Published: June 7, 2023

By Joe Arney

As president of Boulder-based Young Ideas, Morgan Young has helped his share of major companies navigate crises and put out public relations fires.

“Your brand has to be able to say, ‘We know we can’t make everybody happy, but we don’t have to sell to everybody.’”
- Morgan Young, teaching assistant professor
Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design

But Bud Light’s campaign with a social media influencer and the resulting outrage from a portion of its customer base—which emptied AR-15s at beer cans on social media—even has him scratching his head.

“I just don’t know what the thought process was,” said Young, a teaching assistant professor at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information. “It came across as so inauthentic, especially when they attacked their own customers and said the campaign was a way to approach a new fan base. And then they alienated the LGBTQ community by backing away when their customers started shooting cans of beer.

“You know, I’m from San Francisco. It’s an urban center with a long progressive history on many issues, including LGBTQ issues, and I haven’t seen a lot of Bud Light in my time at any event I’ve ever attended. And Bud Light is not going to change that just because you put Dylan Mulvaney’s face on a can of light beer.”

Being authentic, Young and other CMCI experts said, means meaningful engagement with the LGBTQ community, a year-round commitment to supporting gay rights and understanding that a brand can’t please everyone.

“There’s more to this than whether your Twitter handle is a Pride flag,” said Jamie Skerski, a teaching associate professor and director of the Josephine Jones Speaking Lab. “Being authentic in this space means evaluating your actual company practices—everything from promoting inclusive benefits to having gender-neutral bathrooms.”

If you’re just rainbow washing, “a savvy consumer will quickly smell out a marketing gimmick,” Young said—especially when those gimmicks don’t align with our own values, a challenge for communicators in the age of social media-created echo chambers.

Consumers ‘have more power now’

Brands, he said, no longer have the luxury of staying on the sidelines, especially when consumers have more power than ever to create controversy with a tweet.

“As consumers, we have more power now. Brands really need to adjust to that reality—and they have to stick by their values once they start getting hit from a segment that is not their customer. Your brand has to be able to say, ‘We know we can’t make everybody happy, but we don’t have to sell to everybody.’”

Both professors pointed to different brands—OpenTable, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nike, Old Navy, Pop Tarts, Skittles and others—that aren’t shy about messaging that chooses a side.

“For me, it comes down to a business decision that is about values, as opposed to being about one customer base or another,” Skerski said. “What it’s going to take is those brands saying, we’re not going to open any more stores in Florida, or we’re not going to have our tournaments in states that are taking reproductive rights away from women.”

During June, she said, OpenTable’s dining reservation app recommended nearby gay-owned restaurants, “which is what Pride month should be about—finding tangible ways to support the LGBTQ community, both politically and economically.”

Meanwhile, Young said, “when I was a kid, the bad guy was Nike,” a company whose leadership seemingly embraced child labor in developing countries to help it become a global sports brand. But most of its brand ambassadors are influential people of color, and when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, “they realized they couldn’t sit on the sidelines.”

That helped usher in its Dream Crazy campaign, supporting people of color and the LGBTQ community with athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Serena Williams. Its Kaepernick ad featured the athlete delivering the line “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

“They lost a certain audience, but they also found a very new audience,” he said. “And I think Nike was able to look at the arc of society, and say, this is where we think society is going. But most importantly, this is the kind of brand that we want to be.”