Day One that you won’t make everyone happy. Stepping out in any way – even if it’s to say, “We aren’t going to engage on this issue” – is probably going to lose at least one customer.

Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are going to be made. Openly acknowledging them and creating concrete, forward-looking solutions often mitigates brand damage. Again, so can silence.

But what you shouldn’t do is act like Delta Airlines on voting reform. The company first celebrated, then denigrated, Georgia’s voting laws in 2021. You shouldn’t be like Chik-fil-A, which seemingly stepped away from its socially conservative core market before courting that market again. And you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, as Whitworth attempted.

You’ll please nobody and anger everyone. And that’s the worst of all business decisions.

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