Should Brands Talk Politics?

Consumers don’t like it when brands take political or social positions, yet they want brands to become more socially active and responsible.

The disconnect was revealed in a recent study, entitled “Brands, Agencies and Political Values,” sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, or “4A’s.”

I wonder if the fluid idea of “brand” has caused the appearance of conflict where there is none.

Since brands aren’t things, it’s impossible for brands to do things; the vague concept of Pepsi didn’t come up with the idea to hire Kylie to teach the world to cringe. Marketers, and their clients, make decisions intended to influence people, then pay for campaigns that are marketing content, by definition. People know this.

So asking consumers how they feel about them means they could be thinking about specific ads or social media posts, or simply referencing their own feelings. They could also be using the terms “brand” and “business” indiscriminately, or differently in different answers.

Maybe they don’t like marketers using politics or causes to sell them stuff?

The real work of corporate responsibility usually makes for horrible marketing; it’s detailed, nuanced, and the results are often incremental, often in the face of gigantic issues that beg for faster action. Big issues are bigger than the “responsibility” of any one company, also by definition, so that work might seem inconsequential.

It also happens in places other than marketing departments or ad agencies; supply chain managers, accountants, and other operational types must do the heavy lifting of finding ways to conduct business not just more responsibly, but do so while staying in business.

That internal effort is the stuff that consumers say they expect and value, and why the fluff of external themes (or spokescelebrities) fall flat. The idea that anybody would buy a can of Pepsi because its marketers though to hire Kylie for a stupid commercial is laughable.

So are lots of other easy solutions to taking about businesses through the old fashioned paradigm of brands, and that includes taking overt political positions because consumer research said people might care.

Instead, it only encourages consumers turn to Internet search, and each other, to learn what they need to know about the products and services that they buy (and denigrates the credibility of marketing overall).

It’s also a huge opportunity. We can and should come up with a better way to communicate about responsible, sustainable corporate behavior.

It shouldn’t start with talking about politics. Consumers have spoken.

I’m president of Arcadia Communications Lab, a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses get value from communicating about innovation. You can follow me @jonathansalem