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Was it a Bud Light boycott or Bud Light brand divorce?

Presciant founder and managing partner, Joanna Seddon, had the opportunity to interview Jim Meier, former Vice President of Commercial Finance at MillerCoors about the Bud Light “brand disaster.” Here is their conversation.

If you would like copies of Jim’s Bud Light articles or teaching guide, please reach out to us at info@presciant.com or call/text +1 646-318-4318.

TRANSCRIPT

0:03 Joanna: It is my absolute pleasure today to introduce a good friend and colleague, Jim Meier You are one of this rare breed of finance guys who understands marketing

0:16 Jim: On a good day, yes. To me, the key thing is having the open-mindedness to understand that marketing and finance are quite different things, but they need to be working together in order to achieve the success of the Enterprise.

0:33 Joanna: About a year ago you and Frank Finley from the Marketing Accountability Standards Board (MASB) got together and partnered on what became a series of four articles about Bud Light sales volume declines shortly after the release of the sponsored Instagram posts promoting Bud Light by the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Your view was that this was not a traditional boycott that would pass quickly and things would go back to normal for Bud Light. Rather that a broader more permanent loss of consumer brand preference was the primary driver of the sales declines. More than a year later, do you stand by that position?

1:14 Jim: Yeah. Unfortunately, history has proven Frank and I out. Now, what’s interesting is going back to April of 2023 when Frank and I started talking about this. Honestly. my initial Instinct was that it was a traditional boycott. Frank enlightened me to what he was seeing out on social media, which gave a much different impression. That there was in, fact, a fairly broad loss of brand preference.

Now, to some degree, perhaps there was a bit of a boycott on the political fringes, the left side and the right side, that could be construed as elements of a boycott. That’s really what the media tended to focus on, which Frank and I thought was a pretty significant error in in logic. What I think you were seeing was, and it’s proven out to be this way, the broad middle was really alienated by what occurred.

Curiously, as I’ve talked about the subject to a lot of people, one of the things that happened shortly after the Instagram post was one of the marketing executives associated with this situation was on a podcast and made a quote about the history of  Bud Light humor being fratty, kind of out of touch humor that was picked up on social media as all things are today. Yeah, the reality I think was that the Instagram post was what was out of touch with the core Bud Light drinker. It even managed to offend, it really did manage to offend everyone.

3:13 Joanna: Normally when there’s a boycott, you would say the brand does something, then it admits its mistakes. And people forgive it. How much did that compound it or was that not really a major factor in why it had such an effect.

3:32 Jim: Nothing that they were doing was particularly making things better. In fact, arguably they were making it worse. The president of AB InBev was talking about how you how, as a result of the scenario, they now kind of got it. He said we kind of learned to stay in our lane. I think that really brings, reels things back, to understand what does the core beer drinker want in their brand? They want to be comfortable. They want it to be fun. They probably don’t want to think about it too hard.

Friends of mine have kids in college and I would talk to these college kids over last summer. A couple of them would literally say there was no way, after that happened, that that they would even be seen with a Bud Light in their hand.

4:28 Joanna: Wow! Did they say why?

4:31 Jim: It was kind of like they just didn’t want to go there. It’s like why even provoke a conversation? They just want to relax and get away. They don’t want to be discussing those sorts of things. Obviously, many topics can come up and the social and political topics can come up. But sometimes, it’s the time and place just aren’t right. It doesn’t mean those issues are unimportant.

4:57 Joanna: If you think about the dynamics that you saw then, and really how that’s changed and what the dynamics are today, have the core Bud Light drinkers changed how they think in any way as a result of this?

5:13 Jim: This is speculative on my part, but I would think not. I think their position is InBev and Bud Light, you’re going to have to come back to us here. You were the ones who caused this. And it’s time for you to drift back in our direction. Now, the reality is there are beer drinkers who are absolutely insistent they will always drink Bud Light, always Miller Light, or always Coors Light. The reality is if you put those three in front of many people, they would not be able to tell the difference. Bud Light was in an unfortunate situation here where there were readily available substitutes.

5:59 Joanna: So, the problem was a lack of brand differentiation and branding, so that people really didn’t see a difference between the beers.

6:14 Jim: Well, I think that certainly could have certainly been. The taste profiles, let’s just say, they’re similar. There’s actually probably a hint of truth in that comment about fratty, out of touch humor. If you think of the history of Bud Light, I think it’s always very good-natured humor. so could you argue that maybe that was a chink in Bud Light’s armor that then became a bit more of a tragic flaw? Yeah, possibly.

