Identity politics and its relationship to brands and business has always existed. Based on my own experience in the field of marketing, it goes all the way back to the Mad Men days. We always had to be careful about our clients’ messages, sensitive to whether we might be insulting one particular group of consumers or another. Companies know to protect their flanks for any number of reasons, key among them partisan consumerism.
Consumers have always used their dollars to vote on political, social and economic issues, supporting brands they believe align with their personal values. More than this, consumer boycotts against one company or another have been used for years as a way of expressing political beliefs. What is new is the reach and speed of any political action, the result of the steroidal effect of social media, the emotional energy that churns and gathers steam. Also new relative to the old Mad Men days is that companies have become extra sensitized not just to the content of their messages, but to the placement of their messages.
The most recent evidence of this is the Keurig-Hannity controversy wherein Keurig announced it would abandon the advertising of its coffee makers on Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity Show because of how he reported on stories about Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. Some of the Fox host’s supporters began posting videos online of Keurig coffee makers begin smashed or blown up. After first calling the videos “hysterical,” Hannity subsequently walked back his views and called on supporters to stop smashing coffee makers in protest to Keurig’s decision to temporarily suspend its advertising on the show. That the Keurig brand battle has been magnified by Russia-affiliated Twitter bots magnifies, as well, the challenge advertisers face today in the face of hyper-politicized consumerism.
Given there are so many potential flash points for advertisers these days, and so much latent fuel for the potential fires, what are companies supposed to do about the dual challenge of being sensitive to both their messages and their choice of media? How do they ensure they maintain brand relevance in an environment when things are changing so fast – relevance being a primary factor in a brand’s success?
Well, they can take the route of “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing and you’ll never be criticized.” This quote, attributed to Aristotle, was used by Kathleen Hall, VP of Brand, Advertising and Research at Microsoft during her talk at the recent DPAA Video Everywhere Summit in New York to underscore the serious conundrum for marketers who are trying to keep their brands safe from harm in a fast-changing world.
For me, as someone who spends his time working with companies in their efforts to shift ahead of consumer needs, Hall’s comments were especially significant. Absolutely, you need to stay out ahead of what consumers want, and ensure you do so before the competition does. It’s what smart companies do. But, given the environment in which we live – the all-digital-all-political environment – it’s almost impossible to take on any marketing endeavor without touching the third rail. No matter what you do in your efforts to shift ahead, the only sure thing is that you are going to ruffle some feathers.
The natural reaction to operating in this environment is to overthink, to overanalyze, and to become massively risk averse. To spend time and money second guessing what might arouse ire in one group or another. Follow this strategy and in the end you may not get as badly slammed as you might have, but on the other hand your brand may well come to an end. Relevance will be a moot point.
So, how do you withstand this supersonic social media, politically charged environment? You don’t react, wait for the situation to define your actions. You do, in good part, what my former boss, the late, great David Ogilvy, advocated. You take a point of view based on what you know is right for your brand, and you stick with it.
In other words, you focus relentlessly on your core values and why the core group of people who love you, love you. Success these days is not – cannot be – about trying to keep everyone happy all the time, especially when opinions change all the time. Sure, every company wants every customer they can get. But these dollars are not enduring. They can disappear in a moment. In a world rocked by so many cross currents, the smartest companies stay focused on what they stand for to their most loyal customers. They stay true to their values and to their true believers.
As Kathleen Hall said in her remarks to the DPAA audience in reference to Microsoft’s view on operating in an always-on world, wherein anyone can pounce on your choice of message or media, “We are true to our values. We believe in empowering people to do great things. We have principle-based guidance. So it’s not about whether it’s Will & Grace or South Park or Breitbart or Fox News. It’s about what do we believe.”
The new reality for companies in a world of shifting ideas and fracturing opinions is actually a time-tested reality. A David Ogilvy reality. Determine what you stand for, stand up to it, and stick with it.
For more perspective about how brands are staying relevant in our fast-changing world, check out my new book, Shift Ahead or brandsimple.com.