Will Bud Light’s celebrity-heavy Super Bowl strategy win consumers back?

(Photo credit: AB InBev, used with permission)
(Photo credit: AB InBev, used with permission)

The beer brand is leaning into partnerships with straight white men. Marketers say this might work for its lapsed customers, but few others.

Bud Light has released its 60-second Super Bowl LVIII ad spot starring Sonny Valicenti, Peyton Manning, Post Malone and Dana White. The ad is part of its Easy to Drink, Easy to Enjoy platform, which debuted during Super Bowl LVII with an ad starring Miles and Keleigh Teller. 

Easy Night Out follows a group of friends that get visited by the “Bud Light Genie” (Valicenti), who grants all of their wishes for the most epic night out they can imagine. The celebrities appear as the genie fills their wishes to be drinking buddies with Manning and Malone, and to be at a UFC wrestling match.

The group’s wishes grow in absurdity until they find themselves at a house party with a dinosaur — at Post Malone’s behest. The ad ends with one friend wishing to go to Super Bowl LVIII — which might be a hint that the ad will play at the end of a commercial break and transition back to the game.

Super Bowl LVIII is the first Big Game since Bud Light mishandled its social media partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney in the spring. The ad marks its return to the biggest stage in advertising — one which, as the NFL’s official beer sponsor, it has graced for decades. 

The spot will serve to many as a reintroduction to the embattled brand. Bud Light parent company AB InBev is investing heavily in the Super Bowl to revive its business, with a total of seven 30-second spots for Bud Light, Michelob Ultra and Budweiser airing throughout the broadcast. 

Teasers indicate that all three brands will rely on a few universally appealing tropes, such as celebrity appearances, nostalgia or dogs and other animals, to reach as broad of an audience as possible — and upset no one. 

All of AB InBev’s ads feature a dog, and Budweiser brought back the Clydesdales for a nostalgic play. Michelob Ultra cast soccer star Lionel Messi, actor Jason Sudeikis and football Hall of Famer Dan Marino for its beachy ad. 

Notably, all of the celebrity talent featured across AB InBev’s Super Bowl ads are straight white men, save for Messi, who is Argentinian.

While the Bud Light ad includes a woman and a Black man as part of the friend group, the celebrity talent and main characters are white men who are presumably straight. 

As a result, the ad offers insight into Bud Light’s strategy to win back customers — and who it hopes to appeal to. 

According to Natalie Bunting, strategist at integrated marketing agency Iris, “Bud Light is trying to play it safe by leaning into universally appealing themes.”

“But by not acknowledging some of the sensitivities of last year, they do seem to be alienating a significant portion of — though maybe not their core audience — America,” she adds. 

Signs point to risk-aversion

Given the size and high-profile nature of the investment, many Super Bowl advertisers are looking to mitigate risk — and Bud Light is no different. 

In addition to casting four celebrities for its Super Bowl LVIII ad, it also snuck in a dog cameo, with the genie turning a leering man at the bar into a harmless golden retriever to save a woman from unsolicited flirting.

Further, all of the talent featured have loyal ties to the brand: Malone, Valicenti and Manning have all starred in previous campaigns, and Bud Light has a partnership with UFC, where White is CEO and president. In other words, these celebrities have already been accepted by the brand’s audience.

“[Bud Light] is in full damage control, still trying to repair the brand from last year,” says Bunting. “So sticking to the tried and tested endorsements that they’ve seen perform well in the past, from their perspective, likely feels like a safe place to be.”

AB InBev blamed its North America second- and third-quarter revenue declines — 10% and 13.5%, respectively, according to earnings reports — on Bud Light’s drag in sales and brand performance in the aftermath of the backlash surrounding its Mulvaney partnership.

As a result, Bud Light’s marketing strategy has consistently leaned into safe bets, like targeting lovers of country music and football, since the debacle.