6:41 they were they were vulnerable, yeah? If they’ been really different, people would have had stronger affinity to them I guess.

6:48 Jim: Yeah, they were probably more vulnerable than they thought they were.

6:52 Joanna: Your suggestions about the core brand consumer not really wanting not wanting to be stressed, to have to think politically when they’re drinking beer, I guess is what it’s about. There’s a very interesting comments. Could you suggest a brand that’s handled this better?

7:09 Jim: Well, I’m gonna stick in the beer industry, because I think Modelo has done this extremely well in the beer category. I think for those familiar with this Bud Light scenario, it was probably going to happen over a number of years anyway. But as a result of  Bud Light sales volume decline. Modelo is now the largest selling beer brand in the United States by dollar volume, not yet by physical volume. The lines were kind of converging anyways.

7:49 Joanna: What was Mello done better?

7:51 Jim: I think what Modelo has done better, and I’ve actually kind of over the past year just gone out on YouTube and looked at some of Modelo’s ads, for a number of years now, I think almost six years or perhaps more, they use this theme of the fighter and fighting spirit. This could be a a 30-year-old male boxer as literally a fighter, or it could be a 60 year-old Mexican woman sipping a Modelo in the kitchen while she’s making food for the family. It has a very inclusive feel to it. Then you don’t get caught going on these tangents of well we’re appealing to sort of this group of people. Well, but now we got to dart over here and dart over there.

8:44 Joanna: So they don’t really have a target audience. It’s like everybody, so you have to be toned down a bit.

8:53 Jim: Yeah, I would say that Modelo has done it exceptionally well. The reality is they’ve been rewarded for it in the marketplace.

8:59 Joanna: Okay, so they really failed to keep up with the times and were just kind of throwing in, kind of pretending to be cool, and just completely had no idea.

9:13 Jim: Yeah, that’s probably a bit harsh from my perspective. But also, there’s also a lot of truth there to what you just said. Bud Light has been in kind of a steady low single digit percent decline for probably 10 years now within the United States. In the InBev portfolio, a lot of that has been volume switching from Bud Light to Michelob Ultra. That swap is financially favorable to them because Michelob Ultra has a slightly higher price point. If you’re running Bud Light, you’re not happy about it. There’s going to be a tendency to want to do something to reverse the change.

9:58 Joanna: So it’s not that beer is in decline. It’s really the behavior of Bud Light sort of falling behind if you like.

10:07 Jim: Right. Yeah. But now here’s an interesting thing that seems to be happening now. Really just over the past few months in the beer industry is now, at least from what I’m reading, there is a lot of evidence now of Industry softness within beer. There can be many reasons for that, of course . There are many reasons for it. But you do kind of wonder when the the market share leader stumbles, as Bud Light did, that can have broader impacts to the industry. I kind of have this feeling that some of this industry softness now is a consequence of that, yeah. By the same token, when a brand is very, very successful, the rising water lifts all boats.

10:54: Joanna. So it’s got much broader implications. Can Bud Light get back? What are your thoughts on what needs to happen next for Bud Light to recover or is it too late? Is it water under the bridge?

11:06 Jim: Honestly I do think the high probability is that it’s too late in the near term and medium term. I mean, it’s pretty clear that this 25 to 30% volume loss within the brand has stuck. That 25 to 30% is really permanently down. What Frank and I, in our co-authored pieces, have surmised is that they’re going to need to rebuild brand preference. The way you do that is really through two things. One you control. One you don’t . Your brand activities including marketing and public relations, etc., have to take hold. And you have to get a break from other externalities, such as what your competition does. Now as it relates to that, if you think of the two of them first with brand activities,  Bud Light has several months ago now signed on to an Ultimate Fight Club sponsorship. And their messaging seems to be a bit more broadly inclusive . Look, time will tell on that. I mean one thing we certainly see on the other one, in terms of the externalities or external activities, the competition isn’t lightening up at all. My former employer Molson Coors is certainly, I think without spiking the football in Bud Light’s face or rubbing their nose in it, has just sort of taken it in with both Miller Light and Coors Light, which received the majority of the benefit. And there were other brands that did. Yuengling Light comes to mind, but it’s a smaller brand.

