by Daria Gorodnia
The following post was inspired by a professor-student discussion in the Brand Communications Decisions graduate class in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University.
Less than a month ago, we drank Starbucks to express social status or lifestyle. Today, some of us drink it or don’t drink it for that matter, to express political affiliation. Politics are everywhere these days – on TV, online, on Facebook, in our conversations, and on our minds. Keeping their fingers on the pulse of the American society and trying to make it into trending discussions, brands start to get political by taking stands on social issues, and by doing so, send politically-charged messages to consumers around the world.
Just in these last few weeks, Starbucks made an announcement supporting refugee employment, Airbnb launched a program on diversity and inclusion, 84 Lumber sent a mixed message on immigration, and Audi took a stand on equal pay for women. While such statements can appeal to thousands of consumers on an emotional level and help brands cut through the clutter by staying relevant in pop culture, they can also be double-edge swords when it comes to impact on brand equity and business performance. So, before taking a side and making a loud statement, brands must evaluate potential gains and risks, make a plan to address business objectives, and prepare to deal with the inevitable backlash from segments of the public. In the evaluation process, the following questions should be considered.
Who is the brand’s audience?
Many international brands serve hundreds of thousands of consumers on a daily basis. While they need to understand all of their main target segments, they must truly know their best customers. They are the brand’s most loyal and engaged consumers who drive product adoption and conversation. By taking a stand on a political issue, the brand will inevitably alienate some of its customers, but it has to be very careful to not alienate its best ones. This is where a deeper look into brand identity and its initial audience is needed. What are the best customers’ sentiments towards a certain political issue? If they are in-line with the brand’s sentiments and identity, it may be worth it to speak out.
What is the brand’s identity and image?
It is critical to ensure that any politically-charged statements issued by the brand are in line with its brand identity, image, and long-term strategy. Neil Golden, former Chief Marketing Officer at McDonalds USA and current Adjunct Lecturer at Northwestern University, says that brands have to be very careful with taking sides on political topics. If the brand has not been historically vocal on the issue, speaking out about it during the time of political unrest and resistance movements may be seen as opportunistic and produce even more backlash from the public. For example, when Starbucks made a statement on refugee employment, many consumers felt it was a stretch for the brand’s identity. Although Starbucks often speaks for fair employment practices, it hasn’t focused specifically on refugees before. So by making such a loud statement through a press release, Starbucks actually appeared somewhat insincere and opportunistic.
Is there a plan in place?
Next, it is important to consider any statement as a part of a larger, comprehensive, integrated plan. Airbnb and Audi both took stands on social issues in their Super Bowl ads. Airbnb ran a #WeAccept spot that stood for diversity and inclusion while Audi ran a highly emotional spot on equal pay for women. Both spots were produced beautifully and evoked feelings and emotional connections with the respective brands. However, from the larger brand communications plan perspective, Airbnb’s statement was better thought out compared to Audi’s. Airbnb reached far above making an emotional connection with the public and into solving an actual business problem with a comprehensive plan. In particular, guest discrimination by hosts was the issue that Airbnb aimed to address, but the timing of a statement on diversity and inclusion could not have been better from the current political conversation stand point. Minutes after the Super Bowl ad aired, Airbnb followed up with e-mails to the Airbnb community, both hosts, and guests, asking to accept the brand’s stand.
In contrast, it is not clear where Audi’s message fits. The brand currently does not seem to have any program or plan in place to walk the talk on its advertised commitment to equal pay for women. Interestingly, its well-intentioned message produced backlash from some women who pointed out the lack of diversity in the brand’s leadership ranks.
What are the business objectives?
Any brand communication should be tied to a business objective. Is the company trying to improve brand awareness or brand image? Is it trying to attract qualified employees? Or perhaps grow sales and acquire new customers? Objectives can be very diverse and span across a variety of business aspects, but at least one has to be addressed by the message. A Super Bowl spot by 84 Lumber, a brand that currently operates only a few locations, puzzled many consumers with a very emotional but rather unclear message on immigration; it wasn’t clear whether the brand supported or opposed it. But most importantly, it was not clear what business objective the brand was trying to solve with a roughly $15M 90-second spot during the most-watched national sporting event. The brand claims that it aimed to attract a younger employee base, but still, what message did it really send to the rest of the country?
All in all, brands are people. They are operated by people, for people. And people have sentiments, opinions, and passions. Politics touch on many emotional strings, making people feel the need to express their stand publicly, to feel support and inclusion. Strong brands are often viewed as integral parts of consumer lives. Indeed, many consumers view brands as extensions of themselves. As brands become vehicles for self-expression, consumers start to expect them to take a stand and participate in social movements. This expectation gives a new meaning to the social responsibility concept, but brands must not forget to evaluate the aforementioned business considerations. Likewise, it is essential that they stay true to their brand promises when speaking out.