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Wake Up And Smell The Barley: What We Can Learn From Bud Light’s Fall

by Yonason Goldson

You’ve doubtless read the headlines Bud Light has been making — not the kind of headlines any business wants to make. For the first time since cavemen began fermenting hops and barley in stone cauldrons, the brewing giant has lost its lofty position as the top-ranked-selling beer in America.

In the wake of the PR disaster, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s global chief marketing officer Marcel Marcondes now admits that the public response has been “a wake-up call.”

Well, maybe it has and maybe it hasn’t. Perhaps deconstructing Mr. Marcondes’ boiler-plate apology will shed some light on what’s bubbling below the surface:
“In times like this, when things get divisive and controversial so easily, I think it’s an important wake-up call to all of us marketers first of all to be very humble.”

Things certainly have gotten divisive. But why? For the most part, traditionally minded people are not homophobic, transphobic or any-other-phobic. That’s why Douglas Murray is celebrated by the political right, despite being openly gay. He speaks articulately and compellingly about the cultural conflagrations reflected in the titles of his recent books, “The Madness of Crowds” and “The War on the West.” He doesn’t deny his sexual leanings, but neither does he discuss them at length. After all, they are nobody else’s business.

Traditionalists base their values on Scripture, and most of them have no intention of backing away from what they believe to be the divinely mandated definition of morality. Few of them, however, are interested in embarking on a holy war. They don’t want the police going into anyone’s bedroom. They also don’t want anti-traditionalist ideology streaming into their living rooms through their cell phones, laptops and flat-screen TVs. Nor do they want to be bombarded by it everywhere they go.

The commitment to humility in Marcel Marcondes’ mea culpa makes a nice soundbite. Indeed, the Torah testifies that Moses was the humblest person who ever lived. But that may not be the critical element facing AB InBev:

“That’s what we’re doing, being very humble, and really reminding ourselves of what we should do best every day, which is to really understand our consumers. Which is to really celebrate and appreciate every consumer that loves our brands — but in a way that can make them be together, not apart.”

Strip away the self-effacing rhetoric, and what this really sounds like is an apology for pandering to the wrong customer base: We thought we could expand our market by endorsing the latest ideological flavor of the month. Turns out it was a bad business decision.

That’s true, of course. But it misses the larger point: What has made our society so contentious in recent years is Peter trying to force his agenda down Paul’s throat. Traditionalists don’t want to see an anti-traditionalist agenda crowbarred into every product, every ad, every department store, every movie, every song, and every TV series. They don’t like it that modern society continues to drift away from the core values they were raised with, but they can come to terms with reality. What they can’t abide is being relentlessly bludgeoned with the message that they need to embrace this brave new world.

Anheuser-Busch (AB) has indeed careened off message. Until recently, its commercials projected quiet dignity and reassurance: the Budweiser jingle, the Clydesdales and, for those old enough to remember, the comforting voice of spokesman Ed McMahon. Its real men of genius campaign two decades ago cleverly poked fun at our collective culture quirkiness without wading into the muck of agenda-driven politics.

Every successful business must stand for something more than making money. AB’s branding used to evoke a sense of national vision and freedom: head for the mountains of Busch; weekends were made for Michelob; when you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all. It was a message that made you smile without forcing you to choose which side you’re on.

What leaders do is lead by example, bringing people together and guiding them in pursuit of universal values. What they don’t do is try to exploit trends to make a quick buck.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics that earns trust, sparks loyalty, and limits liability. He’s host of the podcast “Grappling with the Gray,” and his column “The Ethical Lexicon” appears weekly in Fast Company. Visit him at

Submitted 330 days ago
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