Do you feel like the world has gotten “more political” in the past several years, or that Democrats and Republicans are fighting more than ever? There are numerous studies that demonstrate this effect isn’t just in your head — there’s a massive and growing gap in our political ideologies, and the 2016 Presidential election illustrated just how vast that gap truly is.
I’ve abstained from “getting political” — that is, taking one side of any political issue or making references to hotly debated topics — in any of my work. Even though I’ve written work evaluating the marketing tactics different political candidates have used, I’ve tried to remain neutral because I am a marketer — not a politician.
But lately, more and more brands are making a political stand, incorporating charged messages and imagery in their advertisements, and sometimes making official statements about the politics of their companies. In advertising, branding, and social media marketing, is this a strategy that can pay off? Or is it too dangerous for your brand to get political?
Recent Examples and Effects
Let’s take a look at some recent examples of companies getting political, and how it worked for them:
· Lyft and Uber. Lyft has long been in competition with its more popular rival, Uber, but Uber made a mistake when it took a gentle political stance. After President Trump’s highly contested immigration ban, two Iraqis were detained at JFK International Airport, and the New York City Taxi Worker’s Alliance protested by refusing pickups. Uber continued to operate, ignoring the situation, while in contrast, Lyft announced a $1 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Almost immediately, the hashtag #DeleteUber began to circulate, and for the first time, Lyft surpassed Uber in total downloads for a day — January 29th — as a direct result of the hashtag campaign. Just a few days later, on February 2nd, Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, quit President Trump’s economic advisory council amidst mounting pressure from the public and employees over his ties to Trump.
· Starbucks. After the immigration ban and plans to build a wall on the Mexican border, Starbucks chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz sent out an email describing his “deep concern” for these developments, and a plan to hire refugees as well as work to preserve relations with Mexico. Thousands of Trump supporters called for a boycott of Starbucks, but just as many people (if not more) showcased their loyalty for the brand in response.
· Airbnb. During this year’s Super Bowl, Airbnb released an ad with a message of unity and diversity, clearly against the immigration ban, though the message was not nearly as explicit as the actions of Lyft or Starbucks. Though it received a mixed response as well, Airbnb saw social media growth of nearly 8,000 followers in just a few days.
· Budweiser. Budweiser had an even subtler approach, debuting a Super Bowl ad that illustrated the story of Adolphus Busch, the immigrant beer maker who originated the company, in a pro-immigrant tone. Historians nitpicked the accuracy of the depiction, but reception was largely positive.
These are only a handful of recent examples, and despite mixed results for almost every brand, the majority of these efforts have yielded strong increases in followers, brand visibility, and customer engagement.
The Possible Repercussions
So what’s the worst that can happen if your brand starts to use politically charged messaging?
· Negative associations with politics. First, most audiences have a negative association with politics in general. When you use a political message in combination with a brand message, it’s likely that your persuasiveness will take a hit.
· Fake empathy and exploitation. If your brand is seen to be exploiting an opportunity, rather than expressing a genuine sentiment or concern, it could work against your brand image, painting you as a manipulative opportunist.
· Ignorance or misinterpretation. If you get the details wrong, or misspeak about a political issue, it could reflect poorly on your brand and cause even the customers inclined to agree with you to lose trust and faith.
After Trump’s election victory, I published an article at Entrepreneur.com titled How Trump Won Using Strategic Branding, and What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Him. Even though the article was completely politically-neutral and only aimed to examine what led to his victory, I got lots of mean tweets and even some emails from emotionally-charged people who either misunderstood the article or didn’t read it at all.
The point is, even the slightest semblance of painting Trump in a positive light earned me plenty of backlash (even though the article was totally neutral politically). Interestingly, I didn’t see a single positive message from any apparent Trump supporters about the story.
The Potential Benefits
However, there are some huge potential benefits.
· Polarization. Though polarization might sound like a bad thing, it often ends up being advantageous. You may lose some followers and customers, but those that remain will become even more fiercely loyal to you.
· Differentiation. As illustrated by Lyft and Uber, sometimes differentiating yourself with a political message can be enough to win a flock of new customers — especially if your competitor is facing controversy already.
· Being a leader. Finally, if you have deep and genuine political beliefs on a given topic (like Howard Schultz did), your brand gives you a platform to become a leader and inspire some of your like-minded customers to take action. This doesn’t affect your profitability, but does affect how your brand contributes to the world.
Should Your Brand Get Political?
So should your brand use political messages? In general, I’m inclined to say no — it’s very risky to take a strong political stance, especially if it has nothing to do with your business. But if you do decide to take the risk, protect yourself with the following strategies:
· Keep it relevant. Avoid issues that have nothing to do with your brand; instead, focus on the ones that affect you and your audience the most.
· Do your research. Make sure you understand the issue in full before you say anything, and fact-check yourself so nobody can call you out on a mistake.
· Know your audience. This is huge; if your audience leans a certain way politically, don’t antagonize them with a contradictory opinion. Play to your customers’ beliefs, or keep quiet.
· Consider your values. Think carefully about whether you feel strongly enough about this issue to jeopardize your brand reputation in an effort to promote those beliefs. It may be worth it.
· Be sincere. Speak from the heart. Otherwise, your customers may doubt your sincerity, and the strength of your message will suffer.
· Be cautious. Don’t go on a rant, or call to radicalism. Instead, be subtle — a donation to a nonprofit organization or a simple story or illustration can speak volumes.
Using political messages can bring you visibility, loyalty, and might even help you change the world for the better, but only if you use them responsibly and thoughtfully. It’s not a strategy for every brand, so think carefully before you pull the trigger.