The creator shared her experience and thoughts with some of the world’s most influential marketing chiefs.
“I don’t think a boycott over a trans girl drinking beer was on any of our 2023 Bingo cards, but here we are” said Dylan Mulvaney, the actress, comedienne, and creator.
Here we are indeed—but where is that? Lately, it’s a place of anxiety, fear, uncertainty, challenge, and frequent discomfort. A place where equality, inclusion and beer have become political, and where most everyone is waiting for the next crisis to appear.
Mulvaney spoke with me last week at the Forbes CMO Summit in Miami. It was one of her first major public talks since the Bud Light boycott thrust Mulvaney, who did nothing but accept an offer to be one of 100 social media influencers hired as part of a branded March Madness campaign, further into the national spotlight and conversation. No doubt in ways she did not want to be.
At the risk of conflating the deeply personal with the professional, we’re also at a place and time where many brands, businesses and marketers can take lessons from —and find courage in—her story. Here are five from our conversation.
1. You’re Marketing to Humans Not Data Points
“Transness” Mulvaney said, “is 1% of what makes me me. There’s all these other parts, and when it comes to marketing, we get put in boxes; it’s so limiting.”
There’s meaning beyond her words and beyond those whose fundamental rights to simply exist are being challenged. Marketers are not immune to the reductive and, like Kid Rock, no few have also reduced Dylan to just one disaggregated part of who she is.
Mulvaney hopes that “as people experience other Dylan’s in their lives, they can see us for who we are and not who they want to paint us to be.” In Mulvaney’s case and as above, she’s also a comedienne, an actress, a creator, and a 26-year-old who “really would love to have kids one day.”
Speaking more broadly, the same can be said—and offered as a watch out for— equally reductive, data-driven marketing, which too often relegates and defines people as “consumers,” “customers”, or a “TAM” (total addressable market.) In other words, based solely on their potential transactional value, losing sight of their humanity, and of the intersectional identities that will shape if and why they’ll buy from you—or not.
2. Choose People—and Profits Will Follow
Recently named to the Forbes Top Creators List with earnings of some two milllion dollars in the past year, Mulvaney is an entrepreneur, marketer, and brand unto herself. And like so many of her generation (Z), and increasing numbers of conscious consumers across all generations, she believes “there’s a world where we can have profit, but we can also choose people.”
What this means and what increasing amounts of data shows is that the interests of shareholders are increasingly well-served by acting in the interests of stakeholders. Kid Rock and his regressive ilk define this pejoratively as “woke capitalism.” But for the extremist conservatives threatening businesses with “go woke, go broke” promises, this remains a hope but not objective reality. Few are the boycotts (fromneither side of the political divide) that has had any material effect, as thoseagainst Nike, Starbucks, Goya, Chick-fil-A demonstrate.
Bud Light is an exception, their brand and business materially affected, at least in the short-term. What’s less clear is whether it’s the initial boycott and/or how the company handled the moment that exacerbated the impact. Because while many have labelled this the “Dylan Mulvaney Controversy”—as if it were Mulvaney who did something wrong—it is not that, and the response by AB InBev, Bud Light’s parent company, will no doubt be taught for years in businesses schools as a case study of what not to do. Indeed, the best thing one can say about how the company handled this is that if they set out to handle it horribly, they succeeded brilliantly.
Mulvaney was speaking to a group that, in aggregate, represented over $20 billion dollars in annual marketing spending, noting at one point that as “I look around this room, I see a bunch of faces that have the potential to really change my life and mycommunity’s life for the better.” She respectfully challenged the room to confront their own fears, asking “are we going to be the companies and the people that have to right their wrongs after the fact, or are we going to dig in and find ways to really progress things?”
3. Allyship and “Inclusive Marketing” Are Different Things.
“A lot of brands like to label themselves as allies” Mulvaney told the audience, “but you should let us, the community, give you that title. I think that should be an honor that’s appointed…”
While she never once spoke the words “Bud Light” or “Anheuser Busch,” from Mulvaney’s perspective and lived experience, “if you’re going to ask us to capitalize on our vulnerabilities and traumas, at the very least have our backs when the going gets tough.” In another moment, she added that “looking back to what happened in April, that was such an opportunity for that brand to kind of step up and make a stand.”
