When Issue Marketing Exploits

Yesterday, AB InBev (ABI) posted a video in an attempt at internet virality—and to revive their fading “Rita” empire. Let’s have a look at the evidence first:

Is this a sincere effort to support women? I mean, it has a hashtag! The backstory, summarized by Adweek, goes like this:

According to the brand, words like “basic,” “gross” and “trashy” are often used to mock its products, which include Lime-A-Rita, Mang-O-Rita, Water-Melon-Rita and the like. Looking at this not-so-great feedback, Ritas couldn’t help but notice that these are often words used to describe women as well. To call attention to this, the brand’s print ad encourages women to own these labels instead of feeling ashamed of them.

Maybe! I mean, ABI has long been known as a champion of women! But you might suspect, as I do, a different scenario. Looking at falling sales—the Ritas are currently down 10% on the year, with losses accelerating in the past month—and the dismal response the beers are getting on social media, a clever agency might have come up with a way of turning the whole debacle into a #MeToo campaign. “Even if it doesn’t help sales,” a slickly cynical marketer might have said, “social justice makes us look good, right?” (The agency was Fallon New York and I haven’t a clue what they were really thinking.) That’s the problem with issue campaigns. When they’re harnessed to product sales, you can never really be sure how sincere they are.

Small breweries are, as a cohort, way more mission-driven than many companies. (There are, of course, outliers.) Many are committed to the environment and spend a lot of money to reduce their footprint without making a big spectacle of it. There are breweries like Ninkasi that are incredibly generous—and again, derive no marketing benefit. (Those a brewery helps may of course feel warmth toward it, but that’s true with any charitable giving or philanthropy.) And many breweries have pet projects they’re interested in and support year after year. I am continually surprised by the anonymous generosity I see in the beer industry.

There can be a dark side to issue-promotion, though. It can be a way of washing away sins—the words “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing” exist for a reason. It can be a way of trying to illuminate your brand with the reflected spotlight of a popular cause. It can just be another way to do garden-variety marketing with an emotional twist.

I noticed recently the sheer number of pride-related beers that were out and got suspicious—until someone pointed out it was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. My suspicions arose because I’d just heard that half the breweries that had joined Sierra Nevada’s “Resilience” effort hadn’t turned in proceeds from sales of the beer. (I hope matters have improved.) We can’t ever really know the motivation behind these marketing pushes, and they can over time can cause consumer cynicism.

As customers, we need to be a little vigilant about issue marketing. There’s an innate appearance of a conflict of interest. Issue marketing by design borrows goodwill from a noncommercial cause to sell beer. If you’re feeling good about supporting a brewery that has a special pride beer out, look to see what else they’ve done for LGBT rights. Look to see how long they have been supporting them. If you really care about that issue, seek out breweries with a proven track record rather than just looking for rainbow labels. It’s a bit more work, but you’re doing the cause a better service if you locate true allies.

And I think we need to be very skeptical of efforts like this Ritas ad. There comes a point when issue marketing isn’t just a little compromised, but actively exploitative. And when we support these products, we become rubes in a scam. Just because a company purports to back a cause or issue doesn’t mean they do. And when they don’t, they make it bad for all the companies that are trying to do the right thing.

Jeff Alworth4 Comments