Bud Light’s marketing quagmire: A calculated risk, or another $100 million mistake? 

—Critics say that Bud Light’s new UFC sponsorship is another marketing blunder. But Eric Blais wonders if it could actually be a statement of intent.—

In the world of branding, not all mistakes are unintentional. Sometimes, what appears to be a glaring error might just be a calculated move.

And as we dissect Bud Light’s marketing decisions—each seemingly more problematic than the last—it’s worth asking: are they blunders, or are they carefully calculated risks?

Bud Light stepped into controversy earlier this year by working with transgender social media influencer, Dylan Mulvaney.

The backlash was immediate, severe, and perhaps predictable. Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth tried to downplay the debacle as “just one can,” but that lone can seemed to simultaneously hold the weight of the entire LGBTQ+ community and its detractors.

A-B’s embarrassing mismanagement of the controversy alienated both sides, sales tumbled by 26%, and the brand was engulfed in a socio-political storm it claimed to have wanted to avoid.

Fresh from this quagmire, Bud Light has now walked into what some commentators are calling another mistake—a $100-million sponsorship deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

“Anheuser-Busch desperately wants Bud Light to go back to being the beer you drink while watching football or having a barbecue,” wrote Daniel Kline for The Street. “[W]ith its latest massive sponsorship deal, Bud Light has waded deeply back into politics even if it didn’t mean to.”

Given that one of UFC’s stars, Sean Strickland, openly espouses views that are transphobic and sexist, it seemed like Bud Light has not done its homework. How could a brand that had just experienced a PR disaster make such a naive decision?

“Hey guys, I’m on my way to training and I just found out Bud Light is a new sponsor (of the UFC), and God damn I applaud you guys,” says Strickland in the video. “I’m so f**king proud of you guys for doing the right things after that f**k up.” 

 “You know how I feel about transgenders. I go f**king hard. Just what I do. I’m the biggest advocate of biological females. If I said my views on transgenders I would get kicked off Instagram,” he continued. 

Here’s where we should pause and consider the pivot: what if Anheuser-Busch knew exactly what it was doing?

If we look beyond the surface, it’s hard to believe that a company as large and experienced as Anheuser-Busch didn’t conduct due diligence before signing a hefty sponsorship deal.

In a world where social media makes it nearly impossible for controversial statements to go unnoticed, it’s implausible that the brand was not aware of Strickland’s views or the UFC’s own fraught history with transgender issues.

Could it be that, rather than another misstep, this is a statement of intent? Bud Light’s alignment with UFC—an organization with a significant following among a demographic that may not be as progressive on social issues—could be a nod to this audience. In a sense, the brand might be choosing a side in a debate it initially claimed to be above.

AB InBev’s CEO Michel Doukeris said that his company should stay away from political conversations, and that “everything should be about beer.” However, in a world where consumers demand brands to be ethical actors, staying neutral is rarely an option.

By associating with the UFC, Bud Light may be implicitly saying that it doesn’t mind associating with an organization that permits regressive views. And, whether by accident or design, it signals to a specific demographic that Bud Light is their brand of choice—a beer for those who share similar worldviews to figures like Strickland. (Though some of the real extremists, who are still evidently obsessed with the Mulvaney deal, called for a UFC boycott for doing the deal with Bud Light.)

While the move risks alienating progressive consumers and adding another chapter to their series of PR missteps, it also has the potential to solidify Bud Light’s customer base among those who agree with their latest partner’s outlook. At a time when the brand is trying to recover lost market share, that’s not an insignificant factor.

So, is Bud Light’s UFC deal another $100-million mistake, or is it a $100-million statement? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear: In today’s culture, where every can and every endorsement carries more weight than ever before, Bud Light’s choices are far from trivial.

They are calculated moves in a high-stakes game of brand positioning, making it evident that in the business of selling beer, it’s not just about hops and barley; it’s also about navigating the fraught terrain of social values and cultural wars. Some may see it as a mistake, but I think it’s clear where Bud Light stands—or at least, where it wants its consumer base to believe it stands.

Eric Blais