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Why brands should pat attention to the political climate

In an era where even the President of the United States live-Tweets his daily thoughts, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that more and more brands feel emboldened to enter the political conversation. But how should we navigate the realities of today’s political and social divisions?

There is no straightforward answer! There are a number of factors that should be considered before jumping into a conversation that could be sensitive and result in a huge amount of publicity and feedback, both positive and negative.

Decades ago, brands would have stayed quiet. Now, more and more are coming in hard on issues ranging from racial injustice, immigration and free speech. Consumers are more engaged with politics than ever before, and companies are changing their marketing to keep up.

Standing up for a cause is a bold decision, and it can be very risky.

Brands taking a stand

We are seeing brands stand up for their values, now more than ever before, leveraging their stance on key issues as a way to build a relationship with their consumers, showing them that they stand for something bigger than profits.

In 2017 Patagonia took a strong political stance when President Trump announced he was rolling back protections on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, in this case, combined, two million acres of Native American land would lose federal protection. It was the largest reduction of protected land in America’s history.

Patagonia launched a bold online campaign, with stark graphics that read “The President Stole Your Land”. They also filed a lawsuit against the administration to protect the national monument. Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Activism stated, “We feel that we have to pull out all the stops at this point.”

This move made sense for Patagonia, as the brand has a history of environmental activism—Patagonia donates 1% of its annual sales—and has launched  projects to encourage recycling and reusing clothing.

Patagonia is a good example of how to interact with a political issue in a way that feels authentic. The outdoor brand’s political stance resonated well with the audience, and the brand was highly applauded by the public, and its consumers.

But sometimes brands get it wrong...

I think we all remember the media catastrophe that was Pepsi’s advert starring Kendall Jenner. The commercial saw the model step away from a photoshoot and stop what looked like a Black Lives Matter protest by handing a can of Pepsi to the police officer. And the whole world cringed. Hard.

The Advert received so much backlash from the public, including Bernice King, who posted a picture of her father Martin Luther King being confronted by a police officer at a protest march, captioning the picture “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.”

Ultimately, Pepsi decided to pull the commercial and release a formal apology.

Last year when Gillette released their ‘Toxic Masculinity’ campaign, it received really mixed feedback. Using the tagline “The best men can be.”, the ad features news clips of reporting on the #MeToo movement, as well as images showing sexism in films, in boardrooms, and of violence between boys, with a voice over saying: “Bullying, the MeToo movement against sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, is this the best a man can get?”

Much of the backlash for this ad came from the far-Right, with many commentators saying that they saw this as an attack on masculinity and an act of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Others felt that selling a product off the back of an important, systemic issue felt uncomfortable.

However, Gillette received a largely positive response from consumers, with commentators such as Bernice King praising the advert as not anti-male, but pro-humanity. As well as others remarking that the intensity of the backlash revealed the necessity for a wider acknowledgement of the damage done to men and women by toxic masculinity.

It can be difficult for brands to find a balance between using social issues in their campaigns to raise awareness and using social issues as a selling point for their products. When Patagonia took a political stance, they had no intention of selling any product, and they didn’t promote any product along with the campaign. However, Pepsi and Gillette seemed to have tried to use their political stance as a selling point for their products.

This example of a well-intentioned act that failed to address the tones and sensitivities of this era, raises the question of: When should brands get politically active? And do certain brands have the right to talk on certain issues?  

Another potentially dangerous course is brands staying silent during political and social discourse.

The NFL learned this the hard way when NFL player Colin Kaepernick faced public abuse, and ultimately lost his career as a football player, as he kneeled during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. The NFL remained silent and paused for 18 months, frustrating protestors on both sides of the argument.And they paid for this in ratings, which dipped by over 9% in 2017.

If a brand is directly called out, it’s important that they consider their response carefully. Choosing to keep themselves out of the argument could backfire just as badly and choosing a position.

It wasn’t until Nike, a brand that is no stranger to political activism, decided to amplify the message of the protest and chose Kaepernick as the face of their 30th Anniversary campaign in 2018.

Nike took a risk that they can’t have been sure would pay off. Initially Nike stock fell 3.171%. Not only this, customers also videoed burning Nike products, captioning the videos, #JustBurnIt, playing on the brands iconic tagline Just Do It.

But ultimately the campaign did great in the long run, far exceeding other controversial ads in terms of news coverage. “Nike’s stock recently hit an all-time high and has gone up nearly five percent since the Kaepernick ads launched in early September,” reports Yahoo Sports. “That translates to an additional $6 billion in market value.” I think it would have been hard to avoid the Conservative Party’s attempt to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter last month. The Tory party revealed an image depicting the Labour party leader wearing a chicken costume, attempting to mock ‘JFC’, as a  ‘Totally spineless chicken’ for refusing to agree to an early election. The Conservatives attempt to meme went epically wrong when they tagged KFC in the post, prompting KFC’s legendary response: ‘This is KFC not LBC don’t @ me.’ The Tory’s had hoped to get some cool points by tapping into meme culture and tagging one of the brands that does social media the best, but ended up getting dragged by them. Somehow they managed to keep making things worse when they sent a man dressed as a chicken to parliament to deliver a highly unappealing piece of chicken. All in all a bad day for the Conservative’s comms team. Should brands take a political stand? There is no easy answer for whether a brand should or should not weigh in on a conversation but the main trend that we can see here is that it is crucial that the first question a brand should ask themselves is: why this conversation and why us? When the activity is not rooted in an authentic connection to the cause, it shows and it’s likely that the public will take notice. What is your take on brands taking a political stance? Is it a risk worth taking?

  1. Brands should take a political stand when the campaign, directly links to the brand themselves, and resonates with the audience. The Patagonia and Nike examples illustrate really clearly when this can work well.

  2. As a brand, you should care about developing stronger ties with employees and customers, who are increasingly politically active themselves and expect the same of the brands they buy. This shows that their brand cares about more than making profits. This can work to build strong brand loyalty.

  3. Before a brand decides to jump in on a political conversation, it is crucial they ask one question: do I have the right to join this conversation? Keeping the tone that the brand adopts, true to the brand and make sense to the consumers. When brands get this wrong it is a very public embarrassment that will not easily be forgotten.

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