When Marketing and Politics Collide

America is politically obsessed right now. Each day there is at least one and often several news items that lead to a cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage. 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 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.

Motivation Matters

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.

Author: Robin Neifield

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.


5 thoughts on “When Marketing and Politics Collide”

  1. Ms Neifield’s thoughtful píece is extremely useful in putting the complex and delicate issues surrounding political action for corporate entities in perspective.

    The not always clear distinction between lobbying (working to affect regulation or similar in the business’ interest) and taking a more general political position should inform action. Lobbying is clearly seen to be in the company’s interest even if for example, lobbying to reduce the regulations on fossil fuels goes against what many would consider the public interest.

    The waters are somewhat muddier when the political issue has little to do with the company’s own business. A diverse company will have employees with very different political outlooks. (That’s why many agencies will not take on political work or if they do, they will invite their employees who do not agree with the politics of that work, not to participate).

    But as Ms Neifield reminds us, we are living in very politicized times and ‘taking a stand’ matters and can make a difference. It would seem to me that companies should survey their employees as to whether or not to take a position on a particular issue and then go with the majority.

    These are really uncharted waters but if we are going to be able to protect whatever values we adhere to, it won’t be by ignoring the political environment.

    1. Thanks Peter – you raise a really good point on bringing employees into the discussion and decision. It’s a critical element of any successful communication strategy and even more so when the discussion may be divisive.

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