A polarizing packaging design was the start of a bumpy, costly ride for Anheuser-Busch InBev. Here’s what packaging designers should do to prevent, or recover from, a failure.

Kate Bertrand Connolly, Freelance Writer

March 21, 2024

5 Min Read
Bud Light Ban
Natalie Behring / Contributor via Getty Images News

At a Glance

  • Partnering with a transgender influencer caused consumer backlash, a boycott on Bud Light, and billions lost in market cap
  • Current marketing strategy features partners like the UFC and comedian Shane Gillis to target a different demographic
  • Packaging design expert says one thing can save you from an #epicfail

Promotional packaging can make a big splash, but not always in the way the brand owner intended. Consider last year’s Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney promotion, which included a can with the transgender social media influencer’s face printed on it.

Backlash to that promotion from conservative consumers, celebrities, and commentators led to a Bud Light boycott. The corporate impact of the controversy and boycott include reduced sales and a hit to market capitalization for brand owner Anheuser-Busch InBev.

At the time of this writing, the company’s market cap is $13 billion lower than it had been on March 31, 2023 — the day before Dylan Mulvaney showed off her personalized Bud Light can on Instagram.

Anheuser-Busch InBev’s financials for fiscal year 2023, released at the end of February 2024, indicate the company had all-time-high worldwide revenue of $59.4 billion in 2023; however, in the United States, its annual revenue fell 9.5%, with “performance impacted by volume decline of Bud Light,” the company stated in its fiscal year-end financial presentation.

The company did not respond to Packaging Digest’s request for comment on how the controversy has affected its packaging department.

Charting a new course.

After the controversy erupted, Anheuser-Busch InBev left Dylan Mulvaney behind, and its current marketing strategy targets a vastly different market segment.

In late 2023, the company signed a sponsorship deal with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a group with conservative ties. Anheuser-Busch InBev has also launched a paid partnership with comedian Shane Gillis, who was fired from Saturday Night Live in 2019 for making racist and homophobic comments.

The company’s Superbowl LVIII commercial for Bud Light was noncontroversial, fun, and humorous. The spot included appearances by UFC CEO Dana White, Peyton Manning, and Post Malone.

Also, recently, conservative notables have been coming to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s defense. Former President Donald Trump has encouraged consumers to give Bud Light a “second chance.” And Kid Rock, whose initial response to the controversy was a video of himself shooting Bud Light cans with a gun, has stated that he no longer supports the boycott.

We asked award-winning designer Tom Newmaster, partner at FORCEpkg, how a packaging fail like Bud Light’s can affect a packaging team and brand. His insights clarify the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of such situations and offer guidance on avoiding them.

How can a brand come back from a major packaging fail like this, considering consumers seem to be paying more attention to packaging from consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies?

Newmaster: I think it’s about consumer research, knowing who your target consumer is, and how you want to change your primary target. [Knowing] if you’re looking to broaden it.

It’s not about Dylan Mulvaney, it’s more about, “Did you do this on purpose?” Did you just ignore your target? Did you hope to casually broaden it? More importantly, people were upset with Bud Light’s response. I really don’t think they understood their target market.

How can a packaging designer who was involved in creating this type of problematic packaging come back from it?

Newmaster: If Bud Light came to me, I would have pushed them to supply firm research that demonstrated that this packaging wouldn’t fail. A few thousand dollars spent to test packaging with consumers could have potentially stopped it from running, or made the whole campaign smarter. Designers have the responsibility to make the best campaign possible to support any brand. 

Have you heard anything about changes within Anheuser-Busch, especially its packaging department, in the wake of the Dylan Mulvaney crisis?

Newmaster: Bud Light has deep pockets. They undoubtedly hired a very expensive PR [public relations] firm to work on updating their image with their target market. Shane Gillis as the new spokesperson is much more in line with their target. When you Google “Bud Light spokesperson,” Shane Gillis does come up, but Dylan Mulvaney still dominates the search. 

This is a classic example of when a controversy favors being woke. Were there people who supported Dylan Mulvaney, and chose to drink Bud Light? Did they turn against it now? Bud Light has also partnered with UFC following the scandal. This too makes sense for the brand.

When the controversy favors the woke, everybody hears about it. Everything is political today. When you do something that’s not vanilla, it’s going to go either far left or far right, which is typically considered the vocal minority. 

With polarizing package designs like the Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light can, or last year’s all-female M&M’s pack, does the uproar get packaging designers and design agencies fired? Or would that typically occur at a higher level of the organization, as when Anheuser-Busch InBev’s US chief marketing officer resigned a few months ago?

Newmaster: You really need to know how that packaging came to be. The design firm could have been told to do it; they ended up firing a whole group over it. I’m not opposed to something celebrating women or LGBTQ.

Lessons-from-Packaging-Fails-Newmaster-web.jpg

Perhaps someone got thrown under the bus. That’s probably the case. Designers won’t typically refuse to do something, unless it’s illegal. In the end, I’m getting paid to do a job. If you don’t want to take my advice, I’m still likely to complete the project. 

Do you have any advice for packaging designers or CPG marketing folks about how to avoid getting into this type of divisive, negative situation in the first place?

Newmaster: Consumer research is the most important angle to take. It gives you an accurate read on how a campaign will be perceived. Although, focus groups are ineffective — the results would be skewed and inaccurate. Too much influence in how other participants perceive your responses. 

Do any similar situations come to mind, where a brand’s packaging design created widespread, negative backlash? If so, how did that brand move forward from the difficult situation? Did it recover? How long did it take?

Newmaster: Tropicana was a design fail gone wild. Aunt Jemima, Land O’Lakes. Every decision needs to be viewed through the lens of intention. Unfortunately, today brands will fall back to vanilla — less creative solutions. Aunt Jemima’s original packaging felt authentic, but the updated, vanilla version is neutering the brand.

About the Author(s)

Kate Bertrand Connolly

Freelance Writer

Kate Bertrand Connolly has been covering innovations, trends, and technologies in packaging, branding, and business since 1981.

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