When Marketing and Politics Collide
It doesn’t matter which party or candidate you endorsed, where you live or where you get your news — emotions are running high all across the land. What does this politically and emotionally charged climate mean for marketers?
There have long been companies and business models defined by a cause or a philanthropic purpose. For instance, Tom’s Shoes is one of a host of buy one/give one modeled retailers that have a clear purpose built into their brand. But that’s different than consumer brands taking a stance on a timely and divisive political issue.
Well known corporate entities and brands like Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, Lyft and Amazon have all taken recent public, political positions — up to and including boycotts and legal action. Research from Morning Consult reveals the support behind that kind of activity — at least among young adults. Another study from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence further validated and quantified that finding, citing “Americans are […] overwhelmingly supportive of brands that take stances on issues: 78 percent agree that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society, while 88 percent agree that corporations have the power to influence social change.”
Does political activism help a brand with conventional brand metrics? Maybe. The Super Bowl LI ads that had a political message appeared to create more buzz, engender more sharing and had higher recall than non-political ads aired during the same game but reviews are mixed on whether these ads were effective at creating emotional connections, building brand favorability or purchase intent. Longer or deeper commitments to that strategy would presumably produce different results but that is not clear as yet and different, additional metrics must be considered when examining the effect of a political stance.
The decision to embrace a cause or take a political stance has potentially significant impact on market perception and brand performance. That impact could be positive or negative and requires a thoughtful approach to what must be a long term commitment.
Know Your Audience
We’re a nation split right down the middle on many critical issues so taking an action or position is a chancy endeavor unless your audience is well understood and unified on that particular issue. Even so, the threat remains that some will see a vocal and public position as unwarranted, in poor taste, or simply outside of the realm of a brand’s responsibility or authority.
For some niche or lifestyle brands it’s natural to take a stance on social or political fronts that relate to the brand’s value proposition. Their audiences accept and even expect it. That assumption should be validated with prior research of course, and be sure to factor in any potential backlash from broader populations exposed to ads. In general, the universe of active, political brands is expanding as consumers increasingly look for more than a transactional relationship with their favorite brands. If a consumer is going to emotionally connect to a brand, they want to know they are in sync on important matters. Social media has given both brands and consumers the tools to connect on multiple levels.
That deepened brand relationship tends to happen after brands have done the hard and time-consuming work of establishing a clear brand voice and messaging platform based on consumer information, insights and feedback. In the future, more of that work and messaging will likely be around issues, causes, and policies to help develop recommendations around social and political activism. This is not familiar territory to most marketers and they may need to reach out to consultants to help them understand and frame their options.
What is a brand’s obligation to enter the dialogue? There are a dizzying number of issues to consider as the link between politics and business issues is becoming more direct and more visible to consumers. The decision is unique to each company but colored by an inherent lack of control over the final message.
Brand messaging is picked up and replayed in both traditional and internet media outlets and then by consumers themselves. Consumer statements are often laced with approval or condemnation and then further exaggerated by the bubbles of self-validation that social media networks and news/opinion curation encourages. This generates an exaggerated reaction to any action or statement as the sling-shot effect of the Internet magnifies both the reach and impact within certain, connected populations. So a little potentially goes a long, long way but not always in a predictable direction. Corporate responsibility and communication officers have never been more challenged.
There is also a natural and legitimate impulse for corporate leadership to lean in the direction of their personal point of view. But what happens when the leadership changes hands and so do the strongly held opinions? Protecting the brand means tying any brand evangelism to deeply held and organizationally supported positions. This takes an articulated, long term corporate commitment.
Using borrowed interest just to try to appear relevant or obtain some short term buzz is not good enough. Speculation and inspection will follow any brands traversing political waters — making authenticity crucial. Be absolutely clear why you are taking your stance or actions and what you expect out of it. Then back up your statements with direct and transparent action. Brands that mouth off about critical issues but do nothing to advance solutions will come under harsh public scrutiny.
Know Your Risks
Taking a political or cause stance means accepting risks on the known, as well as the future unknown. You have to be willing to play a lot of “What if?” when you put your brand out there in a world you don’t control and a narrative you don’t control.
What if your facts are wrong? What if new information or events shine a different light on your stance? What if the issue escalates to something unforeseen? What if your competition, audience, government or the world at large reacts in an unexpected manner? I think we can all agree that the unexpected is no longer unexpected and once you are out there you are connected to your position.
The additional risks to consider are many, including:
- An increased workload as the unpredictable plays out on a public stage. Make sure you have the right resources or you may appear inept.
- Consumer message fatigue. There is an inescapable, overwhelming public dialogue that already has the population stressed.
- Competitive actions. What are the optics if all your competitors take a step forward and you don’t? Does it look like you are stepping backwards?
- Making not only a go/no-go decision, but decisions about the level of contribution. Is there a middle position that is tenable? Messaging or offers to your existing audiences via your social channels or email, for instance, is different than making a public statement to those who don’t have an established relationship or ready access.
- Fitting brand spokespersons into the equation. What happens if a celebrity speaks out independently on issues? Note the recent Stephan Curry distance from the public position of Under Armour while endorsing their brand and products.
There are simply too many factors to make this an easy decision (opens as a PDF).
Individual citizens can and should voice and act their own consciences, but a brand steward’s role is to protect the brand from dilution or distress in a very volatile world and marketplace. At the same time, playing it safe may not be safe at all and brands enjoy a unique position of visibility and power to help affect change. There are no easy or universal answers.
Notoriously short-sighted corporate politics (driven by quarterly earnings reviews and the limited tenure of marketing leadership) often favor actions and tactics that produce a short term bump rather than a longer term build. The danger is that companies will start playing politics for all the wrong reasons — not to be true to their brand and audience or to exercise free speech to nudge policies in positive directions, but to callously use borrowed interest for a short term profit incentive alone. That is nothing to salute.
With over 20 years of online experience Robin Neifield serves as the CEO of Netplus, a top interactive agency, and as the trusted digital guide for CMOs. She has been widely published and quoted on digital strategy and has been a frequent speaker and panelist at industry events like Search Engine Strategies, OMMA, Ad:Tech and others where her insights are sought on varied marketing topics such as digital strategy, behavioral targeting, social media marketing, search engine and conversion optimization, localization strategies and proximity marketing, mobile gaming and email marketing. You can find her on LinkedIn, or reach her by email or phone, (610) 304-9990.