When (Or Whether) Brands Should Take a Political Stand

When (Or Whether) Brands Should Take a Political Stand

When ad agencies and marketing firms work with clients on branding and brand development, how much focus should be given to brand-aligned cause marketing?

This is an interesting question in an era where brands seek to be perceived as more than just purveyors of products or services. Especially among younger generations of consumers, brands that are socially responsible, or attached to specific causes, tend to be more highly regarded than brands that just want to sell us stuff. But that alignment of brand and cause can be tricky to execute over the long term. It’s tougher than ever with the amplification of social media, and the high emotions of brand audiences in a politicized—and politically correct—environment. 

All of these factors raise the question of whether brands should be involved in cause marketing at all. Brands should primarily engage with audiences in ways that encourage those audiences to buy, re-purchase, talk positively about and even recommend the brand. Supporting causes is lovely, but when that support is tied to selling products, audiences get touchy about brands’ clumsy efforts to “pretend they care.” Brands that step into politicized debates assume even more risk.

Fake Causes

Once upon a time, brands supported causes because they saw a way to help communities where they were headquartered, or give back by using their products in beneficial ways—not just for the PR value. Today, even giving back is assessed with one eye on metrics. Is it really giving if you’re looking for payback for the effort? And how does one measure goodwill, anyway?

Maybe brands and their ad agency guides need to think more carefully about cause marketing as a strategy. If a brand supports a cause solely as a philanthropic effort, that’s a fine thing; but promoting that effort should be focused on the cause, not on how wonderful the brand is to support it. That is why so few brands do cause marketing well. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an admirable addition to an overall brand strategy, but should never be primarily about marketing.

Know Your Values and Audiences

While many brands strive to stay out of the political fray, a few brands on both ends of the political spectrum have picked sides based on their core customers. Two beer brands felt the heat of publicity and boycotts for openly supporting the Trump administration. Yuengling, a Pennsylvania brewery in the heart of Trump country, and more recently, Boston’s Sam Adams brewery, attracted as much negative attention as positive support. The Boston brewery is located in the diverse neighborhood of Jamaica Plains, where many residents view the brewery’s founder Jim Koch’s public support of President Trump as a slap in the face. Like many politics-driven boycott threats, the harm was in the initial publicity; sales in general remained stable, indicating the two brands’ core customers drew the line between beer and politics, or agreed with the brands’ positions.

Elsewhere, Nike incited conservative ire by featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its 30thAnniversary iteration of the “Just Do It” campaign, “Dream Crazy.” Nike is the official apparel supplier to the NFL (one year into a new eight-year contract); meanwhile, the league was being sued by Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid for conspiring to keep them out of the league over the athletes’ #TakeAKnee protest against systemic police brutality. When the ad first ran, social media lit up with a #BurnYourNikes hashtag, which was quickly taken over by mockers of people destroying products they had already paid for. And, of course, there were many who disdained the entire campaign as not worthy of all the uproar.

Alex Abado Santos, writing at Vox,com, pointed out that Nike used Kaepernick deliberately, and got what they paid formillions in unearned media per BloomburgNews, and their name trending at the top of global news feeds. Even as Nike shares dipped the day after the ad campaign announcement, Nike’s high-profile timing—at the start of the NFL season—indicates careful calculation of risk and reward; two-thirds of Nike’s customers are younger than 35, and are ethnically diverse. 

Nike has a history of courting controversy in their marketing, but this campaign appears to be trying to reclaim their past marketing mojo while subtly claiming to be social justice warriors after a year in which women employees revolted against a systemic culture of harassment and wage/promotion discrimination; and amid ongoing protests about Nike’s foreign-based factory labor issues. As Stuart Elliott wrote on MediaVillage, “I'd rather a flawed firm join in the conversation to help make a difference than a perfect one that keeps its corporate mouth closed.” As for the boycott threat, Nike’s core customers seem to agree; Nike sales nearly doubled over the Labor Day holiday compared to the same period in the previous year. 

