Commentary

Forget What They Told You, Brands Must Get Political

It’s that crazy uncle you have, the one who rants about his issue du jour. Or it’s your long-lost “friend” on Facebook who baits others with political incendiaries. Those, my friends, are the missing elements of your brand strategy.

Well, not exactly, but everything you have been taught or told about brands consciously avoiding political controversy or, at very least, tiptoeing around political hot buttons, can now be thrown out the window.

We currently live in a political era that would largely be unrecognizable just three or four years ago. In 2016, street lamps in Austin for SXSW Interactive were covered with pop-art pictures of Donald Trump with the caption “We shall overcome.”

A scant two years later and a mere 62 weeks into Trump’s presidency, the political discourse has firmly moved into the conference programming itself.

Beyond the presence of speakers such as Bernie Sanders and Sadiq Khan and sessions that were explicitly political, such as "Tech in the Trump Administration: Year 1, it seemed that every panel somehow led back to politics, regardless of the core theme.

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While talking about augmented reality innovation, JAX Digital's Bianca Jackson mentioned how AR is deployed to show people what a Mexico-USA wall would actually look like. In a panel entitled "What Followers Want: How Social Evolves in 2018,"visual content on Facebook was mentioned as a way to mobilize and engage consumers to care about political issues.

Westworld’s panel on establishing a transmedia franchise included a side note on how terrifying a Delos reality would be today — and the list goes on.

None of this should be surprising. We are all talking about politics significantly more often. Three months into Trump’s presidency, Gallupreported that 60% of people noticed a sharp rise in political conversations at work, and this has likely only snowballed. Now it’s not just at the water cooler, but in our advertising.

So where does this leave brand managers that have been badgered for years with the advice to “never talk politics”?

The answer is deceptively simple: Shun convention and take the plunge into politics. Recognize that in the era of social-media fluidity, the key is to engage clearly and authentically with your consumers. Garner empathy with increasingly highly-mobilized communities. This seemed to be underscored in SXSW session by Rally's Latia Curry.

Understandably, your knee-jerk reaction might be that you don’t want to choose a side for your brand. However, my premise transcends the traditional left-right party binary. Brands don’t need to pick a side. Instead, they need to associate themselves with issues that align with their brand values, regardless of party.

Few people agree with every single party policy. Instead, they tend to have a political identity built up through caring about specific issues. Ben & Jerry’s has a brilliant political track record, running campaigns to register voters, as well as creating products that call out particular issues, such as marriage equality.

In 2016, Patagonia donated all $10 million of their Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental groups that protect natural resources. Chick-Fil-A espouses a firm association with “biblical principles,” which has put the chain at odds with gay rights proponents but ensured a committed following in large parts of the South.

In short, brands should offer consumers a crystal-clear vision of their platform. Creating an issue-focused approach (rather than a partisan-approach) creates a platform that embodies the brand’s values, connects more authentically with consumers, and drives avenues for new business.

Consider the Lyft/Uber example.

When the #deleteUber movement was in full swing, due to Uber’s perceived treatment of their drivers, Lyft was quick to sweep in as the “feel-good, do-good” alternative. During the January 2017 immigration ban protests, Lyft pledged $1 million to the ACLU — in stark contrast to Uber, which was seen to be profiting from the protests, while their then-CEO Travis Kalanick was directly involved with Trump’s advisory board.

Consumers didn’t have to renounce the convenience of ride-share apps to support their values. Instead, they could opt to use another service that was aligned with their values. Lyft saw a 33% uptick in sales, reported Recode.

Brands should have visible values and not shy away from expressing them. Make sure those values are reflected in your business —including with your leadership team and board — to avoid being seen as inauthentic or hypocritical. Trust is a central element to brand loyalty, and yes, politics can be part of it, if done the right way.

Full disclosure: my agency stands by our commitment not to work with tobacco, gambling, or adult-content companies in order to foster a safer world for our children. What are the values that you stand by?

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