America is experiencing a shift in its moral and ethical values and the guiding principals that once shaped its foundation on a digital global stage. Most at stake? Waning enthusiasm around American patriotism and religion as well as a decreased interest in having children. Last week, a Wall Street Journal survey found that the country has become more deeply divided and polarized than ever before, a trend that has been noted in previous American values surveys but has failed to self-rectify. The result is two generations of young adults and who view the world much differently than previous generations did two decades ago.
Since the election of the current administration, what America means and is meant to stand for has become the key issue of our time, as polarized belief systems around inequality, injustice, and immigration serve as platforms on which to interrogate the values America was founded upon. Just last month, Immigration official Ken Cuccinelli was quoted as reinterpreting the county’s founding mantra to one that was more in-line with, according to him, the intentions of the GOP:
“Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he said Tuesday morning during an interview with NPR. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the first time the first public charge law was passed.”
“All immigrants who can stand on their own two feet, be self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, again, as in the American tradition,” he said. “My Italian-Irish heritage looks back at that. Most people in America look back at that, and that’s what we expect going forward.”
How the debate and evolution of America’s “value system” will end is currently unknown, and unpredictable. But for brands seeking to stay culturally relevant, understanding who and what are driving today’s ideological shifts will be the key to forming a plan for how to navigate them.
AN INCREASINGLY COMPLICATED BRAND MESSAGING LANDSCAPE
Brands today are juggling a variety of variables as they attempt to navigate and conquer the brand messaging landscape. Given the current flux of American ideals, it can feel impossible for brands to effectively win in such a tumultuous landscape where they are meant to stand out, appeal to consumers and remain culturally relevant while doing so. Modern brands are facing the very real prospect of brand messaging minefields- where expectations of alignment with consumer values meets the potential explosive jaws of cancel culture- a highly viral, yet amnesic push to dismiss a brand because of its ethical background and /or political leanings.
How do brands manage to push forward successfully in such a polarizing climate? What about brands that have found themselves with naturally liberal or conservative bases? When the goal of most brands is growth and market penetration, how do they decide whether to only appease their base or to appeal to broader audiences who may represent unique growth opportunities? Perhaps most importantly, what do brands stand to lose if they choose to stay out of this seemingly losing battle for brand affinity?
The answer is as complicated as the brand messaging landscape.
A year or so ago I pushed for brands to be more “color brave” or, essentially, to be more vocal about what they stood for and the audiences they chose to align themselves with. However, this was before the current administration came to be in office- an administration that has pushed the country into reevaluating the definition of citizenship and what it means to be an American today.
The results of the WSJ survey are not always Black and white and they require viewers to put the information within the context of real-life. For instance, although the vast majority of consumers surveyed rated ‘tolerance of others’ as a very important personal value, it doesn’t always mean that its welcome in reality. Essentially, the idea of diversity & inclusion is appealing, and therefore potentially desired in an ad, but acting on diversity & inclusion in real life isn’t always well received across the country and could potentially cause controversy.
Americans also see progressive strides within the country very differently. For example, 63% of prospective Democratic voters surveyed said that moving towards more diverse & tolerant lifestyles and cultures has been a step forward, compared to 16% of prospective Republican voters who viewed the changing landscape as a mixed bag of forward strides and backward steps.
Before today, previous years of progressive brand strategies were marked by inclusive storytelling methods which resulted in a more colorful field of casting, more nuanced consumer narratives, an empowered space of celebration for women, and emotionally rich territories of consumer truths that have historically been ignored or pushed out of the spotlight. This was done as a response to increased consumer desire to see the real world reflected in advertising. Ironically, despite this forward movement in the media landscape, in the background, the country was becoming more polarized around politics, religion, equality, and progressive ideals.
THE INITIAL RESPONSE
The most immediate responses to the changing political climate came after the election and inauguration of the current president whose extremely conservative ideals around equality, immigration and women’s rights struck a cultural nerve. To align or distance themselves from his administration, brands made political statements about what they believed in and did so during the culminating event of America’s favorite past time: The Superbowl.
84 Lumber, a relatively unknown brand put out an emotional Superbowl ad documenting a Mexican Mother and her daughter as they journeyed to the United States got mixed reviews when it wasn’t clear what side of the immigration controversy the company was meant trying to highlight. Budweiser too got mixed reviews when it decided to go the route of telling its own immigration story and using it as a means to resonate with others who have come to America with the hope of making their dreams of success come true. Airbnb pushed a message of acceptance & inclusivity with its “we belong” campaign- arguably a response to what was happening politically, as well as what was happening within its own platform as consumers of color were finding themselves the targets of racist & discriminatory practices.
