Part 1: In Tumultuous Times, Brands Step Up Their Advertising And In The Process, Find Their Voice

May 8, 2017
T. Alex Blum

Part 1: In Tumultuous Times, Brands Step Up Their Advertising And In The Process, Find Their Voice

Photography by Jerry Kiesewetter

By T. Alex Blum and Lee Roth

Los Angeles, April 21, 2017- At one time, it was enough for brands to associate themselves emotionally with aspirational lifestyles or demographics (I’m Lovin’ It, Taste the Feeling, It’s the Real Thing) without political subtext or agenda. But what was once the creative gold standard may no longer be enough. Change is taking place, and it is being accelerated by the emergence of polarized politics in America. There has been a shift in the landscape, and it constitutes a “perfect storm” of trends for brands to manage.

Conventional logic dictates that companies and marketers should steer as far as possible from bringing politics into communication about your brand; why ask for trouble? Pepsi’s recent experience seems to confirm that logic, but perhaps that’s the point. The problem with Pepsi is not that they touched the political third rail. It’s that they didn’t go far enough; they used the political landscape as window dressing without taking a position. If they had taken the time to examine the connection between their brand and the political context they were attempting to exploit, it might have given them some insight into just how far from authentic their message was going to feel.

Brands with Leadership Positions

Consider these five brands that have taken leadership positions in their advertising in favor of inclusion, acceptance, and diversity, and against divisiveness and discord.

Cadillac -Dare Greatly;  Hyatt - World of Hyatt;
Celebrity Cruises - Far AwayAudible - Zachary Quinto “1984”;
and The New York Times -The Truth is Hard.

In each case, the messages have some intrinsic connection to the brand itself, whether it is visual (actual footage of Cadillacs in prominent positions in the period footage), conceptual (Hyatt, Celebrity, and the NY Times) or associated with the function of the brand in a direct way (Audible). While it may be hard to come up with responsible and nuanced positions that will not alienate your customers, it has to be a healthy process for a brand to stop and take stock of what it actually stands for and then incorporate that into their messaging. These brands have done so on big cultural stages, like the SuperBowl and the Oscars, and the response has been positive.

Social Consciousness

Despite, or perhaps because of these times, there’s something interesting going on in advertising – brands are acquiring a social conscience and in the process finding their voice or strengthening their message.

Even well-defined brands have entered the cultural conversation to further enhance their positioning. Airbnb, Budweiser, and Audi have all recently made strong political or cultural statements in their marketing messages. Perhaps Uber should have given some thought to doing the same, rather than doing the opposite without thought.

Those who might simply argue that companies should stick with advertising their products and stay out of the national discussion altogether should remember that multiple studies show that a large percentage of millennials base their buying decisions on a company’s social agenda, and most of them will pay as much as 55%[1] or more for a product sold by a company whose ethics they approve of.

Since millennials are becoming the largest group in the national workforce with the most buying power, it is essential for companies to be clear where they stand on issues of national importance to them, whether they are customers or employees, or both. Staying on the sidelines and attempting to avoid political discourse now can mean that you lose ground to competitors who read the marketplace correctly and take positions that align with a majority of consumers.

Strengthen the Bond with Consumers

At this challenging time in our country’s history there is an opportunity for companies to step up and remind us of our core values as a society, and in the meantime, strengthen their bonds with their customers.  Kudos to the marketing leadership teams that dare to enter this space even at the risk of alienating some of their customers, and kudos to the agencies behind such inspiring work. Indications seem to be that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Let’s hope that challenging times in our society continue to be the catalyst for brands to take stock and redefine themselves and their values. If Washington, DC is going to be a moral and ethical vacuum, let advertising fill it. How’s that for irony.

T. Alex Blum is owner of Blum Consulting Partners, a production consulting firm serving Fortune 500 brands and their creative partners.

Lee Roth is a Senior Marketing Executive and CMO.

[1] Canvas8: Give a shit! The science of brand values

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