Businesses are taking a stand on hot-button issues in an effort to appeal to younger consumers—but as U.S. beer brewer Anheuser-Busch will attest, this has landed them in hot water in the process.
The U.K. government’s second highest ranking Treasury official is now warning companies to steer clear from “woke” politics lest they wind up in the crossfire of the culture wars right next to the Bud light parent. It lost nearly $400 million in sales last quarter following a promotion its once popular lager held with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in April.
“We’ve seen what can happen in recent months. Think of that U.S. beer brand, where consumers reacted rather differently than was anticipated,” said John Glen, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in an interview with liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue published earlier this week.
Glen argued the majority of the country wants businesses to simply provide good value for money, and must avoid going down a “checklist of things” to make sure they are on the right side of a social or cultural discussion.
“I’m uncomfortable, instinctively, to see big businesses appropriating the views of their customers to make a political point,” he said. “If they want to get into politics, then stand for election.”
Pushback against the “woke” narrative has been characteristic of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s leadership. In the past, the Conservative Party leader has emphasized that biological sex is “fundamentally important” in the debate surrounding an equality law in the U.K. which has provided important protections to members in the trans community.
The louder “anti-woke” stance, including wanting companies to strictly keep to business instead of addressing social issues, could be part of an effort by Sunak’s government to bolster conservative support ahead of the next general election expected to be held next year. Sunak’s Tories trails the Labour Party heavily following numerous scandals and missteps and could find themselves swept from power in a wipeout unless they take mobilize their base.
Brands like Dr. Martens and Costa Coffee walking a tightrope
Glen made his comments just weeks after well-known British brands like coffee chain Costa Coffee and shoe-maker Dr. Martens have been tangled in controversy over representing transgender characters in their advertising efforts.
In Costa’s case, a mural of a transgender person with scars from mastectomies for gender affirmation, also known as “top surgery”, began circulating on social media. Criticism and calls for boycott picked up as people slammed the ad for sending the wrong message to young girls and glamorizing a surgical procedure.
London-based Dr. Martens also had a similar illustration printed on a pair of “queer joy” boots as part of a one-off give away designed by American artist Jess Vosseteig. The company posted about the boots via the Instagram account of its U.S. affiliate in late July, and received a barrage of comments from anti-trans users.
“This pair reflects the artist’s style expression as an illustrator and member of the LGBTQIA+ community,” a Dr. Martens spokesperson told Fortune.
“We have always embraced diversity in the Dr. Martens community. We’re proud to support our team and our wearers, and to continue to support creativity and freedom of expression.”
The examples of Bud Light, Costa and Dr. Martens reflect the tricky balance that brands have to strike to reach their consumers, who demand greater diversity and inclusivity.
According to Anthony Chapman, co-founder at creative branding agency Fellow Studio, the challenge in avoiding controversy is to ensure any message remains authentic to a brand’s core values.
“To mitigate potential backlash, brands should ensure that their stance aligns with their core values and brand identity,” Chapman told Fortune. “It’s important for brands to recognize that consumers are not only looking for products or services but also seeking a connection with companies that share their values.”