Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner advert was a car wreck, but its social conscience insight was sound. That insight is that lifestyles are the central focus of brands today. Ergo, politics and lifestyles can no longer be treated separately.
So, what’s a brand to do in an increasingly polarising world? Stay neutral and risk becoming irrelevant or wade into the debate and risk a backlash?
Nowhere is this division more evident than in the US, under Donald Trump’s presidency. Just a sniff of partisanship could rouse pitch-fork-wielding masses, as numerous brands have discovered. Also, any brand hoping to lay low until better times arrive will be waiting a long time for three reasons. The first is social media, which is amplifying people’s fears and entrenching their beliefs. The second is the lack of accountability among those in power and the third is rising inequality across the world.
The fact that brands are more comfortable getting active politically today is an extension of a larger trend to use morality as marketing. Brands today are taking that to another level, tapping into our sense of what’s right and wrong.
By advocating for causes and incorporating them into their business models, brands allow consumers to vote with their wallets on the kind of world they want to support. These feel-good purchases of self-expression have earned a catchy name: cause-sumption.
These are admittedly heavy subjects for a soap brand or sportswear label to contend with. But those that have spent the past decade differentiating themselves through purpose and cultural relevance can’t go back to saying: ‘It’s all about the product.’ So, what can they do?
Increasingly there is a responsibility to make a social stand on the things that your consumer base cares about. The brands that got to grips with the new political lifestyle vocabulary most successfully were those that picked specific social issues – as opposed to overtly political ones – tied to their stated purpose.
None of this guarantees an easy ride, but an honest position that reinforces a brand’s purpose can be very profitable. In the first ten years of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, from 2004-2014, sales reportedly grew from $2.5 billion to $4 billion, and the award-winning “Evolution” ad spot earned an estimated $150 million worth of media time.
Ultimately, the pros of cause-sumption marketing often outweigh the cons, making for memorable brand messages that connect well with consumers. And the revenue speaks for itself.
THE BIG PICTURE
Without a doubt, a brand that takes a political stance risks irritating consumers who disagree. But it’s also an opportunity to stand up for values that are consistent with the brand’s messaging, earning further respect from consumers who are increasingly looking to vote with their wallets.
Just remember - if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. Brands should, therefore, be politically active to the extent that doing so is consistent with their values, messaging, and worldview. The key is knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent - and there is a fine line between political activism that feels meaningful versus selfish.
Once you determine why consumers and employees feel an affinity for your brand, it will become clear whether or not that affinity is relevant to the political issue at hand.