It’s Time to Vote: How Can Brands Make a Statement?

By: Brittany Straughn, Assistant Account Executive, Corporate Communications & Maya Vaidya, Intern, Corporate Communications

Every four years, the U.S. presidential election offers up an opportunity for brands to partake in the political conversation. If a brand chooses to make a statement that is political in nature, it runs the risk of alienating customers and consumers by coming off as “choosing a side” or having an opinion. During this decidedly divisive 2016 season, how did brands navigate these volatile waters with their messaging?

The four lessons detailed below are insights into how brands can best take part in the political conversation:

1.     Generate Some Laughs, with Tact

During this election, the national tone has been somber at times. Response? Comedic brand advertising. Using humor (to an acceptable extent) can allow for the successful integration of politics and brand marketing.

Early in 2016, Legal Sea Foods developed a mock campaign centered on its CEO, Roger Berkowitz, running for president. The restaurant chain took commonly-discussed political issues, and put a “seafood” spin on each. The result was a series of ads which ran in The Boston Globe and as commercials on local television. Legal Sea Foods managed to successfully hit the mark with many of its ads, but a few seemed to move  too close to controversial political topics, producing consumer backlash after being directed at both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a more derogatory fashion than those pictured here. This serves as a reminder that humor can be effective in integrating your brand’s voice on hot-button topics, but only when done with tact and awareness of what crosses the line.

legal seafood img.jpg

2.       Respond quickly, and harness the power of social media

Whether at debates or on the campaign trail, the candidates are talking about real issues impacting the country. Sometimes those issues involve a brand. Whether a brand intends to engage in political discourse or not sometimes doesn’t matter, because it can be dragged into the conversation. Either way, using social media to respond quickly shows consumers a brand is engaged, aware and connected to current events.

Ford Motor Company is a good example of a company that capitalized on opportunity during this election season in defense of its reputation. During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump made the following statement:

“So Ford is leaving. You see that their small car division is leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They’re all leaving. And we can’t allow it to happen anymore.”

That same night, Ford moved promptly to use social media to respond and protect its reputation:

3.       Take the High Road

Elections can get nasty, with harsh words exchanged and insensitive statements made. A brand can abstain from election mudslinging and adopt a moralistic, higher road approach with its communications in an attempt to keep the peace and display its understanding of the important issues at play.

When Donald Trump Jr. compared Syrian refugees to Skittles this election season, Wrigley released the following statement within an email and brief portion via Twitter:

“Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

This statement was successful for a number of reasons: It re-focused the dialogue and positioned the brand outside of a hot-button conversation using a mature, intelligent voice. The strategic distance Wrigley/Skittles created between themselves and this issue serves as a masterclass in not allowing your brand to be dragged into the dumps during an election cycle, even when you did nothing to provoke or incite such attention.  

4.       Take notice of the political climate

Every election season is different, and companies’ communication plans should be designed according to the political climate the campaign has created.

More brands were vocal in the 2012 election season than this year. While there is no research to confirm, it may be due to the more divisive nature of this election. A brand’s strategy for bringing politics into its marketing efforts should be designed in a knowledgeable, sensitive way.

An example of a brand that recognized this is 7-Eleven. For the past five presidential elections, 7-Eleven has sold two different cups specially marked to represent either the Democratic or Republican party. The cup a 7-Eleven consumer uses is seen as representative of his/her potential voting behavior. Stores across the nation tally the cups bought for each party and 7-Eleven publishes the results state-by-state in real-time on its website. This year, 7-Eleven added a “Speak Out” cup option. Consumers no longer need to choose one side or the other. They have a “third party” option, which they can use to write in a candidate or idea beyond the two parties.  

The company released the following statement about the introduction of these new cups:

“While preparing for the 2016 count-the-cups poll, we learned that voters, particularly younger ones, aren’t just talking about candidates or even political parties this election. They’re taking to social media to talk about a variety of issues that are important to them,” 7-Eleven’s marketing vice president Laura Gordon said in a news release. “So we added the third ‘Speak Out’ cup to let people say what’s on their mind, whether checking one of the boxes on the back of the cup or writing one in and sharing it” 

This acknowledgment of the changing political climate makes 7-Eleven’s communications and business seem fresh and in touch with consumers.

In 2016, brands were strategic and quick in their responses to election discourse. Some changed their approach from previous years due to the novelty of this season’s circumstances. Others attempted to generate laughs and went a little too far, alienating their customers. In looking toward 2020, brands can take away that thinking strategically and mindfully about proactive communication during times of heightened politics will continue to have value. It is equally essential to be vigilant and ready to respond in an intelligent, informed manner should your brand unexpectedly become a part of the election season conversation.