While brands have taken political stances in the past, we have witnessed a massive spike in doing so in the post-election days.
In the wake of Trump’s presidency, the political landscape was stirred, and controversial changes brought more divisiveness than many Americans have ever witnessed.
Suddenly, ads for the Super Bowl and beyond became heavily charged with messaging that seemed to have more to do with politics than promotion - which was both good and bad. Audi, AirBnB, Budweiser, and 84 Lumber, to name a few, made their angle all about the current issues in the country, and even these top dogs were met with some strife due to the increasingly polarized audience they were dealing with.
Some, however, clearly overlooked the core element that contributed to political positioning or cause-oriented campaigning successfully winning over the hearts of consumers.
We all watched as some big names tried their turn...and severely missed the mark.
The biggest of these may have been the Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner, where viewers were outraged by the irrelevance of the brand and celebrity to the cause at hand - and the oversimplified solution to social turmoil.
I’m sure it was just intended to be a catchy and trendy way to convince people to drink Pepsi, but still. It takes more than that these days.
So, what does it take?
First and foremost, it takes risk...and guts.
It is utterly impossible to take a stance or support a cause without alienating some part of your potential customer base.
If your target demographic transcends political views, then the risk is high for losing a portion of customers that would have otherwise continued to support you had it not been brought to light that their political views clashed with your brand’s.
When Trump was first elected president, many opposers compiled a list of brands to boycott because of their clear connection to the guy, and the list definitely made its rounds on social media. These brands chose to sacrifice one chunk of customers in favor of more fervent loyalty from their like-minded supporters.
I’d like to note that it takes more risk to get politically involved as a brand than it does with just supporting a cause. The political landscape is a tumultuous one, so what may be an advantageous stance now can change without warning.
It takes more risk to get politically involved as a brand than it does with just supporting a cause.
The lower level of risk associated with getting behind a cause may be more worth the effort, as this approach tends to have a larger impact on the audience.
Secondly, taking a political stance or supporting a cause takes authenticity. As Max Lenderman, CEO of School, perfectly puts it, “you can’t use cause or purpose as a tactic; otherwise, you’re bound to fail.”
If your brand, as hardwired into its DNA, truly believes in something, then incorporating your stance into your marketing strategy will be natural, believable, and convincing. Hopping on a trendy bandwagon, however, will not work because consumers can see right through the BS that the campaign is built upon.
A Havas survey found that 75% of consumers expect brands to contribute to the wellbeing and quality of life of society in general. Pulling off this sort of stunt takes action.
As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words,” and boy, is that true in this case.
Just being a slacktivist and saying the right thing at the right time in the political turmoil won’t cut it. Much like how posting about an issue on social media doesn’t actually improve the situation directly, if your brand truly supports a cause down to its core mission and values, just leveraging an issue for promotional purposes will accomplish nothing.
As further punishment, customers will question your true intentions and raise suspicions of the ethics of your brand. Don’t let them do that; if you have the resources - time, money, supplies, labor, audience engagement, etc. - to make something happen, it’s imperative that you show that your brand truly cares by doing something, not just saying it.
Deciding Whether (Or Not) to Get Political with Your Brand
Even if your brand is ready to take risks, has the authenticity needed to be convincing, and is equipped with the resources to take action, it’s not always wise to publicly support a cause or delve into the world of politics.
David Kleinberg, CEO of Traction, says, “if you take a political or social stand, you’re not just dipping your toe, but diving headfirst into something that could take a life of its own.”
Take your brand and assess whether it’s wise to jump into this thing or not with the list below.
If the cause is true to your brand values, mission, core DNA, and consumers know it, this could be a very smart move. Supporting a cause that aligns with your company’s values shows consistency and authenticity.
Better yet, if your brand supports a cause even when it’s not trendy (such as Patagonia’s eternal push for environmental consciousness) and keeps on supporting it, it shows that you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re hoping to score some more sales and leverage the right trending hashtags.
Because consumers are increasingly showing interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the values of a brand, I say: flaunt it if you’ve got it. (And, on the flipside, don’t fake it if you don’t.)
Your cause of choice should absolutely be relevant to your company culture, and encouraging employees to participate in it can further establish that. Consumers are getting ever smarter, their radars for BS are Jedi-like, and so the only way to convince them that your company truly cares is by...wait for it...truly caring.
It’s that simple.
Consumers are getting ever smarter and their radars for BS are Jedi-like.
With infinite sources of information about anything and everything, consumers are well-equipped for determining the authenticity of a brand that claims to stand up for something. They are aware of what’s happening, and can easily verify whether or not your stance is true or not by reviewing your brand’s history.
So, if your company has always supported something, it’s a great idea to publicly position your brand with it because it’s been true all along.
Furthermore, consumers crave an emotional connection and tangible authenticity from brands, so the only way to do it well is to do it the real way. What I mean by that is that supporting a cause only works if your customers trust you, believe you, and connect with you over the shared cause.
Finally, if your brand isn’t already seeing a huge “YES” for supporting a cause, consider this undeniable truth: beliefs are beliefs.
They’re your brand’s opinion on what’s important, and you simply and fundamentally cannot be proven wrong with them. At the worst, people can disagree with your beliefs - which likely will happen regardless - but if you trust that you’re doing the right thing, making the world a better place, and so on, keep on doing what you’re doing.
The haters rarely outweigh the believers in cases of supporting an improvement to society.
If you don’t feel in your bones that your brand exists at least partially for the purpose of supporting a cause, maybe it’s just not a good move, and that’s okay. Playing the safe route is also an option.
If your brand catches a whiff of something good, then hops on the trend as a shortcut to connect with customers, you’re sure to fail. The cause must be relevant to the brand, or it will be a clear case of exploiting the political environment to leverage a brand in consumers’ eyes.
Furthermore, if your brand’s beliefs change with the political tide, your brand will come off as even more fake, and consumers will smell the BS from miles away. Brands that change their causes based on what’s trending - and likely irrelevant to the brand identity - are a dead giveaway for consumers.
Again, if the political view or cause are not hardwired into your brand’s DNA, it becomes glaringly obvious that the positioning is merely a tactic and not genuine.
Another factor to consider goes back to the importance of taking action to prove that you’re serious. Slacktivism doesn’t count - and doesn’t work.
Companies have more resources to make things happen than the average Joe, so society secretly expects companies that stand for something to take the initiative to do something about it.
If you don’t have the means, don’t preach.
As I mentioned earlier with my two cents, it’s generally not a great idea to mix politics and your brand. If you consider how divisive and fluctuating the political landscape is, there is no guarantee that your brand will always be seen in a positive light if a side is chosen.
Even worse, if your brand supports a cause that tanks, you have already committed and therefore anchored yourself to it, and your brand may sink with that ship - simply by association.
Getting political or supporting a cause also has a big risk: touchy issues are guaranteed to cause a divide - in the general public and your target market alike - that can lead to anger, boycotts, or worse. This means that your brand faces a high price and may have to risk losing a chunk of your customer base if the cause or political view you hold fast to is a little controversial.
What’s more, research has shown that consumers are more likely to avoid negatively-positioned brands than support positively-positioned ones. This may be because hate is easier to impulsively react on than love, but either way, it’s an important element that may make you think twice before declaring your brand’s position.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, brands should stand for the purpose and ideas that they believe in, but also not get caught up in the mire of the political era of the day.
Supporting a cause is the best bet if you feel, deep in you heart, that there must be some sort of positioning for your brand, but make sure that it’s true and genuine, no matter what.
Oh yeah, and one more time for the people in the back: just don’t be a slacktivist.