Brands In Politics: Implicit Responsibility Or Unnecessary Risk?

If you watched the Super Bowl, you’re probably still reeling from the unexpected win by the Patriots (depending on your camp – my congratulations, or my condolences). But the game isn’t the only thing that stirred conversation.

Some have said that Gaga’s musical set during the halftime show – ranging from the rallying lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” to the plaintive pleading of “Million Reasons” – was a subtle commentary on the tension that pervades America’s sociopolitics today… and others have lamented that the performance was apolitical and lacking in relevance to issues at the forefront of the nation’s discourse (especially considering that Gaga’s brand is built on and celebrates the unconventional and marginalized, and that her contemporary, Beyonce, took that political leap at last year’s show). This begs the question: What place does a brand have in politics?

The short answer: Perhaps, a pretty big place.

The long answer: It depends; it’s a little complicated.

I’ll explain my thoughts.

Bill Gates said, “I believe that with great wealth, comes great responsibility.”

And I agree with him. Today, more than any other time in history, brands have access to millions (in some case, billions) of minds – a wealth of access, which, I’d argue, comes with an implicit moral responsibility to positively impact the world. Incidentally, another major conversation surrounding the Super Bowl this year was on the advertisements that aired, and their relationship to the current political climate:

  • Budweiser’s ad told the moving story of the company’s founder, Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to the US in the 1850s and his encounter with – and triumph over – discrimination and adversity.
  • Coca-Cola revived its ad from 2014, a montage of Americans of different ethnicities set to a multilingual version of “America the Beautiful.”
  • Airbnb’s “We Accept” ad was a poignant commentary on the beauty and value of diversity and acceptance.

These ads sent a clear message: America’s greatness has unfolded because of strides toward diversity, acceptance and access to opportunity. Considering that these brands had to shell out $166,667 per second for their ads, it would appear that they took Gates’ words to heart too.

Yet, at a time when business, politics and culture are so inextricably linked, a brand using its platform to interrogate political discourse is not only a responsibility, it may also present an opportunity, particularly if this aligns with the brand’s purpose.

Over the last couple of decades, the study of purpose has expanded from being a principle of living to one of branding too. Motivational speaker and marketing consultant, Simon Sinek, argues that revolutionary brands, such as Apple, are successful, because, at the core of their strategy is a recognition and celebration of their big “Why.” This is the same thinking that drives work at BrightHouse, the consultancy, dubbed “The Home of Purpose,” founded by Joey Reiman, a renowned thought leader and professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. A wonderful example of this is Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign which tackles sexism and dismantles the sociopolitics of gender.

For Always, a brand that has been empowering women and girls for over three decades, making such a political statement, then becomes more than a responsibility; it becomes an opportunity to add nuance to their brand, and ultimately engage with their consumers in a deeper, more meaningful way.

But perhaps it also depends on a brand’s positionality in relation to its consumers. For instance, a consumer goods brand, such as Dove, may be better positioned to speak on social politics, than say, a Financial Services brand such as Goldman Sachs. One may be able to make a counter case, however; I find the thought of superimposing Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which interrogates ideas on societal beauty standards, on the Goldman Sachs brand, incongruous and laughable. I would posit that a political statement is more likely to resonate if it is in line with the brand’s perceived identity, brand purpose and positional relationship to its customers.

This then raises the question: What happens when a brand aligns itself with political sentiments that it does not appear to necessarily uphold?

A recent example of this is perhaps automaker, Audi – another brand which had a politically-themed ad this Super Bowl; the ad centers on pay inequality between men and women in the US, and ends with copy that reads, “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work. Progress is for everyone. #DriveProgress.” Expectedly, the ad roused controversy, with some calling this claim of pay inequality a myth; yet the real issue lies in Audi’s positioning of itself as a brand that is committed to progress and equality… especially given that Audi of America’s executive team is overwhelmingly homogeneous (only two of 14 executives are women, and only one is not white).

In such an instance, the seriousness of such a prominent political statement is not the only thing that is undermined, the brand’s credibility also comes into question; and in some cases, it can even have a gutting effect on brand loyalty (case in point: #DeleteUber).

I believe that brands have a moral and social responsibility to take political stances – stances that benefit the societies in which their businesses operate. Yes, taking a stance on a political issue can alienate a segment of consumers, and of course, the nuances of morality are for another debate. However, taking a stance also presents a real opportunity to connect with consumers on issues that matter to them, and thereby foster brand popularity and loyalty – ask Lyft.