Should brands shy away from politics or be bold enough to take a point of view? Days before one of the most polarising presidential elections in American history, GDR’s Innovation Researcher Martin Reid explores how brands are increasingly piggybacking political conversations and how brand communications are shifting in response to a tense consumer landscape…
There is a saying that you shouldn’t talk about politics at work. But in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections, it’s nearly impossible to stay neutral or silent in what many consider to be one of the most controversial political elections in American history.
One of the macro trends GDR has seen over the past few quarters is how many brands are being bolder about conveying what they stand for. From the rise of bilateral reviews (where brands take the opportunity to critique and give feedback about the customer) to the support of specific social issues and causes, brands are breaking their corporate moulds and recognising that when it comes to starting a conversation with their customers, nothing is off limits. But is politics the final taboo for brand communications?
The year 2016 has given brands plenty of opportunity to use current affairs as a jumping off point to communicate their values. Earlier this year for the controversial Philippine elections, 7-Eleven instigated conversation on its Facebook page through a “smackdown”, encouraging users to talk about and support their preferred candidate, while the brand played devil’s advocate by representing an undecided point-of-view. Its playful facilitation of discussion ultimately drove customers to visit 7-Eleven stores on Election Day and increase brand sales by 138% compared to the same time last year.
Taking a less antagonistic approach, quite a few brands are demonstrating their commitment to politics simply by encouraging people to vote. For this year’s US Election, Doritos rolled out vending machines at university campuses that took a customer’s registration status as a form of payment. If the customer had registered to vote, they would receive a free bag of chips, choosing between the brand’s two new flavours. If not, they received a sad pack of inedible cardboard chips, with the message “if you’re not registered to vote, you get no choice”.
Likewise, Ben & Jerry’s launched Empower Mint as part of the brand’s “Democracy is in your hands” campaign, a new flavour of ice cream that raised awareness of the importance of registration and of various restrictive voting policies that make it more difficult for low income and minority voters to make their issues heard. Both brands connect to larger issues by using their product to act as its own reminder to behave responsibly.
Encouraging political responsibility is just one approach for brands daring to enter the conversation. It’s easy enough for many brands to feed off social anxieties and disenchantment surrounding political issues by creating satirical adverts, as Bud Light and Esurance have hilariously demonstrated. Another approach, which I’d argue is less creative and more tone-deaf, is when brands appropriate political conversation without irony to promote their own narrow-minded profit-driven agenda, usually by staging their own “branded” elections. For example, which of our products is better, our waffles or pancakes…?
Nevertheless, these approaches are all politically-neutral. They draw upon politics without necessarily advocating a preferred position. So what happens when a brand has to take a motivated point of view?
Principles over politics
Some brands have found themselves the subject of unwanted conversation during this year’s US election. The spotlight was placed on Skittles when a meme surfaced that compared accepting refugees with the risk of eating poisoned candy. The brand was quick to distance itself from the meme and its use in a political context: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it is an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
Likewise, Tic-Tac had to speak out when one of the candidates mentioned the brand in a controversial video. These brands are clever in avoiding conflict by taking a neutral position and divorcing themselves from any association with presidential candidates, but what about when brands challenge candidates head-on?
Beer brand Tecate challenged the rhetoric of immigration by building its own wall at the US-Mexico border. According to the advert, the Tecate beer wall, which is three feet high and perfect for resting a beer can on, brings people together. The parallel between Tecate’s wall and candidate views is obvious, but the brand insists that they are not taking a side: “We don’t have any political point of view or affiliation. We just want to tell a story where people from two bordering countries are united by beer,” so claims the vice president of Tecate, Felix Palau, to AdAge.
It seems that brands are safe in taking a position that supports universal principles of morals and ethics that transcend politics, but that they’re not quite ready to show overt political bias. We can choose to interpret Tecate’s campaign as a playful and neutral marketing exercise, but I believe that’s wishful thinking. After all, wouldn’t it be commercial suicide to alienate consumers based on their political beliefs…?
Conflicts of interest?
In February 2016, Buzzfeed refused a $1.3 million deal to run advertisements on its site from the Republican National Committee. It’s not uncommon for news companies to take a political stance, but Buzzfeed’s action drew a line in the sand for its millennial and Gen Z readers. Buzzfeed’s political point of view galvanised many fans, and alienated many readers too.
Many advertising agencies similarly take a political perspective. Recent campaigns, such as SS+K’s Trump chatbot, W+K’s guerrilla BS van serving baloney sandwiches, and Goodby + Silverstein’s personalised Trump TV advert generator, are all independent creative statements that have great implications for each corporation’s political allegiance. So what does this mean for the brands that they work with? If companies are proclaiming their political allegiances, surely it shouldn’t affect how big businesses work with one another?
According to The Balance, many large corporations “derive part of their identity from their political affiliations.” The Balance cites Walmart and many US-based oil companies and airlines as aligned with the Republican Party, whereas companies such as Apple, Starbucks, Google and Yahoo “openly embrace the ‘change’ agenda of the Democratic Party”. Do brands advocating political positions really matter that much to the end consumer?
I believe that the attitudes held by today’s millennial and Gen Z consumers could change how consumerism operates. If these consumers are already differentiating between how they perceive and spend time and money with companies based on their social and environmental values, it’s only natural that this could extend to how a business aligns itself politically. After all, Gen Z is the fastest growing generation of customers and employees globally. Brand-to-consumer relationships are becoming increasingly transparent, and therefore there’s nowhere to hide for how a brand runs as a business, and how it communicates to its customers.
On the other, more cynical, side of the coin, the future could remain business as usual, and wholly apolitical. Young people are notoriously poor at voting, as consumers aged 18-29 were the least likely to turn up and exercise their democratic rights.
Nevertheless, this election taking place in the country leading the world’s innovation activities could catalyse a new revolution in how companies and customers interact with one another. America, the world is watching.