 

Going back to last year, Molson Coor committed to spending an additional $100 million on marketing. I have to believe most of that was in the US behind Miller Light and Coors Light. A lot of information of that you can see in the quarterly public reports from Molson Coors clearly indicates that at retail, they’re gaining shelf space. And they’re gaining tap handles. That becomes very permanent.

13:18 Joanna: So I know shelf space is expensive and difficult to change once the retailers have thrown you off.

13:25 Jim: Yeah, now in alcoholic beverage, can’t pay for shelf space. It’s an influence game with the chains. You’re a category captain or you’re not. I have to believe that Molson Coors now is the category captain in places where they weren’t before. Retailers, think about Costco, they’re rightly ruthless about who gets on their shelves and if the velocity isn’t there, you’re gone.

13:57 Joanna: So Molson Coors has stepped in and taken over the category leadership position from Bud Light.

14:03 I think in many places they have, absolutely.

14:07 Joanna: Was  Bud Light the catalyst which marked a turning point, not just for Bud Light and beer, but for all brands in all categories. Because I think what seems to be happening now is that companies, as a whole, are retreating from both DEI taking a big stance, and actually sustainability, and then pulling back and becoming much more reluctant to take a stance, a real standout stance, on any issue. Do you think it really has sort of tipped the thinking on how brands behave?

14:52 Jim: I think that’s a really interesting hypothesis that I really haven’t thought about. But it’s a very compelling one. I think there’s an awful lot of truth to what you’re saying. That it was maybe a bit of a wakeup call and watch out where you go, because your consumers are going to be the judge. So watch it. Well-meaning things can, even well-meaning things for the right reasons, can very quickly drift into virtue signaling. Which in and of itself has a lack of authenticity. Certainly so much has been written about and researched about especially how the younger consumer is really demanding authenticity from the brand.

14:44 Joanna: I guess the overall message from this, it goes back to the basics, is if you have a brand, it has to be built on understanding your consumers and looking at things from the consumer point of view–and they stopped.

16:01 Jim: I don’t think it was blatantly intentional, but I think that’s largely what happened. I think another thing we learned here is that that term “brand activities” includes an awful lot. In this case, it included quotes by marketing executives. So, I think there’s a big watch out here.

16:24 Joanna: So if it’s part of your brand, you can be political. But if it’s not, don’t do it. Don’t jump on bandwagons and forget…

16:30 Jim: I would be very careful at doing that. In fact, I would say it’s best to avoid it then even trying to dip your toe in the water because the shark might come into the shallow water and bit your toe off.

16:42 Joanna: You’re clearly somebody who is more qualified than just about anybody to speak on this topic since not only have you looked at it seriously, but you know the beer industry and you know finance, and you know about the financial business impacts of this. So any last messages for brands from this?

17:05 Jim: One thing I’m going to quote a headline that I saw in early May: “The  Bud Light boycott is losing steam–How AB InBev Is Defying the Controversy.” I disagree with so much in that headline it  boggles me. The word boycott is coming back and I think they’re far from defying the controversy. The reality is the controversy has stuck. AB InBev is quite, I will give credit to AB InBev in that they have diversified themselves globally so effectively that this impact on their financial results, while in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, is something that they can move on from.

18:06 Joanna: So their other brands are okay?

18:09 Jim: It would seem so. I think in the US initially, some of the ancillary brands may have taken a bit of a hit. Maybe specifically Budweiser, for example, because the name is right there in front of you. It seems to me much of that has gone away and it kind of gets to your comment earlier. Globally, I don’t think AB InBev was severely damaged globally as a result of this, which is fortunate. I have to you have to give them some credit for that. Maybe they were able to isolate the damage here.

18:40 You have ended up creating, and it’s now getting picked up all over the place, a new brand term, which is brand divorce. A boycott, people it’s about an issue you undo what you’ve done and retract and they come back because they want you to take action. A divorce, you’ve had it. They don’t want to live with you anymore.

19:05 Jim: Yeah, and occasionally divorced people remarry, but it doesn’t happen a lot. And also, you’re aware of this, Joanna, through MASB, that we actually have a turn key PowerPoint and discussion question-and-answer guide. if people would like to use this to teach, as you said, there’s many concepts here that are worth learning about and discussing.

19:31 Joanna: Thank you very much Jim I think this is a fascinating illustration of a real brand disaster.

19:41 Jim: Yes, that it

 

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