Brands have always struggled to maintain market visibility during election seasons. The media space becomes invaded by political messaging. This has only intensified in 2020’s unique political climate.
U.S. voters are more politically charged than at any other time in recent history, throwing the polarization of the electorate into even sharper focus.
The widening gap between our country’s two major political parties has become a chasm, leaving little middle ground for brands to occupy. In addition to this right/left separation is something just as precarious: the generational divide.
A range of pressing social and environmental debates resonates with Gen Z and millennials: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion. These values impact the way they vote, both at the polls and in the marketplace. On the other side of the aisle, climate change is less likely to dominate the political choices of boomers and Gen X than the swelling of the federal deficit.
So how can a brand express its commitment to the social responsibility required by its younger consumers while still keeping the loyalty of its older ones? It can be a difficult balance to achieve, and the key lies in strategy. As the electoral frenzy gathers pace, messages must be bespoke, targeted to reach and attract each segment.
The power of nostalgia is often used to appeal to brand loyalists, especially around big, nationwide events. Jeep’s Super Bowl ad featuring Bill Murray in his Groundhog Day incarnation is a successful example of this tactic, as is Facebook’s Rocky campaign. Yet nostalgia will not forge a connection with younger, cause-focused buyers.
This is not to say there’s no shared ground across the demographics. In fact, older buyers are increasingly realizing that the fights they thought they had won—ecological responsibility, gender and racial equality—are still being fought in new terms and arenas. This partly explains why brands have historically been reluctant to throw their weight behind certain issues. When the ground is still shifting, planting your flag is not a wise move.
Formerly, my advice to brands would have been to steer clear of aligning themselves with any political messages, but that is no longer an option in today’s market. Increasingly informed consumers don’t just want the product; they want to know the values behind the product.
Moreover, they’re not content with being fed the message a brand thinks they want to hear; they want to know if there’s substance as well as style. In this market environment, any brand heading off in a new strategic direction not only has to ensure the strategy checks all the commercial boxes but also has to be prepared to own it, live it and defend it.
Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter alum Casey Rand took this approach in her own career. When nonprofit Potential Energy was looking for a creative to boost engagement with climate change, Rand quit her post as executive creative director at Droga5 to step up to the challenge. Seventh Generation, a company marketing ecologically responsible cleaning and care products, showed a similar dedication this year. Instead of tying its ad spend to events such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl, the company seized the opportunity of the State of the Union address to broadcast its message of political and social responsibility to a mass audience.
In a similar way, brands and the agencies that represent them have to realize the spectrum of experience that encompasses the people who design, produce, brand and buy a product. Consumers from diverse backgrounds must see themselves reflected in the company if relationships are going to be created and maintained, and that means that diversity has to be built into the pool of creatives in charge of messaging.
If a company is going to successfully bring politics into branding, first and foremost, it must make commercial sense for the brand. Additionally, and of equal importance, the company has to believe and live up to its statements. A politicized brand statement by itself is empty, and consumers of all ages will see through it. It not only has to reflect the beliefs of customers, but must also be something the company is ready and able to demonstrate in its own operations.
As we head into a year dominated by electioneering, and as advertising increasingly embraces the politicized messages it used to avoid, brands need to be careful in choosing the territory in which they stake their claim to social and political identity. Brand messages must resonate with the consumers they are targeting, and in this current climate, the price of failure could mean alienating a whole generation of buyers will take their support elsewhere.