Jon Sharpe: How Should Brands React to Brexit?
As a nation Britain has never in my lifetime felt more fiercely politicised or more deeply divided. Despite Facebook’s algorithms’ best efforts to prompt more personal sharing, my feed is awash with political posts. Gone are the kittens dancing Gangnam-style, the mourning of dead celebrities and endless Instagram-filtered long-lashed babies. In their place are petitions urging debates in parliament, crowdfunded campaigns for the prosecution of politicians, and meticulously researched Medium articles seeking to piece together how the current crisis of democracy has come to pass. How on earth can brands who rightly wish to build their cultural currency join this new national conversation without alienating huge swathes of people as they enter the fray?
Never discuss religion or politics at the table, or so the old adage goes. Tell that to Tim Martin, who recently distributed ‘Brexit beer mats’ across the tables of his pub chain J D Wetherspoon. Martin is staunchly Eurosceptic, so it’s no surprise that the beer mats urged drinkers to ‘Vote Leave and take back control’. However, what was most striking was the mats’ furious focus on Christine Lagarde. The copy addressed Madame Lagarde directly, demanding she answer a series of questions over her governance of IMF. It’s not known whether LaGarde has ever set foot inside a Wetherspoon, and, as one wit on Twitter put it ‘I had her down as more of an All Bar One type of girl’.
But what of the pint-drinking public? What might they have made of such a peculiarly partisan approach to the brand’s tableware? Some took to Twitter to complain, ‘What a surprise – J D Wetherspoon, a brand that uses zero hours contracts and prefers its workers to have minimal rights, is pro Brexit,’ but journalist Martin Daubney probably had it right when he tweeted: ‘How many whining lefties threatening to boycott Wetherspoon over their Brexit beer mats ever drank there anyway?'
Now that the results are in, we know that Tim Martin's support of Vote Leave, if not his vendetta against Lagarde, was likely to have been shared by majority of his customers. But should brands be engaging in this kind of political discourse at all? We’re already accustomed to, if not necessarily pleased by, newspaper owners using their publications to advance political positions. But what are the implications, when, thanks to social media, all successful brand owners have, to some extent, become media owners? Should brands also use their media estate and audience base to advance political causes?
If a company is independently owned then it’s entirely at the owner’s discretion whether they choose to use the brand as a mouthpiece for their own personal political views. If a company is publicly listed and has shareholders to answer to, then such an approach is likely to be met with opprobrium by the board. Instead, business leaders may choose to fund their own ‘private political broadcasts’, just as Sir Richard Branson and Allan Sugar did in the run up to the referendum, owning their political views as individuals rather than allying them directly with any of the brands they have founded.
The truth is that while direct politics may best be avoided, there are subtler ways to send out a signal to your customers. If yours is a brand that values tolerance, discovery and internationalism, let that show in your actions as well as your words. Casting is one obvious area where brand owners can challenge narrow minded views of nationalism, but event and social engagement-based marketing can be another powerful source through which to challenge prejudice and mistrust. Coca-Cola most memorably demonstrated this when it used its vending machines as a tool to broker a moment of human connection between people who found themselves on opposing sides of conflicts, such as that which has afflicted India and Pakistan.
As Rahul Gandhi once said, ‘Politics is everywhere…it is in your shirt… in your pants…. everywhere.’ It is impossible for brands to stay culturally current and not convey some political signals. It is a brand’s values that should help dictate what these signals should be. Take care to choose your values wisely.
Jon Sharpe is CEO of RKCR/Y&R