It is a long-standing best practice for brands to remain above the political fray so as not to alienate potential consumers. It’s a safe strategy; one embraced by boards of directors and chief executives the world over.
However, with the change in the recent political climate, those consumers we seek to appeal to have grown hyperaware of brands’ political leanings, and in some cases have pushed them to take stances. The Super Bowl was an event that tested the results of advertising in a politically charged climate.
Budweiser garnered some negative feedback with its Super Bowl commercial that reimagined the story of its founder – Adolphus Busch – who came from Germany to brew beer. The spot placed the brand’s namesake in a position where he experienced the same discrimination and recrimination often served up to immigrants today.
Predictably, the hash tag #BoycottBudweiser began trending, even though the company said the ad was not meant to be political. Despite the mixed response the brand still gained significant attention, much of it positive. According to Twitter, it was the fourth most mentioned brand during the Super Bowl.
And Budweiser was far from the most controversial voice during the big game. Pennsylvania-based building supplier 84 Lumber, far from a household brand name, produced a surrealistic longform ad that documented the journey of a young migrant girl. The ending, deemed too divisive too air by Fox, was posted online, and the commercial teased to it. The subsequent traffic downed 84 Lumber’s website for hours.
These examples beg some questions, not the least of which is whether brands can take stances while remaining within the acceptable parameters of the political spectrum. Or more to the point, should they venture into political territory at all? While the second question really depends on each brand, the first has a few factors that must to be considered before taking action.
Consider Your Core Brand Message
In our hyper-politicized world, advocating for either side can be a veritable third rail. When deciding how to approach a political topic, it’s best to consider what your brand message is and how advocacy aligns with your mission statement. Is it in line with your values? This requires a deeper contemplation of company purpose.
Starbucks recently positioned itself as pro-refugee when CEO Howard Schultz condemned the administration’s executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement. With its promise to hire 10,000 refugees, a clear message was sent by the coffee giant. Their leadership thoughtfully considered what the brand’s purpose was, and how its mission connects with American politics.
Where Do You Want Your Brand to Go?
Along with your mission statement, it is important to also consider your vision statement. Distinguishing between the two will allow you to create a cohesive plan of action, and decide on potentially controversial action. Often, confusion between the mission and vision statements can also confuse team members, which will cause them to decide actions that might not align fully with your vision.
So, when you are thinking about putting forth an opinion as a brand, a good practice is to re-evaluate your vision statement to see if it aligns with the opinion you are considering. If that opinion does not successfully pass the test, it may make more sense to lay that opinion to rest. It may save you some trouble in the future. Pick your fights wisely.
Not Everyone is Right For You
It can be a tough pill to swallow when a swath of customers renounces your brand and hashtags you with a #boycott on social media. This threat, long preceding social media, is what led to the famous assertion, allegedly uttered by Michael Jordan when asked why the NBA legend was never more vocal on social issues: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
And that is understandable—in fact, in years past it had become the norm for pitchmen and brand leaders alike. But it is equally important to remember that no one can make everyone happy all the time. Hedging in times like these carries an inherent risk. When you try to be all things to all people, you run the risk of becoming nothing to anyone. How much risk and controversy can your brand tolerate? Will your core customer base reward you for taking the stand? Doing what’s right shouldn’t be an exercise in cost-benefit analysis, but it is nonetheless a part of the equation.
Recently, when it was circulated that the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, was tabbed to be a part of President Trump’s advisory board for energy, it caused a number of customers who pre-ordered the new model of Tesla car to cancel their order and declare they would boycott the company. Musk responded that he had only accepted the role so sane voices would maintain a seat at the table, asserting that dialogue is better than silence. But the hardcore anti-Trump crowd had made up its mind, and many of them were Tesla buyers.
Sometimes it’s not about making everyone happy but those who you believe are the best contributors to your brand.
Mass marketing is becoming a tool of the past that many believe will permanently be laid to rest. With technology, segmentation and consumer-tailored content, marketing has become laser-focused. This can be advantageous when a brand decides to take a more vocal approach on cultural topics.
Trying to overextend your marketing effort may actually hurt you in the long run. You run the risk of investing considerable resources in an effort that doesn’t really reach your target audience and do not bring new customers. When you have a clear idea of the direction and the customer you want to appear to, rely on targeted efforts to contribute to your brand.
Be excited for this new time
With all the tensions of the past years and the uncharted climate we are beginning to navigate, it can be difficult to see the silver lining. Yet, having a new time to learn and grow how our culture and marketing changes can be exciting. This will be a time of experiments and blunders, but it can also be a time of innovation and creativity.
Brand leaders must help lead consumers and their teams down new paths. We are entering a time of growth and learning. So embrace it with all the tools necessary, especially optimism.