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What Not to Do in Marketing, a 2023 Cautionary Tale

Businesses know that you cannot please everyone. In 2023, Anheuser-Busch and its Bud Light brand learned the hard way. Controversy surrounded the company’s sponsorship of influencer Dylan Mulvaney, realizing a $395 million slump in revenue in North America immediately after the dust-up. So how do other companies avoid similar scrutiny and backlash?

Influencer marketing and collaborative content creation is a fairly new marketing tactic. The popularity of influencer marketing now sparks big brand deals and puts the spotlight on individual creators who bring access to uniquely curated audiences. For some businesses, the risk of ceding creative control is worth the return. The formula for finding relevancy for new customers, or younger customers, is a challenge. Cultivating the next generation of fans requires innovation and meeting them where they are. What could possibly go wrong? Well…

  • Choosing the wrong influencer match to your brand
  • Focusing on the wrong metrics, or ignoring the data/feedback
  • Not being transparent about the collaboration, without disclosure rules
  • Lacking clear objectives around the partnership
  • Overspending your marketing budget
  • Not being authentic

Ultimately, pairing your brand with the wrong influencer can feel inauthentic to customers, eroding the trust that companies have worked so hard to build. It may seem like a great idea to launch a campaign with a celebrity, or an influencer with millions of followers, but a mismatch can do more harm than good.

Lack of transparency about brand affiliation similarly diminishes trust. Despite clear rules from the FTC regarding these partnerships, some influencers choose to ignore these rules and further damage brand trust. Irresponsible omissions around products like pharmaceuticals, or inappropriate hashtags do the same harm. Clarity and authenticity should be a hallmark of any influencer marketing partnership.

There is no shortage of successful influencer marketing campaign examples – that’s why the enormity of the Bud Light controversy is so unique. The examples of influencer marketing gone wrong, regardless of the size of the brand, are a little more difficult to find.

Was Bud Light wrong to select a variety of influencers, hoping to capture the next generation? Not at all. In this case, more than revenue was lost. Production plants faced closure for death threats. Musician Kid Rock made a video condemning the influencer partnership (while simultaneously selling the same beer in the bars he owned). A culture war ignited around one social media post featuring an influencer celebrating a year of transition with a custom can of Bud Light. The problem extended to the response from Bud Light following the outpouring of dissatisfaction. The lack of clear crisis response left both customers and influencers feeling maligned by the brand.

Bud Light must now regain traction with the customers who left – for whatever reason. The 2024 Super Bowl becomes a critical opportunity to recapture sales and find new fans. Looking at other famous partnerships that ignited negative press or customer boycotts, it’s apparent that the only guaranteed fix for these losses is selective partnerships and time.