In politically divisive times should brands be picking a side?

Lewis Jones

General Manager, CBA London


How can brands navigate an increasingly polarised world?

Recent political developments across Europe and the US have seen whole countries, states and continents polarised in a way we’ve never seen before. Millions of people have been asked to think in black and white terms and choose a side: yes or no, in or out, globalised or nationalised, progressive or traditional, liberal or conservative. This has forced consumers to think even deeper about what their values are and what’s most important to them. In the process, consumers have become more comfortable expressing their views and values publicly and this will no doubt inform their decisions about which brands they choose to engage with.
The big challenge for brands is how best to navigate this newly polarised consumer landscape: do brands have to pick a side? What happens if they do, or don’t? And is it possible to stay neutral?

Some brands have seen these developments as an opportunity to jump straight in, wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

For Diesel, a progressive and outspoken brand founded on values of individuality and self-expression, their ‘Make Love Not Walls’ campaign was a natural expression of their personality that helped clarifying their positioning at an uncertain time. Similarly, AirBnB’s support for the post-Brexit #LondonIsOpen campaign and offer of free housing to Syrian refugees felt true to their position as a globally minded, progressive brand.
If you’re already an outspoken brand with a social, political or ethical agenda, whether liberal or conservative, then this is your time to solidify that position.

The problem is that the majority of companies do not fall into this category. For these ‘catch-all’ brands who are traditionally neutral, taking sides has proven to be much more of a risk. The hashtag #BoycottStarbucks dominated Twitter after the company announced it would hire thousands of refugees over the next five years, while Under Armour saw its stock price plummet when their CEO expressed support of Trump. But perhaps it was the fall-out stemming from New Balance’s support of Trump that revealed one of the more extreme examples of this polarisation among consumers, with liberal millennials posting videos of them burning their New Balance shoes while a neo-nazi group disturbingly hailed the brand as ‘The Official Shoe of White People’.

While these may be extreme examples, they certainly reveal the risks of a ‘for everybody’ brand taking sides at this highly-charged and politicised time, regardless of how good the intentions are. Although Starbucks have since said that their brush with being boycotted did not harm sales or the brand, it’s a risk that few companies will want to make. It’s certainly a sign that times have changed when a relatively unassuming shoe brand can cause such an extreme public outcry.

It’s time for a lot of brands to re-assess and get a better understanding of who their consumers really are in the context of these changed times, rather than who they think they are, or who they want them to be.

For example, creative briefs are stilling defining target audiences as things like ‘left-leaning urbanites’, but what that means in 2017 on the eve of the UK’s departure from Europe is very different to what it meant 2 years, 18 months, or even a year ago.

Similarly, the creative branding and marketing executives sitting at the global HQ of a multinational FMCG brand might think it’s a no-brainer to a create a campaign in support of more connected, liberal and progressive political ideals, but in the case of Brexit and Trump, that risks alienating huge numbers of potential consumers in their market who are differ in opinion. At the same time, brands with a large influence do feel a sense of responsibility and can’t simply ignore what’s going on in the wider world out of fear of upsetting certain groups of consumers. So what’s the way forward?

Brands who don’t want to risk jumping on the political bandwagon should look for the things that unite people on both sides of the fence, rather than what divides them. Unlike the financial crisis in 2008 that created a widespread feeling of retrenchment, introspection and austerity, recent political events have spurred people on to take action, be more proactive and feel empowered. This is true of people of all political persuasions – they are supporting what they feel is the most positive course of action.

The golden opportunity for brands at the moment is to tap into this shared mindset and to offer a positive, optimistic choice and experience for consumers against the current backdrop of political unease and in-fighting.

Through carefully considered brand communications, campaigns, new products and experiences, brands can find engaging ways of empowering people by offering them choice, something a bit different and an opportunity to make proactive decisions about the way they live their lives and the brands they choose to associate with.

Above all, it’s important to remember that we are living in a time of great change, movement and action. The brands that can help consumers navigate a positive route through this and appear proactive in a time of uncertainty will be the ones who weather any storms to come most successfully, regardless of their own, or their consumers’, political views.