But for every successful issue marketing campaign, there is a flip side. In July 2019, Nike revealed new footwear tagged with a Betsy Ross Flag decal. Kaepernick apparently led in warning Nike the flag had been recently co-opted as a Ku Klux Klan symbol. Nike knows who most of its customers are, and they’re not white supremacists. Nike pulled the product and drew negative press and social media attention for doing so.

Cause at the Brand’s Core

Other brands embrace controversy and are accepted as being entitled to a voice in political conversations. Outdoor brand Patagonia stepped into conversations around government policy on conservation and our national parks after the 2016 elections. Such stances (especially when done with very little sensitivity to the emotional climate) can be fraught with dangers for brands that try to lead politically charged conversations where the public sees them as hypocritical, self-serving or just tone-deaf. Patagonia publicly challenged Trump Administration policy over withdrawal from the international Climate Change agreement, and loudly proclaimed “The President Stole Your Land” when then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke decided to greatly reduce two recently established national monuments in Utah. 

It’s worth noting that as a B-corp (benefits corporation), Patagonia is committed to social responsibility as well as profits; it’s baked into their values, culture and entire mission. This year, the company launched Patagonia Action Networks, a digital platform for activists to connect to local causes and their communities. They and other outdoor brands, including North Face and REI, donate to the preservation of protected public lands, so taking these positions is not only a natural fit, but feels organic. Where company leaders are strongly aligned to their brands’ and customers’values, speaking out is a no-brainer.

Politicking Adds Risk

An annual survey from Brand Keys asked consumers which brands they deemed “most patriotic.” Some top brands deemed “patriotic” were Jeep, Disney, Coca-Cola and Levi-Strauss. More interesting for brands was the breakdown of how patriotic consumers profess to feel: self-identified patriotism increased across all age groups year over year, by as much as 17 percentage points, and regardless of political affiliation. Any of these top brands are vulnerable in a divisive political climate, where tags like “patriotic” are purely subjective.

Another survey from Sprout Social found that 44 percent of respondents said they would purchase more from a brand with whose social/political values they agreed… but 53 percent said they would reduce purchases from brands that took stances they disagreed with. Eric J. McNulty, director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, recently told Strategy+Business that, even for values-based brands, politics can carry high risks. OnBuy.com used YouGov.com data to assess consumers’ willingness to boycott brands over racism in company culture/practices (44%), or harm to the environment (42%). And 51 percent said they would boycott brands that supported a party, politician or movement with which they disagreed. 

That said, while the primary drivers for brand loyalty remain price, quality and customer experience, Relatively few customers will actually cut support of a brand over values or cause/politics-related issues… and that includes supposedly cause-conscious millennials.

McNulty suggested three guidelines for when inserting a brand or company into a political or social conversation may be appropriate:

Are you a relevant participant?Does the company already support or participate in an issue related to the conversation? Brands with no real “skin in the game” will not be taken seriously, or may even be met with derision.

Does your stated position align with actual practices? Brands that fail to consistently “walk their talk,” paying only lip service to causes or issues, will be challenged by well-informed consumers.

Can you interact respectfully with consumer pushback on social media?Respect your customers, and remember they are people, not data points. Acknowledge their feelings, conduct an honest conversation, and be prepared to back up your positions with sound data and reasoning.

As brand advocates and guides, agencies should counsel their clients to be careful about stepping into politics, either out of C-suite personal views or the brand’s PR strategies. Agencies can help by staying attuned to a brand’s key audiences, seeking an understanding of customers’ feeling about various issues, their perceptions of the brand’s visibility or investment in an issue, and the potential cost of publicly expressing political views that do not align with a brand’s stated mission and values. Brands will be more apt to suffer damage from making a desperate grab at a passing bandwagon than from carefully determining what causes align with their expressed values… and where they can make the greatest positive contribution. If your focus is not on positive outcomes for the cause, you’re doing it wrong.

Keep this quote in mind when advising your clients about corporate social responsibility, cause marketing and brand values:


“If you just do things for show, eventually it does.” 

Shaun Moran, Chief Creative and founding partner at Soul/UK


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