Managing Brand Backlash

Paul FriederichsenMay 31, 20236 min

As marketers, we want our brands to be loved and admired … and purchased. Everything we do is aimed at selling more goods to more people more often. But sometimes, even the great brands miscalculate, underestimate, or become too ambitious. What seemed like the next big idea becomes the next big dud. Then your loyal customer turns on you and takes their business somewhere else. That coveted relationship, that impressive sales volume, that enviable market share starts to crumble right in front of you.

Until recently, the most infamous of these backlashes was Coca-Cola changing the formula of its flagship product in April 1985. Its rival Pepsi was threatening Coke’s #1 position, starting with the Pepsi Taste Challenge campaign launched ten years earlier. “New Coke”, with a sweeter, more Pepsi-like taste, was met with the instant backlash of public outcry, boycotts, and even support groups formed by disgruntled fans. For almost 40 years, the New Coke debacle has served as a model for the awesome power of brand loyalty and the importance of understanding consumer preferences.

In the meantime, other brands have had their share of troubles, all of which were self-inflicted, unforced errors. The Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal in 2015. Chipotle Mexican Grill E. coli outbreak in 2015. Samsung Galaxy Battery Recall in 2016. United Airlines’ involuntary passenger removal in 2017. My Pillow boycotts due to outspoken conservative politics in 2020. Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, OH in February 2023.

The latest high-profile brand backlash involves the #1 beer brand and a transgender social media celebrity Dylan Mulvaney. We may never know why or how this decision was made that caused the backlash, but we do know the consequences. According to news reports, in the first three weeks of April, U.S. sales of Bud Light dropped the equivalent of 1% of the company’s overall global volume for that period. For the week ending April 22, Bud Light sales in retail stores fell 21.4% compared to a year ago, whereas rival brands Coors Light and Miller Lite each saw their sales grow by about 21%, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Bump Williams Consulting. It is similar in backlash ferocity as the New Coke debacle but stimulated by a different decision: choice of media.

Dylan Mulvaney is a powerful social media influencer, made possible by over 10 million of her loyal followers. No doubt Bud Light marketers saw tapping into that as a Big Idea, a brilliant strategic maneuver around rivals to grow the brand’s appeal—especially to a younger audience. However, they seemed to prove that their loyal Bud Light customers were not as enlightened as they thought. It was a miscalculation of epic proportions, with anger and outrage amplified by the very media they intended to use for the brand’s marketing advantage.

Was the risk of hiring Dylan Mulvaney to endorse Bud Light worth it? If you ask Anheuser-Busch management and shareholders, the answer would be no. Is the damage permanent? No again. Consumers have short memories, and eventually most will come back around in time and give the brand a second chance. But there are lessons to be learned from all these examples for managing any brand, large or small.

Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure

Always remember, your customer is the true owner of your brand. That’s because the true purpose of companies is to make more customers. To facilitate that process, the company identifies itself and its product or service as a unique and desirable experience. In essence, that becomes the brand people want to own. Backlashes occur when brands forget that, disregarding the importance of customer’s ownership role. That invariably leads to a loss of trust in the brand and subsequent replacement by a competitor.

Marketers Are Just People, Too

As Derrick Daye of the brand consultancy The Blake Project is fond of saying, brand development is too important to be left up to just the marketers. That means everyone in the organization, from the top down, needs to participate in defining the brand: mission, vision, values, promise, essence, customer journey, culture, and story. Internal marketing is just as important than external marketing, so the meaning of the brand is clearly understood and unmistakable. Circumstances that result in customer backlash, whether it be insensitivity to the customer’s values, changing formulations, cheating standards, or cutting corners are usually the result of forgetting what the brand stands for, and what the customers have come to expect.

Brand Causes Should Reflect Customer Values

There is a growing wariness among consumers of business’ attempts at supporting causes. For example, Disney, My Pillow, and Bud Light have trodden dangerously close to controversial political and social issues that have been polarizing. Backlash can occur when consumers perceive a company’s cause support appears inconsistent with its core business practices or the customers’ own belief system. This can lead to accusations of “virtue signaling” or “woke-washing.” Once again, the bond built on trust between brand and customer is broken, sometimes irrevocably.

Arrogance Can Be Expensive

Marketing creatives are always striving for the Big Idea to gain attention for the brand and themselves. That is not bad. But in an effort to be daring or different, it can also take you over a cliff. Management must stay involved and engaged. In the case of Bud Light, you must wonder if those decisions that led to its backlash were reviewed at all. Brands must be a beacon in the marketplace, not just more noise. They must stand out in the morass of competing claims to its best customer profile.

As we’ve examined, most backlashes are the result of good intentions but poor judgement. While mistakes and missteps are inevitable, every manufacturing company, distributor, retail chain, or contractor should always be reminding their teams what their brand stands for and who their customer is.

The difference between a quick recovery or permanent loss is how you handle it. If public in nature, here are six steps you should follow in the face of bad publicity resulting from a backlash:

  1. Act quickly: When bad publicity arises, it’s important to act quickly to address the situation. Delaying a response can make the situation worse and lead to further damage to the brand’s reputation.
  2. Assess the situation: Before responding, it’s important to assess the situation to determine the severity of the crisis and the potential impact on stakeholders. This will help determine the appropriate response and allocate resources accordingly.
  3. Communicate openly and honestly: Clear and honest communication is essential in any crisis situation, especially when dealing with bad publicity. The brand should acknowledge the issue, provide accurate information, and show empathy for those affected.
  4. Take responsibility and apologize: If the brand is at fault for the bad publicity, it’s important to take responsibility and offer a sincere apology. This can help rebuild trust and demonstrate a commitment to addressing the issue.
  5. Develop a plan for addressing the issue: After acknowledging the issue and apologizing, the brand should develop a plan for addressing the issue and preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future. This may involve implementing new policies and procedures, providing additional training to employees, or making other changes.
  6. Monitor the situation: After responding to the crisis, it’s important to monitor the situation to ensure that the issue is fully resolved and to address any new concerns or issues that arise.

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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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