But “that brand” did not, nor did many others with whom the Creator had worked in the past. Concerns about inciting their own “controversy” remains quite a motivator, or demotivator as the case may be, even when economic might is on the side of the majority and not the louder minority. In fact, data from GLAAD, one of the leading LGBTQ advocacy organizations, shows that 91% of non-LGBTQ Americans think LGBTQ Americans should be able to live without discrimination (raising serious questions about the other 9%) and that 70% agree companies should demonstrate support for the LGBTQ community.
For Mulvaney, “supporting or hiring trans people shouldn’t be political. And the people that are trying to make it be, they’re bigots. If we give in to them, they win.” But as corporate ESG efforts—from sustainability to diversity—have become politicized, the implications of Mulvaney’s point extend beyond the LGBTQ community to other historically under-represented populations as, to some, this long overdue equality is considered their oppression.
Despite the culture-wars climate, marketers should consider that allyship once conferred adds to brand reputation and that, today, reputation scales but marketing budgets do not.
4. Don’t Play It Safe.
“We’re all scared to say the wrong thing or mess up” Mulvaney empathetically shared with the room of chief marketers, whose understanding of the sentiment is acute. Few were the Summit attendees who, at some point and over some issue, haven’t been scared of exactly this, a recurring theme through the three days of the gathering.
Indeed, the unmitigated Bud Light fiasco, has caused many businesses to flee to the perceived safety of the sidelines, the intent of the loud but relatively small cohort of conservative extremists who threw fuel on Kid Rock’s fire. But as Tacitus, a Greek philosopher, said some 2000 years ago “the desire for safety stands in the way of every great and noble enterprise.” It still does, 2000 years later.
Mulvaney understands this well, sharing earlier “I’m so tired of being scared in my life. I spent so many years feeling little,” and that regardless of context, “none of us want to be having these difficult conversations, (they’re not) something that sparks joy, but we’re here and we have to.”
Again, at the risk of conflating the deeply, intimately, and fundamentally personal with the professional, at an inflection point for marketing and CMOs, this too is another lesson and bravery many would do well to apply, at a point of inflection for marketers and marketing.
Marketers can no longer afford to let the case for inaction, the desire for the safety of their jobs and/or their brands, trump the case for action. This is for all facets of marketing and business today, not just the “pro-social.”
As the late ad-legend Bill Bernbach said, “no matter what you do, there will be some people for you and some people against you” which speaks to the unresolved tension between those who don’t want brands to step out of their “swim lanes” and a growing majority increasingly expecting businesses to be drivers of change and progress.
5. You Can’t Control Much—But You Can Control How You Respond
As has been well established, through no doing of her own besides just being, Mulvaney’s was a brand (and humanity) hijacked by circumstances beyond her control; something every chief-marketer gives thought to.
And her initial response to coming “under attack (was that) I started making content with them in mind. I started filtering what I was saying, thinking about these people, and not the 12 million people that had hit that follow button in the first place. And if we’re catering to people that don’t buy our products or that don’t love us, then what’s the point to any of this?”
At the risk of over-simplifying, marketers should consider the difference in response from Target and Walmart this past Pride month. Both were threatened by groups for their Pride activations. Target was seen to “give in,” which, like ABI, alienated everyone and diluted decades of support, while Walmart, made no changes to its plans, emerging stronger for it.
The night before taking the stage at last week’s Summit, Mulvaney, took to Instagram Stories asking her community for help in picking the right shoe to go with her stage outfit. Coincidentally, the choices were red or blue.
This was far from the first time Mulvaney turned to her community for help making sense of decisions big and small. She’s spent a lifetime forced to make sense of things many of us can’t begin to imagine. Which makes the infectious sense of humor and optimism she projects all the more extraordinary.
Earlier in our conversation, Mulvaney shared that she’d “seen change first hand. My family is extremely conservative Catholic, and yet they’ve been able to accept me as the woman that I am this year.”
As the acceptance Mulvaney found this past year from her family shows, positive change often comes slowly, until it doesn’t—but it only rarely comes from playing it safe. You can put that on your 2024 Bingo card.