Anheuser-Busch CEO and Marine Vet Answers Hard Questions About Bud Light Marketing

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Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth appeared on the June 28, 2023 edition of "CBS Mornings." (CBS)

Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth has seen his share of action. First, as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq, then as an officer with the CIA's clandestine service. Yes, the chief of what used to be the country's top beer used to be an American spy.

Hopefully, his experience taught him to handle stress and pressure, because few business leaders have experienced the kind he's felt for the past three months. Whitworth sat down with "CBS Mornings" to open up about the controversy that has embroiled Bud Light since its March 2023 sponsorship agreement with transgender actress Dylan Mulvaney.

"There's a big social conversation taking place right now, and big brands are right in the middle of it," he told the "CBS Mornings" hosts. "It's not just our industry or Bud Light. It's happening in retail, happening in fast food. And so for us, what we need to understand, deeply understand and appreciate, is the consumer and what they want, what they care about and what they expect from big brands."

He would not comment on whether the sponsorship was a mistake, but said he was more concerned about its effect on the company's 65,000 employees, many of whom faced bomb threats and other acts of violence in the face of the sponsorship's conservative backlash.

Whitworth is no stranger to hard work. The Anheuser-Busch chief studied for business school while deployed to Baghdad and prepared to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) during his time at the CIA. After three years in the Marines and five with the agency, he finally attended Harvard Business School.

He was hired by Anheuser-Busch in 2013, and by 2021, he was leading the company as its chief executive. He credits the Marine Corps with giving him the tools to succeed as a leader. Whitworth would need everything the Corps taught him to weather Bud Light's storm of controversy, which sometimes included gunfire (the only things shot were cans of Bud Light).

He began with accountability, namely his own.

"One thing I'd love to make extremely clear is, that impact is my responsibility, and as the CEO, everything we do here, I'm accountable for," Whitworth said. But that's not the whole story.

The beer's vice president of marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid, shifted its marketing to be more inclusive in an effort to attract younger drinkers to the brand. Part of that effort was an influencer deal with transgender social media personality Dylan Mulvaney, who uploaded an Instagram story plugging the beer's March Madness cash giveaway.

Her video also included a photo of a commemorative Bud Light can the beermaker created just for her, celebrating the one-year anniversary of her gender transition. The company only made one special can, just for Mulvaney, but the conservative backlash began almost immediately.

Two days after Mulvaney's upload, singer Kid Rock posted a video of him shooting Bud Light cases with an MP5 submachine gun, saying: "F*** Bud Light and f*** Anheuser-Busch."

"As we look to the future, as we look to moving forward, we have to understand the impact that it's had ..., the impact on our employees, the impact on our consumers and the impact on our partners," Whitworth said.

Since then, other conservative personalities have announced boycotts of Bud Light. It remained America's top-selling beer until early June 2023, when it was eclipsed by Modelo Especial. The stock price of Bud Light's parent company, AB InBev, has dropped 20% since the boycott, and the company has lost an estimated $27 billion in value, according to Dow Jones Market Data Group.

"It's been a challenging few weeks," Whitworth said. "I think the conversation surrounding Bud Light has moved away from beer, and the conversation has become divisive. And Bud Light really doesn't belong there. Bud Light should be all about bringing people together, and there's an impact on the business."

When pressed by CBS' Tony Dokoupil on whether he would partner with Mulvaney again, knowing what he knows about the backlash, Whitworth answered without directly answering Dokoupil's question.

"Bud Light has supported LGBTQ since 1998 -- that's 25 years -- and as we've said from the beginning, we'll continue to support the communities and organizations that we've supported for decades," he said.

Whitworth says the company reached out to consumers for their input, and says they essentially told Bud Light to go back to what it does best. The beermaker has since launched its new summer campaign. The new commercial's only social message is that summer is hot and Bud Light is cold. At this point in the segment, it becomes clear that the interview is part of the campaign's launch, as Whitworth uses the language from the new commercial.

To round out his company's damage control, the Anheuser-Busch CEO also said that the company is offering investments to protect the jobs of its "frontline employees" and financial assistance, sales incentives, boosted marketing and help covering the costs of fuel and freight for wholesalers and distributors.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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