Subscribe to the Red and Blue Customers Newsletter Today

"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company

What Every Business Can Learn From the Bud Light Boycott

What Every Business Can Learn From the Bud Light Boycott

When marketing fails, it’s crickets you typically hear chirping, not customers stampeding for the doors. Yet that’s what Bud Light executives heard after paying a trans influencer to promote their beer, which included putting their picture on a single can. Within weeks sales dropped 21%. The head of marketing suddenly took a “leave of absence,” and their marketing agency was fired. The makers of Bud Light then committed to tripling their advertising investment to appease distributors.

A few weeks before, McDonald’s experienced a similar conservative backlash, although with less dramatic results. Conservative franchise owners complained when McDonald’s launched the new celebrity meal featuring Cardi B and Offset, two rappers who often employ profanity in their music. The conservative franchise owners said this didn’t align with McDonald’s commitment to family values.

Bud Light and McDonald’s shared the same business objective - they wanted to attract younger customers. They also shared the same strategy of making the celebrity the product, not just an endorsement. In both cases, the celebrity didn’t just talk about the product, they were the product.

These may seem like problems limited to big brands with big budgets, but there are lessons here for any business that wants to grow.

When a Product Projects a New Worldview, It No Longer Fits With Part Of Your Market

When customers look at your product, they have an instant visceral reaction based on how well they see it fitting into their world. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to it as “social intuitionism.” The idea is that intuition operates first, in an instant, followed by reasoning. If intuition senses an initial fit, then reasoning proceeds.

When a liberal or conservative celebrity suddenly becomes the product, it can trigger a new intuitive response different from what was initially present, instantly increasing or decreasing fit. In the case of Bud Light and McDonald’s, the customer drinks or eats the product, making it far more personal, so the reaction is stronger. When the fit instantly decreases, customers may turn to a competitor that is the next best fit. When Bud Light sales dropped, Coors Light sales increased.

An endorsement rarely triggers backlash from customers with the opposing worldview. Donald Trump, for example, is famous for eating McDonald’s food. That doesn’t trigger a boycott from liberal customers. Now imagine if McDonald’s promoted a Donald Trump Meal in all its franchises. When loyal liberal customers walk in, they would feel an immediate, intuitive loss of fit with the product. They would feel betrayed because the previous fit has been suddenly displaced.

Not Every Business Needs Younger Customers

Bud Light and McDonald’s want younger customers because they represent the future. But is that true? The idea that younger consumers will buy something for the rest of their lives is a huge assumption. It’s like believing that everything you buy in your twenties, you will buy in your forties and fifties. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the case.

For example, consultants have warned the NFL about the league’s future for decades because of a lack of younger viewers. Yet ratings remain strong if up and down from year to year. As one NFL executive said when asked about the lack of younger viewers, “We’ll get them in their thirties.”

Award shows like the Oscars and Grammys typically attract a large segment of younger viewers, yet the ratings for these shows keep dropping over time, with some variation from year to year. Some younger viewers age out of these shows. You can also bet that “fast fashion” won’t be popular with GenZ when they turn fifty.

The problem arises when any business looks at its customer database and sees a “generational divide” with fewer younger customers. There’s a fear that all customers will get old and disappear. Marketers rarely compare the customer age profile today to one five or ten years old. What they may discover is that younger customers aren’t the market. Younger consumers today will age into the product in ten or twenty years. Bud Light and McDonald’s could easily run this analysis to determine how significant the younger group is for their future and if it warrants outsized attention.

Younger Customers Are More Conservative Than Many Marketers Realize

Younger customers always skew liberal, whether today or fifty years ago. But it’s a skew that leads some to believe all younger people are liberal. When you look across data sets from Pew and Gallup for GenZ, as an example, this group appears to be about sixty-five percent liberal or lean-liberal. There are about sixty-eight million people in GenZ, so that equates to about forty-four million as liberal and about twenty-four million as conservative. So there are a lot of younger customers in both segments.

So if you want to attract younger customers to your business, why focus on one of the two groups, which makes your market significantly smaller? You could focus on the more liberal segment because it’s bigger, as Bud Light and McDonald’s did. But why not consider strategies that attract both groups if it’s younger customers you are after?

Solutions for attracting both groups involve focusing on what unites them rather than what divides them. This includes attributes common to a broad swath of Americans, including competition, DIY, productivity, friendliness, and more. Athletes as celebrities also bridge both groups. All it takes is recognizing that there are two groups of potential younger customers - liberal and conservative - and designing marketing that appeals to both.

Worldview Self-Awareness Is Essential In Marketing

There’s a natural inclination within marketing to project a more liberal worldview, leading to a focus on more liberal customer segments. It’s not a conspiracy, just a natural outcome of marketing attracting more liberal people and creating things that reflect their worldview. This likely happened in the Bud Light and McDonald’s marketing campaigns.

In an analysis of more than two billion dollars of political contribution data, sixty-eight percent of people in marketing roles are liberal. The flip is true in sales - sixty-nine percent are conservative. This means that marketing managers and executives need to have self-awareness of worldview because the markets they serve have liberal and conservative customers. The market may even skew conservative, as might be the case with Bud Light and McDonald’s. All it takes is simple self-awareness to align efforts better with the markets at hand.

Knowing Market Worldview Serves To Balance Ideas

Any business can ask the question, “What is my market’s worldview?” to better understand its customers. Yet this simple question isn’t asked even at the highest levels of marketing at Fortune 500 brands. Bud Light and McDonald’s are two cases in point. It’s possible that executives at Bud Light and McDonald’s don’t discuss customer worldview because it feels like politics. But that means ignoring a critical customer attribute, such as age, geography, or income.

When you put customer worldview on the table, you open up a healthy dialog because it forces businesses to consider worldview through the eyes of their customers, not just their own eyes. You learn more about both sides, leading to greater familiarity with “the other side,” whichever side that is.

You pause looking at customers from the outside in, and view your business as they do, from the inside of your market out. This enables you to shape your business to fit better into what customers see. This doesn’t take any sophisticated tools or expensive consultants. Any business can achieve this perspective, whether you are selling beer, burgers, bikes, or balloons.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Red and Blue Customers

Back to blog

Subscribe to the Red and Blue Customers Newsletter Today

"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company