Bud Light’s summer 2023 campaign, Easy to Summer, included an ad showing beachgoers lounging while drinking Bud Light, as well as others starring football players like Travis Kelce. Its Easy to Sunday campaign, which kicked off prior to the 2023-2024 NFL season, showed football fans watching the game with beers in hand. 

And in the months leading up to the Super Bowl, it released the Easy Rounds campaign featuring NFL hall-of-famers Peyton Manning and Emmitt Smith. 

While this approach might reinvigorate the consumers Bud Light lost when partnering with Mulvaney, it won’t necessarily reinforce brand loyalty or appeal to new consumers, notes Greg Gayle, art director at Design Bridge and Partners. 

In playing it safe, he adds, “nothing really stood out” in its Super Bowl ad. “It’s very typical and obvious; my initial reaction was, ‘I don’t think I’m going to remember this tomorrow.’” 

Especially during an event like the Super Bowl, when “there’s a few brands that break the mold and stand out,” relying on tropes likely won’t make it the most memorable of the night, he adds.

The current state of Bud Light’s brand perception

Perhaps more than any other advertiser in this year’s Big Game, Bud Light is likely feeling the pressure to appeal to a general audience with disparate political views — especially after it dipped a toe in divisive political waters last year. 

“It's an interesting place to be as a brand when your core audience who, naturally, you care the most about, is also the most infuriated by the position that you took last year,” notes Bunting.

Bud Light enters the Super Bowl fray as its lost consumers are ready to return to the brand. In an earnings call last October, AB InBev CEO Michel Doukeris said over 40% of Bud Light’s lapsed drinkers were ready to come back to the brand. And according to YouGov’s brand index, purchase intent and consideration for Bud Light has steadily increased over the past few months.

“What we’re seeing is the audiences that were negatively impacted at [the time of the Mulvaney campaign] are starting to move back up closer to, or in the direction of, where metrics were for the brand before,” notes Nicole Pike, YouGov’s senior vice president, head of sports and gaming. 

After the Mulvaney partnership, brand sentiment for Bud Light was the worst among people who identify as Republican and Baby Boomers. While these groups have since become more favorable of Bud Light, they have been the slowest to regain positive sentiment.

But in the past two months, the tide has turned, as brand perception and purchase intent has risen faster among these demographics. These metrics have also stabilized among Independents, with Republicans “getting closer to where Independents are now,” adds Pike. Likewise, Gen Z and millennials’ sentiments toward Bud Light have crept back up faster than Boomers.

According to YouGov’s data, brand perception and purchase intent among Gen Z and Democrats both increased in the aftermath of the Mulvaney partnership, and did not substantially falter after Anheuser-Busch walked back the partnership. These groups seemed to have “attached more to what Bud Light was trying to accomplish with the initial action,” notes Pike.

So while Bud Light’s Super Bowl play might bring back its once-devoted fans, marketers warn that it could also fall flat for diverse demographics. Without continuing to make progressive statements or place value on representation, it’s not likely that underrepresented groups will show continued loyalty toward Bud Light. 

“Not just young audiences, but everyone is now seeking connections with brands differently to how they were 10 or 15 years ago,” notes Gayle, and that includes representation and inclusion. 

According to Bunting, Bud Light is “being really clear as a brand about who their audience is,” with lits Super Bowl campaign. “Will this resonate with that core white male audience? Likely, yes.”

“The question becomes, well, are you trying to attract [a more diverse] audience?” Gayle adds.

Perhaps Bud Light “hopes that not saying anything [about the past controversy] will repair the wounds — but not saying anything is a stance in itself,” Bunting says.

She adds, “Though it's not necessarily explicit, it's quite obvious that choosing not to acknowledge or take a stance on issues they teased [support of] last year will definitely have effects on the brand.”

“I can understand the thinking that, ‘well, the majority of our audience is white males from X background, so we have to cater to that audience,’” says Gayle. “But with more representation, you're going to get more connectivity — and I think [Bud Light] kind of misses that.”

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