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08 December 2016

Time for brands to bite the political bullet?

As featured on the drum

As well as being remembered for cruelly taking some of our most iconic talents from us, 2016 will go down as the year that the cultural Cold War turned hot. So here’s a hot tip for next year that you can take to the bank:

In 2017, increasingly, big brands will be forced to take more overtly political positions.

OK, so as predictions go, this may well be one to file under ‘the bleeding obvious’ but it’s worth close examination by both brands and marketers.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have been the biggest pitched battles in the war raging between the forces of conservatism and liberalism in western democracies. But the skirmishes have been steadily growing in frequency and intensity since the global downturn.

The once cosy consensual middle ground where most people agreed on what you could and couldn’t say in polite company – and the mainstream media – has been split down the middle. And the two sides are knocking lumps out of each other, both in the name of saving society from itself.

And like any war worthy of the name it has claimed a significant number of innocent (and perhaps not-so-innocent) victims. Stars like Gary Lineker and Lily Allen have been irradiated by social media fallout after making public remarks in support of refugees and economic migrants.

Big brands have increasingly found themselves caught in the crossfire, with groups such as #stopfundinghate calling out big names like Virgin Media, John Lewis, the Co-op and toy maker Lego. The demand is that they withdraw advertising from tabloids that, in the group’s opinion, are spreading xenophobic messages and inciting hatred.

The backlash against the likes of #stopfundinghate has been swift. They have been characterised in the media (and, to be fair, mostly by the media) as meddling middle-class moaners, who would be best advised to go back to using their iPads for what they were bought for: the Ocado app.

Or they have been labelled as sinister agents of press censorship, trying to silence a free press that disagrees with them with a defunding strategy straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook.

The brands’ response has been less clear. Only Lego has been seen to act decisively, although it is not clear how much scheduled advertising it has actually foregone by cancelling its free giveaways in the Daily Mail.

The other brands have made obligatory accommodating noises about reviewing their advertising or have politely edged away from the group, saying that it is not their place to regulate or make editorial judgements on the papers they advertise in.

#stopfundinghate’s response is simply that: “demonisation and inciting hatred” of foreigners is not a political issue, it’s an ethical one. They are calling on big, influential brands that they have supported over the years to examine the way they do business and the company they keep. They are exercising their rights and duty as consumers, they say, to tell brands what they care about.

They have a point – about their rights and duties as consumers, at the very least. To a large degree, we marketers have played a part in bringing this situation about. For more than 30 years we have been persuading brands to be more social and authentic to show that they care about what their customers care about. Sustainable, equitable, ethical.

We have encouraged consumers to give us insight into what matters to them to help us shape brands that appeal more to them in order to sell better to them. Tell us, we’re listening.

And now some of them won’t shut up.

So, what’s a marketer to do, as consumer pressure on brands spills over the traditional confines of ‘ethical’ into the overtly political? 2017 will definitely see the pressure intensify. So, what’s the strategy to protect and enhance the brands we represent?

First, we own it. We’ve all been to industry events where some lucky winner bangs on about the power of marketing to change the world to an audience of approving, nodding heads. Well, we’re up. This is what we wanted.

Secondly, we embrace it. And remember that sometimes ‘political’ just means ethical positions that haven’t been universally subscribed to. For some brands, this environment represents an opportunity to stake out territory and take a position to appeal to a well-defined target audience.

For most of us, jostling to help our brands get a front row seat on the ‘early majority’ section of the bandwagon, the very least we should be doing is helping our brands and clients show that debating strongly held beliefs is a good thing. Take a position – even if it is one that will disappoint the likes of #stopfundinghate – and do it clearly, courageously and respectfully. Because, as a great strategist once said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

Damon McCollin-Moore, strategy manager, ifour

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