I was listening to the Business of Digital podcast recently, and their most recent episode was about mixing business and politics. The message was, don’t do it. The reason seemed to be that you’ll alienate half your customers by introducing politics into your marketing messaging.
Needless to say, I disagree.
In fact, I was really surprised to hear this from a marketing podcast.
The hosts framed the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick as a gambit that the company was large enough to weather, but they’re wrong. The Kaepernick ad was a calculated strategy. Nike saw an opportunity to reach their target audience, and they took it. Surprisingly enough, Nike’s target market isn’t middle-aged white republicans. And those were the people we saw throwing away or destroying their Nike products on social media.
And that reaction was a really valuable part of the marketing strategy. It turned a huge corporate entity deeply embedded in the status quo into an enemy of the status quo in the minds of consumers. It’s a type of hostile marketing, and it wasn’t a mistake. It worked.
Gillette razors released an ad campaign tackling toxic masculinity. There was an overwhelming negative reaction online, largely from men who felt that the company was attacking masculinity as a whole. Pictures circulated on Twitter of men throwing their Gillette products in the trash. And while some news sites attributed financial losses to this ad, Ace Metrics, a marketing analytics firm, paints a different picture. They reported that only 8% of viewers reported that they were less or much less likely to purchase the brand, compared against 65% of viewers reporting that they were more or much more likely to purchase the brand.
This was also a calculated strategy. Gillette, an old brand, is faced with the challenge of winning younger consumers in the face of competition from companies like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. Metrics reported by AdWeek show that the conversation generated by the ad was largely favorable with younger people and with women, groups that Gillette had failed to reach previously. Additionally, whether the conversation generated by the ad was positive or negative, it brought life back to an old brand and struck a chord that reverberated with the current zeitgeist.
Pepsi attempted to capitalize on this climate by releasing an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which failed miserably. The ad depicts Jenner as a model in the middle of a photo shoot joining a diverse group of protesters carrying signs with mealy mouthed, non-controversial slogans like “Peace” and “Join the Conversation,” and in the end saves the day by offering the police a Pepsi, at which point the crowd erupts into cheers. I guess you could say that the message of this ad is one of unity, urging the BLM and other racial justice movements to reconcile with police, even though police forces across the U.S. are notably hostile toward these movements. This trivialized a movement dedicated to preserving the lives and dignity of racial minorities in this country. Not a good way to approach this demographic.
Green marketing is without a doubt political, and it has been so successful that it spawned frauds engaging in green-washing; the practice of marketing a product as green when it really isn’t. A majority of consumers report that they’re willing to spend more on a product that they perceive as socially or environmentally responsible, according to Nielsen. This is particularly prominent among Millennials and Gen Z, but Boomers show a bare majority as well.
Green marketing doesn’t just work on consumers. Investors are increasingly searching for green investing opportunities, to the point that new financial instruments were created to capitalize on and fuel the demand for green and socially responsible investing.
And this is happening on a smaller scale as well. A small company called NerdyKeppie specializes in selling quality queerwear, and if they left their politics out of business they wouldn’t have anything to sell. Their business is by nature political, in part because they’re selling identity, and identity is by nature political.
Your engagement with politics may be more subtle, such as it is with digital marketing firm Intellitonic. The founders of the company got involved with non-profits local to Bellingham, WA where the company does business. These non-profits support sustainability, help for homeless youth, and community support for the arts. These may sound non-controversial, but here in Bellingham, they are political stances. This involvement embeds the company as part of the community.
On the other side of things, there’s an example of a “local” company that completely failed to take into account the politics of a new market. When Melvin Brewing moved to Bellingham, they didn’t consider how their bad boy image would play, and they got an education in social media disasters as a result.
So, we’ve looked at some large and small companies succeeding in using politics in their marketing, so let’s look at why.
The fact of the matter is, all identity is political, regardless of whether the people possessing that identity know it or will admit it. Especially now, with high rates of political polarization. We’re seeing a large amount of that polarization occurring between age groups, with older generations trending conservative and younger generations more liberal.
Older brands must reach younger customers in order to remain relevant, and brand and identity have been intrinsically linked for a long time. That link has only grown during the internet age, as identities that one is born into become less and less important. Younger generations, less tied to ideas of tradition, construct their identities themselves, and one of the ways they do that is through brands.
The right content is not the only ingredient necessary for doing this well. You must also deliver that content in a way that resonates and in a way that’s credible. This is one of the reasons the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad failed; it failed to deliver a clear message, instead delivering a message of “unity” instead of taking a stand. Progressives viewed the ad as pandering and not credible, even though it was directed toward the political left.
Clearly not all brands need to approach politics this way. Tide detergent doesn’t need to focus on the political needs of its target market, although makers of detergents and other cleaners often benefit from green marketing. But Nike and Gillette market to facets of identity that are inherently political (age, race, gender). And in these cases, the political needs of your market cannot be ignored.