It might be an understatement to say that Bud Light, and its parent company Anheuser-Busch, stirred up quite a bit of controversy when transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney showed off a can of the light beer with his face on it on April 1. A few days later, Bud Light confirmed that it had indeed signed a brand partnership deal with Mulvaney in an effort to “authentically connect with audiences.”
Bud Light tried to excuse the partnership as just one of dozens it maintains with influencers around the world and noted that the Mulvaney-themed can was not for sale to the general public, but the dam had already broken.
A beer that was once widely regarded as an affordable, blue-collar American beverage became abhorrent almost instantly among conservatives. Kid Rock posted a video of himself blasting, both verbally and literally, the brand and its product. Country music star John Rich removed Bud Light from his bar in Nashville, while Travis Tritt banned the beer from his hospitality rider for his current tour. Riley Green changed the lyrics of one of his hit songs to eliminate a reference to Bud Light during a live performance, and Brantley Gilbert smashed a can of the beer onstage during a concert.
Anheuser-Busch’s market value took a steep tumble in the days after the controversy erupted, and a wider boycott movement seems to have gained steam as bar patrons. The owner of a restaurant chain in Florida, Grills Seafood Deck and Tiki Bar, has already announced that it will remove Budweiser products from his establishments.
Anheuser-Busch’s CEO, Brendan Whitworth, finally broke his silence on the contentious issue on April 14. Whitworth assured customers that “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” and that “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” Whitworth added that he spends a lot of time “listening to and learning from our customers, distributors, and others.” No hint of Dylan Mulvaney, transgenderism, or an apology to offended customers could be found in the statement.
To top it all off, two Anheuser-Busch executives have been placed on leave because of the backlash. Alissa Heinerscheid, the vice president of marketing at Bud Light who once said in an interview that the brand needed to update its “out of touch” and “fratty” image, took a leave of absence and will be replaced by Budweiser global marketing VP Todd Allen. Then, on Sunday, Heinerscheid’s boss Daniel Blake was also placed on leave.
Countless conservatives have sworn that they will never buy Bud Light or Anheuser-Busch products as long as they support transgender ideology. Few if any will be swearing off beer forever, so they’ll most likely look for an alternative brand. But here’s the rub — there’s a good chance the beer that they’ll switch to is also owned by Anheuser-Busch’s parent company.
Anheuser-Busch, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of a Belgian multinational company called AB InBev, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. AB InBev owns over 600 beer brands around the world, and many customers may be unaware that the beer that they are purchasing to replace Anheuser-Busch products may also be owned by AB InBev — practically negating an attempt at a boycott.
Aside from the most famous Anheuser-Busch products, namely Budweiser and Bud Light, the company also makes popular brands like Busch, Busch Light, Natural Light, Michelob Ultra, Shock Top, Rolling Rock, and Land Shark. In fact, AB InBev produces six of the 10 best-selling beers in the United States, according to Newsweek.
InBev also produces a number of international beer brands, including Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, and Leffe. It also owns three popular Mexican beer brands — Corona, Modelo, and Pacifico. Corona and Modelo are also among the top 10 best-selling beer brands in the country, but U.S. distribution rights were given to Chicago-based Constellation Brands after a Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit in 2013.
Anheuser-Busch’s PR nightmare may give competitors the opportunity to dethrone the “King of Beers.”
The largest rival to AB InBev in the American beer market is Molson Coors, a Canadian-American company that is best known for the Miller and Coors brands of beer. Its flagship brands, Coors Light and Miller Lite, are the only non-AB InBev beer brands in the top 10 best-selling beers list, according to Newsweek. Other well-known brands owned by the company include Blue Moon and Keystone.
Molson Coors has not made a statement or explicitly tried to capitalize on the Bud Light controversy, but its stock has surged and many people have reported switching to Coors or Miller Lite as an alternative to Bud. However, the Molson Coors company has repeatedly expressed its support for LGBT causes in the past.
Coors Light has sponsored Denver PrideFest for several years and supports several LGBT organizations. Coors Light has even referred to itself as “refreshingly proud” and boasted that it “has been committed to supporting the LGBT community for nearly 30 years and continues to champion equality for all.” The LGBT advocacy organization GLAAD has described Coors as “among the most progressive for its employee policies toward gays.”
Two other major American beer companies are Pabst Brewing Company, of blue ribbon fame, and Yuengling, the oldest operating brewery in the country. Yuengling appeared to take a swipe at Bud Light with a recent tweet. “Yuengling, The Oldest Brewery In America. Independently Owned and Family Operated since 1829 because we make good beer,” the beer company tweeted along with a picture of a Yuengling beer can in front of an American flag.
The day of Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth’s statement on the controversy, Budweiser released a new ad titled “Heart of America” that was chocked full of patriotic imagery, including famous landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Grand Canyon. The narrator of the ad was sure to emphasize the company’s American roots and homespun character.
“Let me tell you a story about a beer rooted in the heart of America, found in a community where a handshake is a sure contract; brewed for those who found opportunity in challenge, and hope in tomorrow; raised by generations willing to sip, share, risk, remember. This is a story bigger than beer; this is the story of the American spirit.”
Ultimately, only time will tell if the boycott of Bud Light was enough to cause a dent in AB InBev’s profits and, more importantly, if that dent was big enough to actually change policy at the company.
The majority of the top ten best-selling beers in the country are made by two companies, AB InBev and Molson Coors — and they both own countless smaller beer brands — making a true boycott of their products extremely difficult.
A highly concentrated boycott of Bud Light may prove effective and cause the company to change course. Other brands may learn that leaning into woke ideology means a hit to the bottom line. Others may swing the other way and try to capture the conservative market, perhaps foreshadowed by Budweiser’s own pro-America ad.
But the fact that just two companies overwhelmingly dominate the American beer market may inspire some to call for antitrust investigations from federal agencies or Congress. With GOP control of the House investigations are certainly possible, and if a Republican wins in 2024, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division could begin to study the American beer market and the wider political influence that massive companies like AB InBev wield.