Bud Light’s Controversy Connects to You

Brian James Rawson
September 28, 2023

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Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio Podcast, where we talk about how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives. 

Today we’re looking at Bud Light’s recent controversy and what you and Bud Light have in common. 

Bud light controversy recap

So first, if you didn’t hear about it, a few months ago, Bud Light did paid sponsorship with Dylan Mulvaney. Mulvaney is a social media influencer and a member of the Trans community. In March, Mulvaney posted a video on social media with herself and special Bud Light cans, and once the video went public, a huge PR backlash broke out. On one side, Kid Rock made a response video where he literally took a machine gun to a stack of Bud Light and then said things that I’m not going to repeat here on the podcast. 

(Side note: just a few months after posting that video, Kid Rock was spotted at a Colt Ford concert drinking…., you guessed it,…Bud Light…so make of that what you will…but) 

On the other side, progressives claimed that Bud Light’s sponsorship was merely tokenism and corporate Pride-washing. 

Bud Light Shifted Identity Too Fast Too Far

So what really happened? You know, it’s easy to say people are ridiculous or that we’re “more politically divided than ever,” and, I don’t know, some of that might be true. But from our point of view as marketers, we look at things from a different angle and we think something else happened. From a marketing perspective, Bud Light shifted identity too far too fast, and what happened to them can just as easily happen to you.

Both Companies and You Want to Fit In

See most people don’t realize that a business brand and a personal reputation are really the same thing (just at different scales). So, just like you worry about your reputation and making a good first impression, businesses worry about the same thing.

No matter if you’re a high school senior or a senior executive, all of us care what other people think. We care about fitting in, about being accepted, about having friends, about being popular and liked. Now obviously, some people care more about this than others, but all of us care. 

Wanting to Fit In Changes You

But why do we care so much? We care because all of us are afraid of being kicked out, of NOT fitting in, of not being in the group. This fear stems from our evolutionary psychology, and, whether you realize it or not, this hardwired fear changes your behavior. It makes you follow social norms, etiquette and politeness, and it also makes you maintain your identity. Which, you know I get it, this is a pretty heavy thing to think about, but, you know, it’s…it’s true.

And to see how it’s true, let’s look at a pretty simple example. Let’s say you always wear a hat. You’re a “hat guy.” And then one day, you don’t wear a hat. How do people react? Or the other way around, you never wear hats, and then one day you show up in a fedora. How do people react? (If you’re not sure, you should go check out Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s a whole episode where Larry tries to figure out if he’s a “hat guy” or not). 

Not Fitting in Costs You 

So, whether it’s being the hat guy or the class clown, or the punctual one, the note taker, the office mom, the gossip, the know it all, the overachiever, and so on and so forth, we all have a social role, reputation, and identity. Now, just because we have a role, doesn’t mean we’re 100% aware of it. Of course some people are much more aware of their social identity than others, but most of us have at least some idea of what other people think of us, and most of us are socially aware enough to know that we can’t radically change our identity overnight…without paying a high social cost. 

You know your friends and coworkers expect you to be reserved or outgoing or funny or serious, so and so forth, and you know if you showed up looking totally different or acting completely out of character people would take a step back. This is why people wait to change their identity until they change schools, or move to a new city, or start a new job. In other words, people maintain the social identity they get slotted into (even if they don’t like it) because changing it too far too fast is more painful (or costs more) than just sticking with it. 

However, it is possible to change your social identity. You just have to do it slowly and gradually like the quiet new person who over time becomes the outgoing office manager. So, yes you can change your identity but you have to do it slow and near not far and fast (unless you want to pay a high social cost like Bud Light). 

The Cost of Bud Lights Social Skills

Bud Light got themselves in hot water, I believer, not just because of the political rhetoric, but because they broke a social rule. They changed their identity too far too fast. They went from being a “no hat guy” to walking in with a fedora. They went from a Conservative political identity to a Progressive one overnight. And of course, this didn’t work. And I get it, this may sound dumb and trivial. I mean who really cares about Bud Light? What’s it matter? Well, Bud Light’s social misstep cost them…literally. They lost billions of dollars in market share from trying to become “a hat guy” overnight.

(Now another side note: it’s important for us to pause here to say that we feel equity, social justice, and full representation in media is extremely important. So yeah though in the grand scheme of things, Bud Light’s pretty trivial, fighting for marginalized communities and against bigotry is massively important.) 

What You and Bud Light have in Common 

Anyways, all of this shows us what Bud Light and you have in common. Both you and Bud Light have a social identity, and neither of you can change that identity too far and too fast without paying a cost. Reputation seems ephemeral, but it is very real and has literal consequences. When you lose friends, you lose capital, resources, and monetary potential just like Bud Light lost money when they broke the social rule. Now I’m not saying you should make friends just to gain capital. But what I am saying is that we often don’t realize the importance and prevalence of our social norms; and we don’t fully realize what it costs if we break them; and we don’t fully appreciate what we gain when we master them. 

So the next time you’re with your friends or coworkers, think about the roles they all fill and where you fit in. What is their identity? And what’s yours? When you realize how identity works and how reputation influences everything, you can start to craft the identity you want versus the one you’re given, and you can better understand how businesses work and how brands influence you. 


If you’d like to harness the power of marketing and design, schedule your free starter meeting with us at our website at: owlstreet.studio 



bud-light-boycott-dylan-mulvaney-travis-tritt-trans by Vox

kid-rock-drinks-bud-light-beer-dylan-mulvaney-shoot-cases by TMZ

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