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Pick Your Poison: When Marketing gets Political

This post was inevitable really. Whilst this has always been a topic open for discussion in advertising, the past year has been so turbulent as to force the hand of a number of brands into taking sides – whether they wanted to or not.

Potentially the riskiest of strategies to pursue, putting your brand on the political spectrum runs the risk of being on the receiving end of a boycott from big chunks of the population – the risks rarely seem worth it. But we live in troubled times, with people putting pressure on everyone from companies to politicians by stating that ‘silence is complicity.' So, let’s take a look at some examples to try and get some ‘dos and don’ts’ to help navigate this absolute minefield of an issue. 

The first task is to pinpoint exactly what issues brands are being expected to take sides on. Looking to recent examples, they are almost entirely social/cultural – no one’s going to be particularly gassed by a brand’s stance on rail re-nationalisation or devolution of powers to local government. Marketing deals in identity – brands try to resonate with consumers on a personal level, often making implicit or explicit attempts to a potential client’s values, culture, morals etc. 

This means that the main political issues which affect brands are incidentally those which draw the most heated debates; usually revolving around morality, ethics and social policies. Nowadays, this typically points you towards environmentalism, humanitarian aspirations, and social consciousness. 

Large brands have always made efforts to polish their public image through charity. Bill Gates – the human face of computing giant Microsoft – is a high profile philanthropist. Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Exxon Mobil are companies which top the Fortune 500 with their levels of charitable spending. But it’s not enough. None of those three would be likely to appear on the general public’s ‘most ethical companies list’, each being tarnished by a scandal every couple of years which overshadows any attempts to establish a reputation as a socially conscious organisation.

So why are multi-million dollar corporate donations not enough to secure a reputation as an ethical company? Well, one reason is that it's poorly marketed – if at all. It’s a dilemma that many companies no doubt find themselves in – if you push your own charitable efforts too hard in marketing material, people’s natural cynicism will dismiss it (not without justification) as a marketing ploy. 

Enter 2017. Politics in the age of social media has changed in a big way. With online profiles being the most important way in which we cultivate an image to put out into the world, politics needs to be ‘shareable’; people tend to be far more engaged on issues which can produce the most emotive, gut-felt responses in their online circles. It is then used as a way to signal compassion, empathy, and other traits; as well as firmly placing them on one side or the other in the Culture War dominating current political debate. 

On Monday, Starbucks' CEO announced that the company will employ 10,000 Syrian Refugees in response to The Donald’s blanket ban on those fleeing the Syrian conflict entering the United States.  Starbucks’ announcement was short on details; in fact the greatest concern seems to have been the statement itself, which put Starbucks in clear defiance of the new President – and his supporters. Starbucks weren’t the only company to denounce Trump’s Executive Order on immigration (Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Amazon and others also denounced the policy), but they were the only ones to get a nationally-trending hashtag out of it. 

 

 

This is a somewhat unsurprising move from Starbucks, considering the huge marketing coup that was 2016’s ‘holiday cups’. This saw the coffee giant place itself on the liberal side of the American ‘War on Christmas’. Chances are if you’re reading this from anywhere outside the States, you’re wondering what this ‘War’ actually entails. Long story short, it’s the ongoing fight between whether you say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ to strangers. Just by calling them ‘Holiday Cups’ instead of, say, ‘Christmas Cups’, Starbucks earned the ire of the more vocal segments of Christian-conservative America. So now it’s another year, another Starbucks boycott, another trending hashtag.

 

 

 

Starbucks clearly ran the numbers and concluded that their consumer base is largely the cosmopolitan city-dweller which generally skews to the left, especially on social issues. Those who would have been most enraged by Starbucks’ ‘Holiday Cup’ most likely never got their coffee from them in the first place. By sacrificing a demographic who were always out of reach, Starbucks can instead focus on consolidating its hold on the urbanite coffee drinker – they’ve certainly taken a bigger risk in ‘going political’ than their rivals; the likes of Costa and Café Nero having yet to follow suite, no doubt nervous about alienation, or maybe hoping to pick up the pieces of those abandoned by Starbucks’ ‘crusade’. 

But the Starbucks political branding saga only tells part of the story which began in 2016. See, Starbucks chose to pick sides – not all brands have been afforded that same luxury. With politics becoming so divisive, and the ‘silence is complicity’ attitude touted amongst the millennial demographic especially, brands are being pulled into the debate whether they like it or not. Tic Tac’s most high-profile tweet to date was issued in response to The Donald’s leaked tape from last year, in which the now President told the hapless Billy Bush: ‘I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her.’ So toxic was the ensuing public firestorm, that Tic Tac had to respond: 

In another PR-political mess, Nike landed itself in hot water when Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that he ‘felt things were going in the right direction’ under President Trump. Ten years ago, a business leader endorsing a Republican president would have been business as usual. But it was 2016, so such rules didn’t really apply. After the interview was published, a White Supremacist group declared Nike New Balance ‘the official shoes of white people.’ Backlash ensued. Nike (hopefully) learnt a lesson. 

There is a further angle for marketers to consider, and that is celebrity endorsements. Hollywood has always been vocal on social justice issues, and the past 6 months have been no exception, as award ceremonies are a few banners short of becoming political rallies. So when Bud Light ran a satirical ad about a political campaign which didn’t overtly take sides, it did use Seth Rogan and Amy Schumer- two known liberal figures. Indeed, you could probably count all of Hollywood’s open conservatives on one hand, and in a time when the debate is all about ‘the little people’ v. ‘the elite’, any form of celebrity endorsement could be seen as a signal that your brand is in with the Hollywood liberals, unless you manage to land Charleton Heston, Clint Eastwood, or Bruce Willis. 

A more subtle approach is shown in Walmart’s new TV spots. They’ve clearly read their post-election digests, as this ad speaks directly to Trump Country. Clearly eager to shed the image of a giant, soulless multinational – the sort of businesses Trump’s Rust Belt voters rallied against at the ballot box, the retail giant jumps on the ‘made in America’ bandwagon. It's certainly no coincidence that the ad name-drops the state of Wisconsin – a key swing state that went for Trump after decades of neglect following deindustrialisation and job flight. This is somewhat uncharted territory for political advertising; there are no real social issues at work here, no explicit political alignment. Yet it is nonetheless an ad which is undeniably the product of last year’s election. 

 

 

To conclude, it’s very likely that this trend of brands staking out turf on the consumer market by aligning themselves with certain political issues will continue. With millennials demanding ever-more socially conscious businesses, marketers will be faced with a choice - or the choice will be made for them.

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