There’s no such thing as bad PR. Or is there? 

8 September 2023 | 6 min read | PR
James Gwinnett
James Gwinnett

In my April blog I explored Nike’s and Bud Light’s use of trans woman Dylan Mulvaney as an ambassador in their advertising. I asked whether these campaigns were a bad idea? 

Well, yes. A really bad idea, as it turns out. 

The backlash against the quintessentially American beer, which included Kid Rock emptying the magazine of a semiautomatic weapon into a case, has been eyewatering. Various sources (Fortune, The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, etc) put the losses somewhere in the region of 5% of market share and around $400 million in sales – a drop of a quarter on the previous year.

Arguably of most significance, though, was the most popular beer amongst our rootin’ tootin’ cousins across the pond being bumped off the no.1 spot, a position it had held for more than two decades. 

On a tangent, the response of parent company Anheuser-Busch added fuel to the fire. Or more accurately the lack of one.

After confirming the partnership, AB went into stealth mode while the controversy unfolded, with the company’s VP of Comms, Jennifer Morris, even locking her account on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

A whole 10 days later AB finally admitted a mistake, but only by way of a ‘leak’ that the campaign hadn’t been run past senior executives, “the leading theory [being] that a Leftist manager secretly did it on their own to push the trans agenda”. 

I could write a separate essay on the basic principles of crisis communications for a brand in such situations but, suffice to say, doing nothing isn’t among them.

What’s more, Mulvaney herself turned on Bud Light, criticising the brand for its lack of support in the wake of the controversies – a remarkable u-turn from her originally posting “possibly the best gift ever”, in response to the can with her face on it.

So, after alienating its core demographic, and then the section of the market that the stunt was aimed at, it’s no wonder that the whole campaign was a cataclysmic flop. 

Back to April, and I also questioned whether the old adage is true, that “There’s no such thing as bad PR”? Well, it would seem absolutely not – the phrase, coined in the 19th Century, is woefully out of date in the 21st. The simple reason? People care. 

Costa Coffee is another major brand that has recently come under the spotlight for a transgender marketing blunder.

A mural of a post-operative trans man enjoying a coffee was criticised for being “grotesque”, “sinister”, “obscene”, and “an insult to women”, the argument being that it glorified an irreversible procedure that is often associated with the exploitation of vulnerable young women, mutilation and breast cancer. 

Costa’s stance – it offered one, at least – was that the mural celebrated the diversity of its customers, encouraging “everyone that interacts with us to experience the inclusive environment that we create”.

But, even a bold statement such as this didn’t stop social media being overrun with the hashtag #BoycottCostaCoffee. Many will never buy the brand again, myself included. 

Of course, we’re still talking about it, and Costa is yet to publish its sales figures for the summer. So, only time will tell as to whether one less decaf latte (my order) here and one less soya flat white to go there will cause the brand to follow in the footsteps of Bud Light and be knocked off its pedestal – it’s currently the UK’s largest coffee chain. (I also prefer the taste of Caffè Nero coffee anyway, but that’s another debate entirely.) 

Whether that happens or not, the issue I have with these campaigns is that they smack of jumping on the bandwagon – I recently came across the phrase “virtue signalling in pursuit of profits”.

Most significantly, they don’t take the brand’s customer base into consideration, something that is crucial in the age of the increasingly savvy consumer.

As I said before, people care; that means they want to know how their products are made, where the materials are being sourced, how the suppliers are cared for and, most importantly, whether the brands they lovingly buy share their values. 

“The issue I have with these campaigns is that they smack of jumping on the bandwagon.”

Of course, nothing’s black and white. In stark contrast, J.K. Rowling has been one of the most outspoken activists about how trans issues affect women’s rights, being called “transphobic” and a “fascist”.

Yet Harry Potter proved a UK lockdown hit in the months after Rowling initially expressed her views – despite the trans community calling for a boycott – and in the two and a half years since supposedly being ‘cancelled’, her book sales have risen. I’ll leave you to figure that one out. 

In the meantime, Bud Light’s downfall came from its seemingly simple message to its loyal legions of followers: “We don’t care about you.” It’s a message that is seeing brands the world overcome a cropper, thinking they can get away with deplorable acts such as greenwashing, without us finding out. 

But, guess what. There’s no hiding. Companies ranging from Volkswagen, to BP, to Coca-Cola, to Etihad, to Ikea, to Barclays and many, many more, have been called out for trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Research even suggests that as much as half of green claims are exaggerated or even false. 

According to the Harvard Business Review:

“Greenwashing negatively impacts a customer’s experience with a company’s product or service.”

The same is true with socialwashing (companies that wrongly market themselves as socially conscious), pinkwashing (empty support of the LGBTQ+ community) and genderwashing (false activities regarding gender equality). In March, the latter was especially a focus of my colleague Lucie’s blog exploring how a business’ purpose, not profits, must drive its marketing initiatives. 

The Bud Light scenario highlights the importance of companies knowing their customers, and the importance those customers place on authenticity. Where brands could historically rely on customer loyalty, this is fading in the competitive commercial world of today. 

Customer experience and the knowledge that companies are trying – genuinely – to do some good in the world are what count nowadays.

In short, it’s no good detailing your investments in climate-friendly initiatives if you’re also pumping millions oil and gas projects (ahem, HSBC), or posting a tweet about International Women’s Day if you’ve got a sizeable gender pay gap (most companies).

“Where brands could historically rely on customer loyalty, this is fading in the competitive commercial world of today.” 

Instead, companies should be allocating budget to effective research that identifies the values of their customers and rethinking their initiatives so that they’re not solely based on getting PR – because, if done for the wrong reasons, it will inevitably be bad PR. 

And yes, there’s such a thing.