Following Brexit and the US presidential election, many brands have responded to the polarized times by choosing to weigh in on political and social issues.

But brands face numerous challenges in trying to do this successfully. Chief among them: how do brands connect with consumers at a time when so many of them don't see eye-to-eye on some of the most important issues of our time? 

Here are a number of tips for brands trying to figure out what to do and what not do.

Be very, very careful about jumping into politics and highly-charged social issues

Although a growing number of high-profile brands seem comfortable making political and social statements, this is arguably riskier than ever before. Consider the following two examples:

  • In response to a law passed in North Carolina, retail giant Target announced a restroom policy that allows individuals to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. Target's move was intended to support members of the LGTB community, but the announcement sparked a backlash from consumers worried that the policy could, among other things, be taken advantage of by sexual predators. An online petition sponsored by the American Family Association calling for a boycott of Target has garnered more than 1.5m signatures.
  • In response to US President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily halting US travel for individuals from several Muslim-majority nations, Starbucks issued a pledge that it would hire 10,000 refugees. Given the heated debate over President Trump's executive order, Starbucks' announcement not surprisingly also sparked calls for a boycott.

What has happened since? It depends on who you ask.

In Target's case, shopper traffic is down, sales have decreased by 6%, and same-store sales have fallen in every quarter since the boycott began. Not surprisingly, the American Family Association believes this is the result of the boycott, but Target disagrees.

In Starbucks' case, market research firm YouGov says that the company's brand perception plummeted following #BoycottStarbucks. Starbucks commissioned research of its own that concluded there has been no impact, but with Starbucks seeing slower than expected same-store sales growth for the second quarter in a row, there's room for speculation and debate.

No matter what, neither company's politicking appears to have helped it, so the key takeaway is that there is probably little for brands to gain today by going out of their way to speak out about political and social topics on which reasonable, decent people can have very different opinions.

The lack of potential for benefit appears to be confirmed by a recent survey conducted by 4A’s and SSRS, which found that "consumers are not looking to brands to take a position on political or social issues" and "only a small percentage of consumers are moved to buy from positive messaging."

Focus on uncontroversial values and causes

One of the primary reasons brands are jumping into politics is that the people running them truly believe that there are politically-tinged issues that are too important not to weigh in on. Additionally, in some cases, they want to signal to their employees that they disagree with political policies that are controversial.

But avoiding politics doesn't mean that brands have to embrace amorality. In fact, it's actually ill-advised for brands to pretend they don't have a conscience as numerous studies have shown that for many consumers, brand perception and purchase intent can be influenced by a company's CSR (corporate social responsibility) efforts.

But instead of getting political or taking a side on highly-charged social issues, brands can demonstrate that they have a conscience by building their initiatives and marketing campaigns around core values and causes that just about everyone can get behind. There are plenty of examples of companies demonstrating their values by supporting causes that don't have lots of political baggage.

For example, through its Buy a Lady a Drink campaign, brewer Stella Artois has given more than $1m to Water.org while raising awareness of the global water crisis and its impact on women around the world. And last year, Elsevier announced a partnership with Doctors without Borders "to cooperate in fighting the root causes of some of Africa's most vexing health challenges, including diarrhea and infectious diseases, which leave millions of people dying or severely diminished every year." As part of the partnership, Elsevier provided a $300,000 grant to Doctors without Borders' research and training division.

While these initiatives are not directly tied to political and social topics that are in the news, they allow the brands behind them to demonstrate their values and commitment to causes that few people are likely to object to.

Trust your agencies, but understand that they might be biased

Most large brands work with agencies, which are tapped for their knowledge of consumers and their expertise in helping brands connect with consumers.

But agencies are often home to bias, including political bias. This subject has been increasingly discussed in the wake of Donald Trump's election, as many agencyfolk openly supported his opponent, Hillary Clinton. With this in mind, one observer asked, "can liberal-leaning ad agencies effectively sell to conservative consumers?"

It's a simple question, but not a trivial one. After all, if brands are relying on the advice and execution of agency partners that may have a difficult time connecting with consumers who don't share the world view of the vast majority of their employees, brands risk adopting strategies and campaigns that, at best, won't resonate with a large portion of the consumer population and, at worst, could alienate huge numbers of consumers.

Seek out new perspectives

Bias is natural, and it isn't always inherently bad. It probably wouldn't be a good thing for agencies to always "play it safe" and become opinion-less organizations. But in today's challenging environment, brands shouldn't shrug their shoulders and pretend that the bias can't be a liability.

No, this doesn't mean brands should, say, fire their agencies. But it does mean speaking up if and when their agency partners make strategic recommendations and present campaign concepts that are too political or based on naive stereotypes about large swathes of the population.

Diversity of perspective is important and brands should ensure that they have access to voices, internal and external, who can credibly represent all the members of their customer base.

Don't step in it

While some brands are unlikely to stay out of the realm of politics and heated social issues, every brand should do whatever it takes to avoid major faux pas like the one Pepsi made last month when it unveiled an ad starring new spokesperson Kendall Jenner. In the ad, Jenner leaves a photo shoot to join a protest. She ends up facing off with a police officer, who she hands a can of Pepsi, prompting the officer to smile.

The ad was seen by many as a tone-deaf attempt to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soda and caused a huge backlash. Wired even declared that it "was so awful it did the impossible: it united the internet." 

According to Pepsi, the ad was intended to represent "people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony." But the concept was so poorly conceived and poorly timed that the company was forced to pull the ad and admit that it had missed the mark, something most experts suggest the company should have realized before the ad was even filmed.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 May, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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