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?

Politics and marketingAmerica 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 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.

Corporate Responsibility

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.

5 Things ’60 Minutes’ (Intentionally) Didn’t Tell Americans About Data Brokers

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment. Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment.

The Direct Marketing Association, my editor at Target Marketing, our friends at Direct Marketing News and The Magill Report were spot on with their responses.

Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Bryan Kennedy of Epsilon did yeoman’s work: Self-regulation exists because all marketers know that data is the currency of our livelihood, and consumer trust underpins us all.

Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

1. You Can Opt Out
For decades, Americans have had numerous free ways to “opt-out” of the data-sharing-for-marketing-use marketplace—and millions upon millions of Americans have taken advantage of these free industry-offered programs:

  • DMAChoice, offered by DMA, allows industry-wide opt-out of prospect direct mail, email, do-not-call (for selected states) and unaddressed mail delivery.
  • Nearly all consumer brands also offer their own preference centers and in-house suppression lists on their Web sites and Privacy Policies—both for do-not-send and for do-not-share, bridging multiple channels. Many business brands also do the same.
  • More recently, the Digital Advertising Alliance and its Consumer Choice Page provides an industry-wide opt-out mechanism for targeted display ads online that are served (in a de-identified basis, by the way) based on browsing behavior. Consumers can harden their choices against cookie removal once each opt-out choice is made.
  • A similar opt-out mechanism for mobile interest-based advertising from DAA is now in the works.

2. Marketing Data Is Used for Marketing Only
Every code of conduct and every ethics guideline in our business states this clearly. Furthermore, firewalls exist between marketing data (our business’s data sources) and individual referential data (information used for private investigation, employment, credit, insurance eligibility). If “60 Minutes”—or a consumer, or anyone else for that matter—has evidence that a marketer or service provider is sharing, renting or selling marketing data for non-marketing uses, the DMA’s Committee on Ethical Business Practice would want to be first to know—so as to investigate and bring any organization into compliance. Hypotheticals and inferences are not reality, despite the innuendoes used by Kroft.

3. Sensitive Data Are Already Regulated
Areas of sensitivity that most consumers care about—personally identifiable data related to their children, financial data, health information, credit data and a few other categories—are already regulated under federal law. Marketers must adhere to these laws and regulations.

4. Fraud Is Not Marketing
Another sensitive area—where and when marketing data is breached with a likelihood for fraud—you’ll find that most marketing organizations indeed want one national standard (not 50 plus one) for how consumers are notified and what protections they are afforded. Fraud prevention—as well as data governance and data stewardship—is a heightened priority for all businesses and organizations that rely on consumer information.

5. Data Benefits Customers
Data used for marketing purposes should be a government concern: not on how to stop it—but how to promote it, both domestically and globally, to benefit consumers and the economy. On the whole, consumers demand relevance. They demand recognition. They crave personalization. And every day—millions of times a day—they vote with their wallets: They shop, they donate, they subscribe, they raise their hands, all based on their participation in commerce. Marketing data also enables competition and the innovation and variety of choices consumers enjoy. As DMA has ably documented, marketing data exchange generates sales, jobs and tax revenue—and, might I add, satisfied consumers. Yes, we need consumer protection from fraud, bad players and unfair and deceptive practices—but “our data-driven economy” is a hugely wonderful default.

Which begs the question: Where is the harm, “60 Minutes”?

What Would the Korean Taco Truck Do?

Some of the most interesting marketing ideas aren’t coming from big consumer brands and award-winning agencies, but instead from scrappy local businesses such as Kogi BBQ, AJ Bombers and The Roxy. Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ, for example, started the mobile food truck Twitter trend and is now a marketing legend, its story covered by everyone from the New York Times to the BBC (and, coincidentally, eM+C).

It’s 12:30 in the morning and you need a Korean taco fix. No worries, Twitter is there to enable. If you live in a metropolitan area, odds are there are a dozen or more mobile food vendors that are broadcasting their latest location, specials of the day and wait time via Twitter.

Some of the most interesting marketing ideas aren’t coming from big consumer brands and award-winning agencies, but instead from scrappy local businesses such as Kogi BBQ, AJ Bombers and The Roxy. Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ, for example, started the mobile food truck Twitter trend and is now a marketing legend, its story covered by everyone from the New York Times to the BBC (and, coincidentally, eM+C).

Another small business that’s getting its share of headlines is AJ Bombers, a Milwaukee burger joint. It made news in March when it attracted over 150 foursquare users to its restaurant who were looking to earn a coveted “Swarm Badge” — awarded when 50 or more foursquare users check in at the same time. It has since held another Swarm Badge party, most recently on foursquare day. Yes, there’s a foursquare day. It’s April 16th, mark your calendar.

When the new owner of The Roxy took over the famed L.A. nightclub, one of the first things he did was replace its website with a blog. He also collaborated with other entertainment venues on the Sunset Strip, including The Viper Room and The Comedy Store, to promote each other’s events via Twitter and Facebook. And then came the Sunset Strip Tweet Crawl, now an annual event, where tweeps (Twitter followers) enjoy free cover charges to bars and clubs on the Strip, prizes, and drinks specials announced via Twitter throughout the night.

What they’re doing right
These businesses have all succeeded in standing out by embracing new marketing techniques, letting their unique personalities shine through. But above all, they’ve maintained a relentless focus on pleasing their customers. What they’re doing feels personal because it is personal. Here’s a look at how you can do it, too.

1. Lighten up. Have some fun and don’t take yourself so seriously. Over 230 foursquare users showed up at A.J. Bombers last month to claim a custom “I’m on a Boat” Swarm badge by checking in at the kayak located at the front of the restaurant. It’s not always about the “value exchange” of coupons and points; often, good old-fashioned silliness can be an incredible motivator to join in. What’s your kayak?

2. Stay in touch. Communicate frequently with your customers. Use digital media to reflect the vibrant, living, breathing company you are. This is especially important for social media. If you have a Twitter follower base or Facebook fans, these are your hand raisers — i.e., people who want to hear from you. Talk to them; tell them what’s going on.

3. Play nice in the sandbox. Man cannot live on kimchi quesadillas alone. Many of these small businesses have a collaborative approach with their competitors. Koi Fusion, a Portland, Ore.-based Korean BBQ truck, regularly banters and sometimes smack talks with competitors such as Whiffies (the deep fried pie guys) and Potato Champion via Twitter, but also wholeheartedly cross-promotes them on its blog. Might there be alliances with “frenemies” that are mutually beneficial?

4. Behave like a person, not a “brand.”
Think about the way you’re treated by your favorite supermarket cashier, bartender or restaurant waiter. That’s the standard by which you should be addressing your customers. If you’re going to start a Twitter account or already have a Facebook page, get ready to respond. Want to see this in action? Just mention JetBlue in a tweet and see how quickly you hear back from them.

Think small

Imagine yourself in the place of these entrepreneurs. What would your company do differently if you just started a brand new business? Is it getting by on a shoestring marketing budget (OK, maybe that part doesn’t take that much imagination) with just a few hundred customers, most of whom you know by name? What would the Korean taco truck do?