Don’t Stay in Your Lane: Brands & Politics

These days, it seems more and more difficult to not bring politics into things – including athletics, at the office, at home or on a date and of course – marketing. The big question is, should brands address topics such as immigration, gun violence, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and climate change in their company values or better yet, take a stand and influence these topics in their advertising?

Below are some questions about brands stepping into the political arena that Sweeney’s Creative Director, Rebecca Wrenn, and myself chatted about over coffee to share our two different marketing perspectives. Read on while we tackle this tough subject and discuss our thoughts.

When you think of brands who take a political stance, which one does it best?

Rebecca Wrenn: One of my favorite brands is Chick-Fil-A. While I don’t necessarily share the same political opinion and religious affiliation as Chick-Fil-A, I’m actually very opposite, I respect the way they manage their public persona. I think for them it’s less about advertising and more about their brand positioning. They’ve always been, and it seems will remain for as long as the company is around, a Christian-based company and have no interest in wavering from their views. They know who they are as a company, and they have this unwavering ability to stay true to their beliefs. I think this consistency trickles down to the stores and customer experience, you visit a Chick-Fil-A store and you are met with a consistent brand culture of kindness and respect. Whether you agree or disagree with them, they’ve become America’s favorite fast food chain.

Hollyn Page: Ben & Jerry’s – no question. Not only does Ben & Jerry’s incorporate their political stance creatively into their product, ice cream (which, who doesn’t love ice cream?), but the co-founders built the brand on their values, and even after they sold the company the brand still maintained those values. I think that shows authenticity and realness to their customers, no matter their own political stance. When customers associate a brand with their values, they are definitely doing something right.

Do you think that brands who do take a specific and bold political stance reach their audience in a different way versus companies who do not?

HP: Oh, 100%. Especially ones that as we’ve discussed before, align their stance with values that make sense to the brand. Coca-Cola is another brand I think of who continuously takes bold stances. Their recent “Love is Love” campaign, has received global backlash and the brand refuses to back down. I truly believe that companies who are transparent and express their values will end up making a longer impression than those companies who do not.

RW: I think we have a lot of challenges we are facing today – and let’s be honest, what generation doesn’t? But it’s refreshing to know that certain brands aren’t just sitting back in a room somewhere focused on themselves and out of the loop. It’s so much better to be aware, transparent, open and communicate to the consumers that hey, we know what’s going on out there and we want to help make a little difference if we can.

The recent Wayfair incident comes to mind, when employees walked out once they learned that the company was sending beds to immigration detention centers at the U.S. and Mexico border. What is your take on how Wayfair handled the situation?

RW: It’s a response that translates to meh. They basically admitted they had no political stance or views and are in it just to sell products. Then they throw money at the situation to try to help after the fact. The news will remain in the back of consumers’ minds for a while. Companies that address their mistakes (thinking of the recent Volkswagen ad campaign) will have much better luck winning people back.

HP: I had a client send me this article and we discussed how we think this incident blew up in Wayfair’s faces to say the least. I look at this as a brand poorly communicating their values (if they even have any) to their employees as well, who are key stakeholders in a company. Instead of taking this opportunity to take a stance, they just stated their company policy, not addressing the issue that was important not only to their employees, but to customers as well.

How can brands who have not previously taken a stance on an issue, start transitioning to establish and share their values?

HP: This can be an easy task or difficult one, depending on how the brand approaches it. I think that if a brand has not taken a stance before, they need to be sure that whatever stance they are taking aligns with their brand – if not, it won’t click for the consumers and it won’t seem authentic. One brand that just recently attempted this was Gillette. Not only did the brand not create a campaign leading up to the release of their ad addressing toxic masculinity, but they did not follow with an actual discussion from the company on the issue. They just threw it out, caused a scene (good and bad), and then left it there, not continuing the campaign or actually explaining the brand’s values.

RW: If you’re late to the game, then your next step needs to be strategic and appropriate. There needs to be relevance to the product you’re selling otherwise there’s a disconnect. This Verizon ad is a good example. The message is there – let’s empower the girls and young women in our lives to be confident, get dirty and explore STEM subjects. But it’s so random. I’ve been a Verizon customer for years (so don’t take this the wrong way, Verizon) but I would not consider Verizon an innovative company that excels in science, technology and math. For that reason, it’s just annoying. There needs to be relevance.

Does taking a political stance impact brand loyalty and potentially turn off customers who disagree?

RW: Yes, it could turn off customers who have strong opinions of their own. But if you express your views as a company with respect and dignity (going back to Chick-Fil-A) and, more importantly, if your product and brand culture is solid and consistent, then people will come and stay. I think it’s risk worth taking.

HP: Studies show that over half of consumers believe that it is important for brands to take a stand on publicly on issues. Millennials and Generation Z value corporate social responsibility (CSR), which in the past was not usually an important part of a brand’s main positioning. Now if it’s not, the brand will take backlash. I agree with Rebecca and think brands should take the risk, even if you lose some customers or don’t gain a few, you have created a lasting impression with your loyal customers who will keep coming back and choosing your brand over others.

Hollyn Page

With a keen focus on results, Hollyn is a passionate account supervisor with expertise in research, branding development, media relations, content writing, project and event management, influencer strategy and more. During her time at Sweeney, she has worked directly with some of our most dynamic clients, including Acuity Brands and Atlantic Union Bank. She has a master’s in communication information with a concentration in public relations and is certified in Google Analytics.