Brand Purpose in the Age of Polarisation
There used to be a time when, outside of the US, the Super Bowl was a pretty niche concern. If televised at all, it was enjoyed by insomniacs, new parents and ex-pats trying to decide between a 4am beer or breakfast. These days the result is somehow universally absorbed by social media osmosis and the half-time ads have become an annual event in the global ad industry.
Even casual observers couldn’t fail to notice this year’s big trend: brands nailing their colours to the mast by riffing on themes of immigration, diversity and inclusion. Budweiser told the tale of a young immigrant called Adolphus Busch and his hazardous journey to found the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. 84 Lumber tugged at heartstrings with Mexican migrants facing a huge border wall. Coke re-ran its 2014 ‘It’s Beautiful’ ad, featuring Americans of different cultures and colours singing ‘America the Beautiful’ in multiple languages. Most interesting was AirBnB’s ‘#WeAccept’: featuring nothing but the faces of AirBnB employees, the media slot was bought and the ad re-edited (to include a reference to different faiths) in just three days, making it a clear (if implicit) statement.
Now it’s not new news that many brands (say they) stand for something. It’s easy to make noises about diversity and freedom in a friendly environment….but it gets interesting when these brands and companies find themselves going up against some very powerful political opponents.
As Tasha Space (of CS Space) has pointed out, a key driver of strategic advantage nowadays is total brand reputation and experience, inside and out: your product/service, your mission, your sustainability story, your internal culture and, of course, your values and how you express them. Today’s consumers, especially millennials, favour brands who share their values. And these plucky ‘young' millennials (some of whom are celebrating their 40th birthday this year) tend towards the socially progressive and left-of-centre: research showed the majority of 18-35s voted against the British Conservatives in the 2015 election, were reported to oppose Brexit and, despite a collapse in the Democratic vote, still voted 55%-37% in favour of Hillary.
So they can be unforgiving when they see ‘their’ brands sleeping with the enemy. Uber took a battering when they failed to show solidarity with the NY Taxi Workers Alliance’s 1 hour protest stoppage against Trump: #DeleteUber quickly trended, causing CEO Travis Kalanick to resign from Trump’s tech advisory board days later. Meanwhile, ride-sharers Lyft generated a bus-load of positive sentiment for its $1m donation to the ACLU (despite having also ignored the strike and counting vocal Trump supporter Peter Thiel amongst its investors).
One could argue that this kind of active stance is much easier for certain brands than others. America is an increasingly polarised country: the number of ‘landslide counties’, where voters were split by >20% in their choice of president, has increased dramatically: 26% of voters lived in such counties in 1976, 60% in 2016. In fact, just 10% of Manhattan voted in favour of ‘Easy D’, 9% of San Fran and 4% in the swamps of Washington DC - meaning any brand with a particularly affluent, urban customer base (coughAirBnBcough) could afford to come out against the travel ban. But Chesky’s Super Bowl media buy, strongly-worded tweets (in contrast to Elon Musk’s exercise in circumspection) and commitment to housing refugees does rather point to him putting his money where his mouth is.
If California were to secede from the Union, they say, it would be the 6th largest economy in the world. Similarly, Apple’s $178bn reserves puts it on a par with New Zealand. Most tellingly, Denmark’s recent appointment of an official Ambassador to the tech giants shows a huge shift in power and influence, with Foreign Minister Anders Samuelson describing the new tech giants as “a type of new nation”. So when companies like Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are queuing up to condemn an Executive Order, it has a different weight to it.
Whether you’re a brand purpose believer or think it’s (always) all about the bottom line, one thing is true: when a brand takes a stand, it needs to back it up with action or it will get found out and punished. And as there’s nothing to suggest the flow of Executive Orders is going to stop any time soon, the logical step is that more brands will move from proclaiming their values to a politicised, even defiant brand activism role.
It is, God help us all, going to get interesting.