This Pride Month, Big Beer Is Pulling Back from ‘Rainbow Capitalism’

One of the more screw-loosening aspects of a reporter’s job is following social media accounts that are relevant to a given beat. On the beer beat, getting barraged day in and out with corporate marketing and brand-friendly “creative” that rarely lives up to its name is enough to make you pretty cynical about the United States’ brewing industry’s conception of itself, its products, and its drinkers.

Roughly halfway through Pride Month 2024, though, it’s not the schlocky digital pinkwashing of America’s biggest breweries that has me feeling like I’m taking crazy pills. It’s the absence thereof. For years, major breweries have joined in the 21st-century corporate tradition of “rainbow capitalism,” festooning their brands’ social media accounts in rainbow garb and loudly proclaiming their LGBTQ+ initiatives. This June, my feed is decidedly more monochromatic. I’m starting to suspect that our dear macrobrewers — they of the multi-billion-dollar market capitalizations and lofty lip-service to diversity — may not be as proud of Pride as they once claimed.

If your job doesn’t require you to spend time online, a) good for you, what’s that like?; and b) you may not be familiar with an annual rite I call the The Corporate Pride Avatar Swap™️. This gambit was so reliable among Fortune 500 companies throughout much of last decade that it became a start-of-summer punchline for the terminally online. As Discourse Blog’s Katherine Krueger wrote in a June 2021 post evaluating the “most evil” firm to ROYGBIV itself on Twitter: “It’s time for globo-mega-corps that behave as de facto states to change all their social media avatars to the rainbow flag to show they love LGBTQ people.” You get the gist.

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This year, things are markedly different. “Some companies that faced online furor and boycott calls last year for supporting Pride Month seem to have backed off this year, either reducing the scope of their Pride marketing campaigns or refraining from making posts celebrating the LGBTQ community on social media,” observed Forbes’ Conor Murray, noting conspicuously rainbow-free accounts of The North Face, the U.S. Navy, and other name-brand entities that had previously embraced the LGBTQ+ celebration. As one Bluesky user joked earlier this month, “Guys. Being queer isn’t commodifiable any more. What do we do[?]”

Corporate communications teams have little interest in acknowledging, much less explicating, this sudden institutional pivot. We do, though, and the driving factor behind it is obvious. The transphobic backlash against Bud Light last spring, and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s disastrous response to it, has scared a chunk of Corporate America shitless.

“Nobody in the media, marketing and advertising world wants to admit how heavy and hard this has been,” Matt Skallerud, the president of Pink Media, an agency that specializes in LGBTQ+ campaigns, told USA Today on the eve of this year’s Pride Month. “Ever since Target and Bud Light had their fiascos last year, a tremendous number of brands have decided it would be much better to sit on the sidelines and let this sort itself out.” (Conservative operatives and would-be MAGA influencers modeled a bigoted campaign against the big-box retailer last year around the early success of their anti-trans beer tantrum; they called the practice “Bud Lighting.”)

The twilight of rainbow capitalism was probably inevitable, but gaffes aplenty from the world’s biggest beer company in 2023 sure didn’t help. At the end of last year, I argued that “ABI sets the tone and narrative frame on the American beer business by virtue of its size and stature,” and that the firm’s progress (or lack thereof) on the comeback trail would partly dictate the overall health and general vibe of the category in 2024. Vibes are way harder to measure than overall sales, but Pride Month actually furnishes a useful point of comparison. How many of the country’s most corporate breweries are celebrating Pride on social media in 2024, as compared to years past?

Or put another way: was Big Beer scared as shitless by last year’s hateful anti-Bud Light horde as some of its high-profile counterparts in greater Corporate America?

A cursory Hop Take review of the country’s top five breweries by volume yielded mixed results. I can’t rightly recall whether Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors, Constellation Brands, Heineken USA, or Pabst Brewing Co. did the Corporate Pride Avatar Swap™️ in years past, and without screenshots, there’s no way to easily verify that. Digging a little deeper, though, I found that in the last half-dozen years each of these firms has either publicly aligned themselves or their brands explicitly with Pride Month festivities, or with the queer community more broadly during this calendar stretch. An index from the watchdog blog Marketing the Rainbow and my own canvassing turned up rainbow-themed social media posts from brands owned by ABI, Heineken, and MC. Constellation and Pabst respectively published a Pride-specific interview and video content celebrating a gay activist to their corporate sites.

