No Matter Who Wins, the 2020 Presidential Election Won’t Drastically Shift Brand Strategy

Spending habits won't change much, either

a map of the us in red, blue and white
Experts say it's not likely for the election to effect too much in the brand marketing world. Illustration: Kacy Burdette

While a year that began with quarantine and ends with a contested presidential election might not be good for your blood pressure, the brand marketing ecosystem won’t change all that much, according to experts Adweek talked with.

“The electorate is not a consumer base,” said Kate Muhl, a brand analyst at the consulting firm Gartner, pointing out that although this year brought out the most voters since 1900, when 73% of the country voted, an estimated 40% of the country didn’t cast ballots this year. And regardless of ideology, “the job of a marketer is to speak to the whole pie, not just the slices,” Muhl said.

“The reality of the moment isn’t going to be different once a winner is announced,” she added.

According to a survey conducted by Gartner, consumers don’t anticipate changing their spending habits based on the results of the election. Eighty-one percent of self identified liberals say their habits would stay the same while conservatives came in at 78%. And 52% of those surveyed said they “expect brands to vocally support and uphold the values of U.S. democracy.”

For the near future, brands and their marketers will continue doing what they always do: invest in channels that reach more diverse and young audiences and reach consumers at the “shelves, not the voting booth,” said Muhl. 

“For big mainstream brands, you probably need to continue to lean a little more toward left-leaning values even if [President Donald] Trump is reelected,” she said.

This lean was most evident this summer when brands from Procter & Gamble to Nike offered up statements—or even full campaigns—in support of Black Lives Matter activists.

Conversely, according to Muhl’s own research, conservative audiences often don’t react to how brands participate in social conversations, instead holding an emotional relationship with brands at arm’s length. And brand boycotts rarely move the needle either way.

“It’s almost a point of pride. They say branding doesn’t work on them. They don’t care about advertisements,” she said. “[The last presidential election in] 2016 didn’t slow brands down, and I’d be very surprised if it slowed down brands that were already making those investments. They resonate with American consumers.”

There is a significant caveat, most evident in brands like Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia and Lush Cosmetics, which proudly wear their politics on their sleeves. Even as some adopt a more progressive stance, not every brand has that ethos.

“There is significant clarity regarding the attitudinal shift that has been taking place among Americans,” said Forrester’s Dipanjan Chatterjee, pointing specifically to Walmart’s uncharacteristic stance on Black Lives Matter. “As brands and consumers, we have crossed the rubicon. As a body politic, we may yet have some catching up to do.” 

But there’s still going to be nuance to how brands express those more outwardly liberal proclivities, said Allen Adamson, founder of marketing firm Metaforce and adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. So long as brands “do the right thing,” like treating their employees fairly, attempt some measure of adopting sustainability practices and generally stay out of the way of controversy, marketers will have an advantage even with so much uncertainty. 

“The country still remains phenomenally divided,” said Adamson. “It’s too risky for brands to try to play one side or the other. Nothing this week should necessarily change what they’re doing.”

“The better the corporate citizen, the stronger the brand, especially in a volatile environment,” he added.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.