Brand Playbook explains what to consider before choosing a side or a cause
Of course, there is more pressure than ever for brands to be topical and, as the election nears, it will be on the top of everyone’s mind. Here are tips on how to enter the political fray without losing consumer support.
Four years ago, brands, just like pollsters, seemed to anticipate a Hillary Clinton win, only to be burned when Trump came out on top. Bud Light, for instance, used the 2016 Super Bowl to kick off its politically themed “Bud Light Party” campaign featuring comedic actors Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen supporting progressive causes, like equal pay for women and transgender rights. While it scored with some audiences, it failed where it mattered most: selling beer. “Immediately you are transporting the consumer into the Trump-versus-Hillary debate or any number of Senate debates or gubernatorial debates that are going on right now across the country. It’s totally into that generic wasteland of political advertising,” former Anheuser-Busch Chief Creative Officer Bob Lachky told Ad Age days before Trump’s victory.
While massive brands like Bud Light must appeal to all, niche brands can afford to be edgier. Seventh Generation, for instance, is equally as focused on environmentalism as it is on cleaning products. It was a founding company in the B Corporation movement of purpose-driven businesses, and even charges itself a carbon tax. Although Trump didn’t discuss climate change in his Feb. 4 State of the Union, the brand made a statement by launching its “Believe in a Seventh Generation” spot focused on climate change on ABC, CBS and NBC right after he spoke, featuring an archival recording from a State of the Union speech delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943.
While few brands outwardly support candidates, the people running them often do, which can cause PR problems. Consider Kevin Plank, the former CEO of Under Armour, who caused a stir in 2017 for publicly praising Trump. It did not go over well with the company’s biggest endorsers, including Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland, both of whom criticized the CEO’s pro-Trump comments.
But the Unilever brand faced backlash when one of its founders, Ben Cohen, showed his support of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in 2016 with his own product: Bernie’s Yearning ice cream. In 2019, after Cohen was named a national co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign, he introduced another one of his own flavors, Bernie’s Back. The flavor, from a brand called Ben’s Best, prompted confusion among some consumers who thought it came from Ben & Jerry’s. “I buy your ice cream all the time. No longer,” one person tweeted, according to a 2019 story from Delish.com. Miller stressed to Ad Age that “we have always been non-partisan, we don’t endorse candidates, nor do we endorse parties.”
Still, there is a perception among the public that brands backing causes favor Democrats. When polling firm YouGov recently asked “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: I like brands that are willing to get involved in social issues,” 66 percent of Democrats agreed, compared with 26 percent of Republicans.
For brands targeting Republicans, the focus should be on the product “and keep the issues out of the ad,” says Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov’s ad platform, called YouGov Direct. Touting a product as American-made could also help with conservative consumers, because 48 percent of Republicans say they make an effort to support American businesses, compared with 26 percent of Democrats.
Even attempts to appeal to both parties with messages that aren’t overtly political carry risks.
In a 2020 Super Bowl ad, Budweiser appeared to play it safe with a unifying message called “Typical Americans,” which juxtaposed negative stereotypes with imagery of people doing good deeds. For instance, when the voiceover said “look at him, touching other people’s things,” the image was a man pushing someone else’s car out of the snow. The ad scored in the top 5 percent in terms of empowerment, said Ace Metrix’s Daboll.
It was deemed “a little too political for my taste” by one woman who gave feedback to Ace Metrix. But it went over well with a man who stated that “In this era of Trump and acerbic polarization, this ad reminds the viewer just how great this country really is!!”
Another way to play it safe is to simply promote voter turnout. Nearly 400 companies have signed onto “Time to Vote,” a nonpartisan effort to boost voter participation. Time to Vote companies say they’ll make it easier for employees to vote—offering paid time off, providing resources for mail-in ballots and early voting, even making it an Election Day free of meetings. The companies include the Carmichael Lynch, FleishmanHillard and Ketchum agencies, and retailers such as Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Levi Strauss & Co., Patagonia, REI Co-op and Walmart.