Since the 2017 Superbowl, the topics brands are pursuing and supporting have expanded, with some choosing immigration as their fight, and others choosing unconscious bias awareness or gender equality as their main missions. The way brands are choosing to advocate for their chosen causes ranges from deeply aligning their inner-values and mission statements to a cause or purpose, to surface level lip-service. For brands with authentic ties into the spaces they are choosing to advocate for, the transition into “activist branding” has been easy to execute against.
Modelo, for example, is a Mexican beer brand that uses its roots as a brand born “with a fighting spirit” and an ethos of “hard work”, a key American value, as a platform for authentic storytelling. Its tagline, “It’s not about where you come from, it’s about what you’re made of”, is illustrated through the use of real-life stories featuring people doing extraordinary things and living a life of purpose through perseverance. Modelo’s nod to American ideals that were built around the immigration history of the country feels relatively harmless, likely due to the fact that it is less about what the brand believes, and more about the kind of people the brand chooses to promote its product: The ideal American who works hard, pulls him/herself up by his bootstraps and finds a way to lead a successful life.
Nike, on the other hand, chose to confidently step into controversy when it aligned itself with ex-quarterback Colin Kapernick when no other brands, or football teams, would go near him due to his silent protest against injustices in America regarding people of color. For Nike, a brand that has become successful due to its alignment with Black athletes and celebrities, this move, while controversial, made sense. The brand’s mission, to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world” required it to become ingrained in the communities it impacted and eventually create a world where every member of those communities would be treated equality. As women’s sports have begun to dominate the entertainment landscape, Nike has been able to stay culturally viable by joining, supporting and promoting messages of gender equality and aligning itself with some of America’s most powerful women athletes.
The newest space brands are leaning into is sustainability with the goal of thwarting climate change- a theme that is highly relevant to Millennial consumers and GenZ, but that is being denied as existing by the current administration. Although causes around sustainability and being more mindful of waste may feel less politically charged, there are political implications for them, especially seeing as how pollution disproportionately affects communities of color. By choosing to advocate for sustainability, brands are effectively choosing to reflect more progressive values. Recently, Marriott Hotels rolled out a global initiative to disrupt the practice of mini-toiletry bottles in its hotels by getting rid of them, and just last year, it moved to get rid of plastic straw in all of its establishments.
AN UNPREDICTABLE ENDING MEANS PREPARING FOR THE WORST
“There’s an emerging America where issues like children, religion, and patriotism are far less important…and in America, it’s the emerging generation that calls the shots about where the country is headed.”
America’s core values may be forever changed depending on how and when the era of its current administration in power comes to an end. While much of the blame is currently being attributed to the White house as an enabling force, in the end, it’s the people who support or challenge those values that will ultimately shape the legacy of this country. What that may look like, at this point, is simply unknown.
In the meantime, it will be imperative for brands to culturally educate themselves and take stock of the signified meanings associated with key cultural artifacts that may implicitly signal their beliefs. Whether it’s an American flag on a shoe, the wearing or showing of a confederate flag, or an entire football league, it is important to understand the potential controversies that can arise when featuring key objects in your messaging, as well as how future objects tied to America’s legacy, like apple pie or baseball, may potentially be interpreted.
Finally, due to the high degree of controversy brands can find themselves in, it is understandable that some may want to stay out of the political conversation altogether. However, they may find that they have no choice, as consumers are increasingly mapping where their dollars go with more rigor.
When consumers find that the brands they consume have ties to the wrong political parties, a push for a boycott soon follows (and is subsequently forgotten). Recently, SoulCycle and Equinox came under fire when it was revealed that a key shareholder for both brands supports and donates to an administration whose values don’t align with the consumers who patronage them. In the case of Wayfair, it found itself at the center of controversy when its own employees protested the company’s involvement with child detainee centers.
Brands choosing to sit out the roller-coaster ride of news and the phenomenon of cancel culture, will need to be comprehensively prepare crisis planning strategies should anything about their inner-workings, prime investors, or key stakeholders leak to their customers; especially if the brands’ consumer base is nothing like its leaders.