adweek, Nov 2023

By Rebecca Stewart

After a tough 2023 for Bud Light, Benoit Garbe, the U.S. chief marketing officer of parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev, will resign at the end of the year.

Garbe’s marketing role will not be directly replaced, the company confirmed. Instead, U.S. chief commercial officer Kyle Norrington will oversee marketing for the country moving forward.

His departure follows the exit of Bud Light marketing vp Alissa Heinerscheid earlier this year. He will see out 2023 before “embarking on a new chapter in his career,” the business said.

In a statement, AB InBev CEO Brendan Whitworth said the latest executive shakeup would “reduce layers within our organization and better enable our top commercial leaders to drive our business and legacy forward.”

Backlash and the bottom line The shift to focus on profit follows six months of turmoil for America’s once bestselling beer, which in a short space of time has fallen rapidly from grace following a backlash from conservatives over a social media promotion with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Bud’s issues started in April, when TikTok star Mulvaney promoted Bud Light on her social media platforms as part of a planned partnership. The post received transphobic backlash, with conservatives calling for a boycott.

On the other side, members of LGBTQ+ communities and their allies also rejected the brand, after the business failed to quickly speak out and stand by Mulvaney.

By June, sales had fallen and Modelo Especial had displaced Bud Light as America’s favorite beer. In October, Bud continued to strain AB InBev’s bottom line in the market, with the company reporting a 13.5% decline in third-quarter U.S. revenue per 100 liters.

Since then the brand has invested in a series of marketing campaigns to return Bud Light to its place in pop culture as the easygoing beer of choice. These have included a huge summer push from Anomaly, NFL activations and a new sponsorship deal with UFC reported to be worth $100 million.

As the company puts its marketing budget in the hands of the CCO, Leila Fataar, founder of cultural and marketing strategy firm Platform 13, said Bud Light’s debacle holds lessons for brand leaders everywhere around the importance of connecting with culture.

“In today’s world, one social post can travel faster and further than anything else as we have seen with the [Mulvaney] situation,” she noted.

She suggested putting a marketer in a more senior role would help a brand like Bud drive relevance and competitive advantage.

“We see a shift where CMOs are becoming CEOs. To be culturally relevant, this may be the better approach for a modern business model because a deep strategic understanding of the consumer and how the ever-changing shifts impact them has never been more important for brands and business in the new world we live in.”

Alicia Iveson, co-founder and chief of creative shop Hijinks Collective, said though Garbe has walked, apparently taking the heat for the conservative Mulvaney backlash, Bud Light should have been prepared for the boycott instead of ambushed by it.

“The lesson for marketers is, yes, support diverse communities and influencers, but don’t go into battle unarmed. Have a powerful response lined up in the event of repercussions, such as backing from other celebrities, words from a president or a broader marketing campaign,” she said. “Scenario planning and crisis management are vital for all ad campaigns. Interrogate, stress test, road test. Never be caught off guard.”

Is a brand turnaround possible? Recent analysis from consumer insights company HundredX suggests Bud is in the early stages of a rebound, with drinkers slowly warming up to the brand’s values and trustworthiness.

After falling more than 30% from March through June, data gleaned in October found that customer perception of Bud’s brand values grew between 1% and 2% since June.

Customer perception towards sister brand Budweiser’s ads—which recently saw the return of its iconic Clydesdales—also clawed back 11% since falling more than 50% from March to June.

In its most recent October earnings update, global CEO Michel Doukeris said AB InBev would continue to invest in Bud Light marketing, with internal polling showing 40% of lapsed Bud Light drinkers would consider putting the brand back on their shopping list.

He cited research the business had conducted with 260,000 people: “The common points of feedback remain consistent,” he revealed. “One, consumers continue to want the Bud Light brand to concentrate on the platforms that all consumers love,” pointing to more “traditional channels” including NFL broadcasts.

Consumers also asked “Bud Light to focus on beer,” said Doukeris, and “third, they want that beer without a debate.”

“We are taking the feedback and working hard towards our consumers’ business every day across the world,” he finished.


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