Much has been written about the recent Bud Light influencer campaign, and more will be written over time. My colleagues at MASB make a compelling argument that the “boycott” in response to the campaign is unlike other boycotts and is likely to persist well into the future. They argue that brand preferences have changed in response to the campaign. Regardless of the specific product and advertising messages involved, there are several general lessons about the management of brands that may be derived from the episode.
First, the Bud Light campaign illustrates just how difficult it is to reposition a brand and attract new users. Many efforts to attract new users have failed because they confuse or alienate existing users, often without attracting many new users. Bud Light joins a long list of failures to attract new users through repositioning. The list includes New Coke, McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, the Pontiac Aztek, Tropicana, the Gap, J.C. Penny, and Dr. Pepper Ten (“It’s Not For Women”), among others. In the case of Bud Light, long-term declines in sales, which the influencer campaign was designed to address, rested more in changes in taste preferences of younger consumers, rather than preferences for brands of similar products. Product innovation would likely have been a more effective, and certainly less destructive, strategy for growth.
Second, the Bud Light debacle illustrates the critical importance of testing before executing. It is astonishing that when millions of dollars in creative and media expenditures are on the line, not to mention potential blow back such as that received in response to the Bud Light influencer campaign, managers find it appropriate to “save money” by foregoing testing. Testing is inexpensive and quick relative to creative message and media activities. It is cheap insurance. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how many companies execute expensive media campaigns without determining whether their message is effective or potentially destructive.
Third, there is a lesson about the use of “influencers”. While influencers may be “celebrities” in their defined orbit, they are not the same as other celebrity spokespersons. Influencers are better conceptualized as communication channels (a medium). Just as other media need to be evaluated based not only on total audience, they should also be evaluated on whether the composition of the audience is appropriate for the product category, brand, and message. Influencers frequently attract audiences that include both supporters and detractors (the Donald Trump phenomenon). A message that resonates with supporters in a positive way may also resonate with the detractors in a very negative way. Research on influencer audiences can help in making such a determination, but with so many channels of communication available, why even consider such channels of communication.
Finally, the Bud Light influencer campaign makes clear that branding is not just a marketing activity. Branding is a business strategy that needs to be directed by the highest levels of management in the organization (with appropriate input from marketing). The results of the Bud Light campaign did not affect only the Bud Light brand; it has had spillover effects on the company’s other brands. The effects are not restricted to sales and financial returns; they have spread to employees, distributor partners, and the public at large; the whole business. In the words of David Packard: “Marketing is Too Important to be Left to the Marketing Department.”
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. David Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Marketing and Business Law, Loyola Marymount University, Author, Financial Dimensions Of Marketing Decisions.
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