Bud Light boycott still hammers local distributors one year later: 'Very upsetting'

NEW YORK — When conservative activists set aflame boxes of Bud Light and urged a boycott in response to an endorsement from a trans influencer last spring, they sent sales of the beer plummeting in a rare success in the long history of consumer movements.

Even more improbably, the backlash continues to hammer Bud Light and strain independent local wholesalers more than a year later, according to third-party sales data shared with ABC News as well as interviews with six Anheuser-Busch wholesalers.

Most of the wholesalers, small- and medium-sized businesses that draw a significant portion of their revenue from Bud Light, said they remain weakened by the decline in sales and uncertain about when, if ever, the brand will fully recover.

The owner of an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in the Northeast, whose child is trans, told ABC News they have taken a 30% pay cut to make up for the losses and are considering retirement.

“It was really hurtful personally,” the owner said. “I’m trying to understand what my kid is going through and then this happens.”

“It’s still very upsetting,” the owner added, noting the company’s Bud Light sales declined by 50% in the immediate aftermath of the boycott. “It’s very difficult to come in every day and look at those sales numbers, knowing I have a responsibility for everyone here.”

Another executive at a wholesaler in the Mid-Atlantic said they have spent sleepless nights devising ways to shed costs without laying off employees; and a top official at a distributor in the Southeast said they expect sales of Bud Light will remain down for at least two more years.

Still, the wholesalers added, harassment of employees and drinkers has faded, indicating the boycott fervor has died down and the brand reputation of Bud Light has begun to mend. Many of the wholesalers said sales had improved lately and Bud Light remains their top-selling beer.

The wholesalers requested anonymity because they didn't want to be publicly identified speaking about the financial consequences of the boycott. In all, roughly 500 independent distributors sell Anheuser-Busch products nationwide.

In response to ABC News' request for comment, a spokesperson at Anheuser-Busch touted the success of Bud Light and the company's relationship with wholesalers.

“Bud Light continues to be the number one selling beer brand in the country because for decades it has been synonymous with programs and activations that consumers love, including partnerships with the NFL, NHL, UFC, and College Football," the spokesperson said.

"As we have for nearly a century, we continue to work side-by-side with our 350+ wholesaler partners to drive growth for our collective business and provide best-in-class service to our consumers and retailers across the country," the spokesperson added.

Sales of Bud Light declined by roughly 25% over the weeks following a product endorsement from Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, which sparked backlash among many conservatives last April, according to data from Bump Williams Consulting and Nielsen NIQ obtained by ABC News.

In a video posted on Instagram, Mulvaney held a specially designed can of Bud Light featuring an illustration of her. The can, Mulvaney said, included a message congratulating her on "365 days of womanhood."

Until April of this year, sales of the beer stayed stuck at the same level while the boycott persisted, Dave Williams, the president of Bump Williams Consulting, told ABC News.

“Sales cratered and sat there. They didn’t get any worse but they sure as heck didn’t get any better,” Williams said. “I don’t think there are a lot of examples where the king of the castle, someone in such prominence, took such a public and drastic hit in beer.”

In recent months, sales have shown signs of improvement but remain well below pre-boycott levels, Williams added, noting that some customers appear to have returned to the brand as the social stigma has waned while others remain steadfast in their opposition.

“The goal is to retain the consumers they have and hopefully try to win some back.”

An executive at a wholesaler in the Southeast said Bud Light sales plummeted by at least 20% in the aftermath of the boycott and remained at that level for the rest of 2023. The blow to the balance sheet hurt company morale and raised questions about the firm’s future, the executive said.

“We’ve got employees who expected a career helping to build this brand and this business,” the executive added. “To have that undone was a bit of a shock, to say the least.”

In recent months, hostility toward the brand has faded, sales have stabilized and morale has improved, the executive added, acknowledging that sales still stand well below pre-boycott levels.

“Once a consumer drops off a product -- where there is a readily available and similarly priced substitute -- a habit has formed and it’s difficult to shake that habit,” the executive said. “We have to give them a reason to come back.”

Williams said Bud Light has returned to its spot as the top-selling U.S. beer by volume, even if revenue has lagged. Meanwhile, other Anheuser-Busch beer brands are performing better than they did before the boycott.

Some wholesalers expressed optimism about Bud Light's outlook and praised Anheuser-Busch for providing financial support in response to the sales slump. They also downplayed the boycott's impact, attributing much of the sales decline to a wider shift away from beer to other alcoholic drinks.

“The beer industry -- no matter what product you’re selling -- is down in sales,” Tom Davis, director of operations at Maryland-based Katcef Brothers, Inc., an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, told ABC News. “That has a bigger impact on beer sales than anything.”

An Anheuser-Busch spokesperson shared a statement from a wholesaler with ABC News.

"Anheuser-Busch recognizes the vital role their wholesaler partners play in the business, and last year they stepped in to provide critical resources to ensure we were positioned to continue serving our consumers and communities across the country," Sarah Matesich Schwab, President of Ohio-based Matesich Distributing, said in the statement.

"There’s lots of positive momentum in the system, and we are focused on strengthening our partnership so that we can continue to grow and succeed together," Matesich Schwab added.

The enduring impact of the Bud Light boycott defies a decadeslong history of largely ineffective consumer boycotts, Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business who studies consumer movements, told ABC News.

The continued struggle of Bud Light owes to the easy availability of similar products as well as the highly polarized political environment nationwide, Schweitzer said.

“Given the history of boycotts and its history of ineffectiveness, it is really surprising that this one has had the staying power that it has,” Schweitzer told ABC News.

“In this moment, we’re so politicized,” Schweitzer added. “The weather is political, the employment rate is political and now beer is political.”

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