Has Trump Just Unleashed a New Era for Brand Purpose?

Regardless of your political leanings, there’s no doubt that Trump’s America, Inc. experiment has kicked the brand purpose game up a few notches.

Consumer expectations of the role brands can play in shaping political and cultural discourse have fundamentally shifted. Gone are the days when brands could get away with lofty positioning statements: making a statement about what you stand for is no longer enough, brands must act on it. And activating purpose is starting to pay off.

You don’t need to look any farther than the reaction to this year’s Super Bowl ads to see that purpose has become a real differentiator. It wasn’t just marketers in our echo chambers lamenting squandered opportunities to articulate what you stand for — the whole world saw through any of the obvious bullshit. If you thought paying $5mm and simply saying “we care” was enough, then SNL had just one thing to say to you (and I agree) “hard cut: Cheetos.” It’s not enough to jump on the bandwagon and echo mainstream opinions — in fact this just looks simply self-serving.

According to Global Strategy Group, 88% of Americans agree that corporations have the power to influence social change, and 78% agree that companies should take action to address important issues facing society. The braver brands are forgoing traditional positioning and instead championing a purpose, actively tackling the issues that stand in the way.

People are genuinely embracing this by putting their money where their beliefs are. #DeleteUber reached every corner of the world when the NYC Taxi Drivers Alliance boycotted JFK airport following Trump’s travel ban, and Uber stepped in to capitalise on the demand following Trump’s travel ban. Lyft shot up the app rankings as a result, moving from 39th to 7th most popular app by the end of the weekend. This new dynamic is actively shaping culture in the process. For example, traditional sponsorship dynamics are changing. Misty Copeland, The Rock and Steph Curry publicly criticized Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s comments on Trump, leading to a stock downgrade amidst speculation that they might distance themselves from the company.

What’s clear is that now, purposeful goods and services are the new relevant goods and services. Purpose has always been able to command a premium among niche demographics, but for this time, it’s going mainstream.

American brands are in the spotlight, but there are clear signals that apply universally: if you’ve avoided this until now, it’s time to articulate what you stand for and make sure it clearly motivates and underpins everything you do. Here are a few simple guidelines to navigate this new era of brand purpose.

1. Be meaningful, but don’t compromise relevance. Reinforce your purpose in the spaces you have permission to play.

2. Take action. Do more and say less.

3. Become a platform for people to participate. And remember that you don’t have to be a brand for everyone

1. Be meaningful, but don’t compromise relevance. Reinforce your purpose in the spaces you have permission to play. No brand can or should argue every issue. Find the belief at the heart of your brand and stay close to it. Be pro-issue, not anti-individual. As a brand that makes clothing and gear designed to enjoy the great outdoors, Patagonia have a vested interest in protecting it. From documentaries promoting conservation to anti-consumerism campaigns like ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ that encourage responsible consumption, everything they do ladders up to this idea. Their strategy has not changed in response to the Trump administration. Utah governor Gary Herbert recently signed a resolution to overturn Obama’s recent protection of Bears Ears National Monument, despite the fact that outdoor recreation is a $12bn industry in Utah that supports a significant number of jobs. In response, Patagonia decided to withdraw from Utah’s Outdoor Retailer show — a “cash cow” for the state according to Patagonia’s CEO and founder. They encouraged others to join them in taking their business to a state that shares their value of the outdoors, pushing back by attacking the issues relevant to their purpose.

2. Take direct action to support those narratives. Do more, say less. Airbnb was the rare exception to the rule in this year’s super bowl. Airbnb’s purpose is about belonging. Their super bowl spot promoted acceptance, but the company went further than that, announcing their aim to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees, disaster survivors, and other displaced people over the next five years. Getting into short-term housing makes sense for them; they are in the business of making people feel at ‘home’. By contrast, does Diesel’s new Make Love Not Walls spot do anything for the people affected by the border wall and imports on Mexican goods? No. Diesel could choose to source certain materials from Mexico. They could divert a portion of the proceeds from a collection of garments sold to fight anti-immigration laws. Who is benefitting from it, Diesel or the people they are supposedly standing up for? Instead of spending millions on a TV spot, they could put their money where their mouth is — because consumers are going to.

3. Give your audience a role to play and help them participate. And remember, you don’t have to be a brand for everyone. Brands can amplify their impact by creating platforms for audiences to actively champion a belief, and it can start in the smallest of ways. Where Audi’s #DriveProgress Super Bowl spot vaguely expressed support for a different the kind of world for daughters of the future, Barbie’s latest campaign shows a simple, tangible action any father can take to actually make that happen. “Dads Who Play Barbie” is taking on gender equality issues by showing dads that they can help inspire confidence in their daughters simply by encouraging their imaginations. All it takes is picking up a Barbie. Interestingly, Mattel didn’t go for everybody. It’s hard to be relevant when you’re trying to be relevant to everyone. Instead, the campaign launched during the NFL playoffs in January and went for a more focused impact by targeting (ostensibly) the manliest of American dads.

Maybe a strategy of inclusivity works if you are Coca-Cola or another of the most recognised brands on earth, but for many brands that isn’t possible. When you stand for something, by definition, you are going to alienate some customers. That’s ok. But there is increasing value in being willing to piss some people off — what you gain is more passionate, loyal customers who are increasingly willing to pay a premium for brands that align with their beliefs.

Will we be soon living in an age of partisan branding where Republicans wear Under Armour, liberals wear Lululemon? Will we see gun violence, gender discrimination, food security and other issues of our time solved by brands? Who knows. But in the context of a Trump presidency, the stakes have never been higher, the opportunities to drive change have never been more meaningful, and one thing that seems certain: the brands who activate a clear purpose are the brands that will succeed and be rewarded for playing a more meaningful role in the lives of their consumers.