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.

A Hard Call for a Softer Side to Advertising

Social sustainability can be a key differentiator and motivator in our sharing economy. In consumer markets, TOMS built its message upon redefining “Buy One-Get One” as “Buy One-Give One” – and 35 million children around the world (and counting) – and by giving its customers a mission.

Build an emotional connection to your brand.

Change the world, one pair of shoes at a time.

Every individual has an opportunity through education.

We are not data, we are human beings.

One primary take-away from &Then 2015, a DMA event, last week in Boston is that effective advertising today is most certainly about strategy, creativity and results – all over this year’s International ECHO Awards. But let’s add another key ingredient: Social sustainability can be a key differentiator and motivator in our sharing economy.

I’m not talking about some modicum of a social responsibility tie-in … “Buy our product and we’ll plant a tree.”

But rather that, in an economy filled with attention deficit, good advertising, effective advertising, must make us pause and consider. The table stakes for engagement happen when we trust and connect to emotions in ourselves.

In consumer markets, TOMS built its message upon redefining “Buy One-Get One” as “Buy One-Give One” – and 35 million children around the world (and counting) – and by giving its customers a mission. While TOMS has moved its social responsibility mission beyond shoes to eyewear, water and other projects, I choose TOMS precisely because of its giving back along with its very comfortable shoes.

Singer John Legend has his handlers, most certainly, but when you heard his call to action for education reform, justice reform and minority business leadership – therein lays substance and authenticity behind his own storytelling in music. He may not sing about those subjects, but his celebrity is leveraged strictly for those causes that motivate him to act, that have defined his life, in how he was raised and how he sees the world as it is and what it can be through positive change.

Even look at this year’s winning crop of ECHOs. Many campaigns used emotion to tell compelling stories — with breath-taking results. Skoda’s Guardians of Winter, Uniforms for the Dedicated’s Rag Bag, Huggies and Volkswagen’s Eyes on the Road are just a few examples of campaigns that took individuals on an emotional journey of one sort or another – and made you think twice. You literally spend a moment walking life in someone else’s shoes, and realize it could be your own.

Suffice to say, these motivators are hardly new to advertising, it’s just great to see them in employed in data-driven campaigns and breaking through cacophony. What is new is that, as brands seek to connect with target audiences, truly making the world a better place to be is more meaningful today than ever.