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The Influencers

Has the US Election Been a Trump Card for Brands?

Huge, 4 weeks ago

Tyler Starrine, Associate Strategy Director at Huge, ponders when brands should and shouldn’t play a role in political discourse

Has the US Election Been a Trump Card for Brands?

Ever since Oreo famously earned Super Bowl size fame for their Dunk in the Dark tweet, brands, and their agency partners, have been feeling the pressure to master real time marketing and find ways to inject their products in pop culture. We’ve seen this approach generate a great deal of positive earned media for brands, such as when Arby’s tweeted at Pharrell during the Grammy’s. But we’ve also seen the damage that can be done when brands don’t select these moments carefully – lest we not forget when ATT chose an image of their product to accompany a tweet about 9/11, or when Total Beauty thought Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg were the same person. Whoops.

Of course, errors like these shouldn’t deter brands from engaging in real time content – they should just stress the importance of doing so wisely, and with a strategy in place to make sure that their content doesn’t show up on the list of that year’s social media fails. One of the first things that brands can consider is – what are the right moments for us to be a part of? The Oscar’s for instance made a lot more sense for Total Beauty than September 11th made for ATT. But what’s a brand to do during an election year when so much of the online chatter is related to one of the most contentious topics of all; politics?

We’ve all seen how politics can divide friends, and even families - especially when the race is as heated as this year’s is. So why on earth would brands even consider getting involved in this topic? For one thing, there’s more pressure than ever for brands to relate to their customers through more than just their products. With brands now expected to engage in real time conversations through multiple social media outlets, it puts them in a position of figuring out a number of things beyond their corporate mission statement: What’s our personality? How do we relate to our users on a daily basis? What do we talk about, other than our product[s]? What do we stand for? 

This, combined with the pressure of cutting through the clutter of digital to reach their users, makes it easier to understand why brands might broach a topic that could get them in trouble – if it means potentially generating substantial earned media, and a mention in a magazine. The challenge then is – do we do it or not? And if so, how? 

Here’s one suggestion that I’d argue can stay true across most major brands that are hoping to reach a large scale audience – you never want to align yourself directly with a specific political party or candidate. Have you seen the polls lately? We are a country very divided. Unless you want to risk alienating your brand from half of the population, probably best not to start tweeting #ImWithHer or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.

Does that mean brands should sit out the conversation entirely? Not at all. There are several ways to join in on the conversation without picking sides. We’ve seen great examples of this recently. Audi’s Duel spot is a great example of how to build content that’s timely and relevant, without risking angering either side of the debate. What 7-11 is doing with their Election Cups is a really clever example of how to benefit from the passion between the parties without aligning yourself with anyone.

Of course, these types of activations really only serve to drive engagement with content – not really to differentiate yourself in the marketplace or deepen the connection between your brand and the values it holds. The good news is, brands can do that without aligning themselves to a particular party or candidate – and those opportunities are year-round. Having a POV on social issues that align with your brand values is a great way to achieve this, and earn the respect of consumers that align with your position. Of course there’s the risk of alienating those that don’t, but depending on your audience composition and how clear your brand values are in other aspects of your marketing and operations – those risks may be relatively minor.

Consider REI’s #OptOutside campaign. There were a lot of reasons this was a relatively safe activation for the brand; despite being a major corporation their business practices give them credibility in their stand against consumerism, they knew this message would resonate with just about all of their consumers and they weren’t really risking anyone being “offended” by their position. 

We’ve seen other brands take a stand on issues that may be more contentious, which while riskier, can also deliver a stronger impact. Starbucks took quite the risk in 2012 when they issued a statement in support of gay marriage. This is one of the most divisive issues in our country and as a mass-brand they risked alienating a good share of their customers. Still, despite several calls for boycotts, sales have continued to grow year over year since that statement. Another issue that comes up time and time again in political discussions, this was a bold, if not risky, move on Bumble’s part. But again, they chose to comment on a topic that is aligned with how they’ve positioned their brand and with an understanding of their core audience, they knew this was something that was sure to excite and not enrage their user base. You can see how well received this was by taking a look at the comments on their Facebook post from later that day. 

So, when considering if it’s right for your brand to comment on the election, or anything related to politics, be sure to think first about a few key factors: What are our brand values? How well established are those values and do we feel confident that our customers understand them? Is the majority of our audience aligned with our values and will they respect our position? And perhaps most importantly – is there a good reason for us to get involved, beyond hoping to earn ourselves some buzz? Hopefully understanding that if the answer to that last one is no, you should sit this out, is something we can all be united in.


Tyler Starrine is Associate Strategy Director at Huge