These are varying degrees of Pride participation, sure. At the very least, it’s fair to say that Big Beer’s corporate communications consensus was not running away from Pride in the recent past, even if it wasn’t sprinting towards it quite so hard as fellow heavyweights in other industrial sectors.

Contrast this recent history with 2024, roughly one year removed from the beginning of the Bud Light fiasco. The lack of rainbow ephemera on these brands’ accounts is noticeable. I scrubbed through each top-five brewer’s digital footprint for its flagship beers and found nary a whisper of Pride Month nor the LGBTQ+ community.

I also contacted the companies to inquire about the apparent pivot in this year’s comms strategy. Constellation and MC did not respond; Pabst and Heineken acknowledged the inquiry but returned no substantive response before deadline. To its credit, after a year in the bigotry barrel, ABI did respond, pointing me to a recent press release on its corporate site about a $200,000 donation to The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, with which — unbeknownst to me, and maybe you — it’s had a partnership for the past three years. I asked why the firm wasn’t promoting this partnership on social media, where people might actually learn about it, and received no clarification.

This outcome wasn’t preordained. Some mid-major brewers (notably Boston Beer Company and New Belgium) are still hyping Pride-themed promotions this year, and there are plenty of major firms outside beverage-alcohol doing likewise. But the shift at the top of the brewing business is notable, and — I think — emblematic of a new chapter of Big Beer’s adventures in pinkwashing. See, major beer brands are still sponsoring Pride events and doing rainbow-themed brand activations in local markets. By my count, Bud Light alone is a high-level sponsor of at least five Pride parades across the country this year! But the country’s biggest brewers are no longer advertising these initiatives on social media. Nor are they showing off limited-edition rainbow packaging or other swag that can be turned into evidence of “wokeness” by right-wing operatives and pilloried accordingly.

Tactically, I can see the merit to this move. Social media has been a key vector for the reactionary backlash to LGBTQ+ people’s growing visibility in American cultural and civic life. To some extent, right-wing operatives have succeeded in making Pride politically “toxic for brands,” as anti-trans charlatan Matt Walsh wrote on Twitter last year. The market is already tough for beer companies. More toxicity is not what they need, regardless of the source. Keep up with community-level sponsorships, skip the posts about it to avoid the conservative Eye of Sauron at a national level. That logic scans.

The morality, not so much. Capitulating to bad actors persecuting marginalized people just to safeguard profits after attempting to sell beer to those very same people is pretty ghastly stuff. The pull-back from rainbow capitalism not only legitimizes bigotry’s political power in our society, but it also gives the lie to the supposedly earnest proclamations of allyship in the first place. Then again, in this cynic’s view, if you expect corporations to demonstrate courage of conviction in the face of consequences, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be disappointed. At least now we’re seeing some true colors.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Grocery is one of the most important off-premise retail channels for beer, but because of the three-tier system, brewers are somewhat insulated from the vast and sundry f*ckery of the modern supermarket. America’s grocery aisles are awash in extortionate slotting fees, catch-and-kill “partnerships,” shrinkflation, and so on. You should pick up a copy of “The Secret Life of Groceries” for a tremendous warts-and-all look, but in the meantime, lay your eyes on this new report from The American Prospect, which cites National Grocers Association data from 2021 indicating that “wholesale prices offered to independent grocers were as much as 53 percent higher than the retail price at big-box stores.” Not that the booze-business doesn’t have its own problems with price-fixing (allegedly!) but holy smokes. What’s that saying about the devil you know?

📈 Ups…

Congrats to Sapporo-Stone Brewing’s no-longer-interim chief executive officer Zach Keeling… Congrats to professional football’s Kelce brothers, who are now investors in Garage Beer… Congrats to Crown & Hops Brewing Company for winning Samuel Adams’ latest “Brewing the American Dream” award…

📉 …and downs

The Beer Institute tracked tax-paids down less in April than March 2024, but still down… “Numerous employees” were laid off in two waves of recent cuts by Ballast Point Brewing’s troubled parent company Kings & Convicts Brewing… In 2022, the city of Chicago chose the once-lauded 5 Rabbit Cerveceria for a $250,000 grant to open a taproom that has yet to materialize

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