NatWest and Bud Light were both brought low by polarisation, but the dynamics are very different.
This year, two of the world’s biggest businesses – AB InBev and NatWest – have destroyed billions in brand equity and shareholder value by inadvertently triggering polarised audiences, leading some commentators to call the resignation of NatWest CEO Dame Alison Rose, Britain’s ‘Bud Light moment.’
In the US, sales of America’s most popular beer collapsed after Bud Light partnered with a trans influencer and have never recovered, despite massive marketing spend to rehabilitate the brand in the eyes of disenchanted customers.
In the UK, the world’s eighth-oldest bank became embroiled in controversy after it cut off one of its most famous clients because Nigel Farage wasn’t on-brand. The decision ultimately led to the resignation of the CEO of parent company NatWest and may yet claim other scalps.
But polarisation comes in many forms, and the two cases were the result of two different types of polarisation that MHP Group and Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab have been working together to track.
The disasters share similarities:
- They were self-inflicted wounds from senior leaders determined to reshape their customer base, even if that meant damaging relationships with established customers
- The decision-makers operated in echo-chambers, and stumbled on to culture war landmines when their seemingly-minor calls became cause celebres in pre-existing debates about values and identity
- Both businesses assumed that early support from the media would protect them from a growing backlash, underestimating how quickly and ferociously polarised audiences can be mobilised
- Audience outrage was compounded by grudging non-apologies from businesses that felt unwilling or unable to back down from values-based decisions
And as both stories snowballed, the debate tended to divide commentators along traditional political fault lines.
In the case of Bud Light, Democratic politicians posed awkwardly for photos, pretending to enjoy their new favourite brewski. In the case of Coutts, Brexit critics like Jon Sopel, Will Hutton and Alastair Campbell abandoned reason in order to dunk on one of the Leave campaign’s most famous faces.
But it was not political partisanship that fuelled either backlash. They were expressions of two different forms of polarisation, which the MHP Polarisation Tracker has identified as growing challenges for communicators.
The Bud Light backlash was the result of anti-elite polarisation.
This is the belief (widely held on both the left and right) that there is a single system of elites operating together against the interests of regular people in pursuit of its own political agenda. This view says that supposed checks and balances between business, politics, the media and other institutions are a lie – that elites are “all in it together” and out of touch with the wider public.
While the issue of trans rights was the trigger in the case of Bud Light, the boycott continues to draw its energy from this wider resentment. Bud Light – and the executives behind it – seemed indifferent to the preferences of its customers. The ultimate ‘switch your brain off and have a good time’ brand was now another vector for political proselytising.
The Bud Light boycott was a grassroots movement (albeit one given greater impetus by musicians, commentators and other influencers) that succeeded in making Bud Light uncool and untouchable for many of its traditional drinkers.
Anti-elite polarisation renders traditional reputational strategies useless, since every defence from opinion elites only serves to reinforce the audience belief that elites are operating together in opposition to the public.
The Coutts backlash, by contrast, was fuelled by intra-elite polarisation.
This is about a growing sense of disenfranchisement among some elites, who believe that their ideological enemies are not only dominant, but actively seeking to marginalise them. It’s a belief that has found expression in everything from academic Matthew Goodwin’s critique of what he calls a “New Elite”, to Fund Manager Terry Smith’s attack on Unilever’s focus on brand purpose.
The purging of Farage was therefore emblematic of a wider concern that progressive elites have too much power and are too willing to use it to silence their enemies. In this, it is closer in nature to arguments about deplatforming of speakers at elite universities than it is to the Bud Light boycott.
There was of course a sincerely held concern about freedom of expression and creeping totalitarianism, but this principle is always most dearly cherished by those who feel marginalised.
While Farage is a populist with significant support among the wider public, the backlash came in the form of pressure applied by an organised minority via elite channels. Sympathetic politicians and journalists were swift in their condemnation once the Telegraph published its 40-page dossier, and the pressure became irresistible.
NatWest might have been able to mount a credible reputational defence of its decision, had it not compounded the problem by misleading journalists about its motives and violating client confidentiality.
While different, these two cases powerfully illustrate something that the MHP Polarisation Tracker has been alerting us to for some time – namely that promoting progressive political positions is no-longer risk-free for business. From Just Stop Oil to Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, activism eventually produces a backlash.
There are legitimate reasons for businesses to advance political positions and goals, but communications teams should be clear-eyed about the potential costs and consequences associated with this activity and must work hard to understand the beliefs, motivations and values of their customers and stakeholders. It is also important to understand the nature of the polarisation fuelling any backlash, because the strategy required in response will be very different.
Without greater audience understanding, many more corporate disasters lie ahead.