The Blurring Line Between Brand Purpose And Brand Politics



Here’s a quote: “This is not a time to be unclear on what your point of view is [and] what side of history you choose to be on.” And here’s another: “They can look at my track record … whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities, and they can say that … the United States of America [has] stood on the right side of history.”

These messages could be from the same speech. Yet one statement is from a CMO and the other from the commander in chief running for reelection. Can you tell which is which? (The first statement is from P&G’s CMO, Marc Pritchard, and the second is from President Obama).

For over a decade, the notion of brand purpose has increasingly become central to marketing strategy, with various studies showing it’s a critical component to commercial success. Now it seems that the line between brand purpose and brand politics is increasingly blurred to the point of near elimination.

To wit, Proctor & Gamble, the largest U.S. marketer, has:

 Debuted transgenderism in ads for Secret deodorant.

 Sponsored a 2-minute ad called “The Talk” that highlights the challenges of African Americans over time in a racially biased society.

 Featured the gay pride flag in a Head & Shoulders ad.

Brands have responded to the call of duty.

David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr, launched #TechStandswithPP at SXSW, a Tumblr-led initiative in support of Planned Parenthood and women’s health care. Meanwhile, Target stood up in support of the Equality Act and removed all merchandise that featured the Confederate flag as well as gender-specific signs for toys. And on the other side of the aisle, Chick-fil-A found itself in a national controversy when its founder sided against gay marriage.

Is there a line between brand purpose and brand politics?

Based on personal experience from consumer insight work on a top-tier brand, there can be. After one of our clients took a brand purpose stance that resulted in an appreciable loss of sales, we traveled to L.A., Dallas and New York, to ask Hispanic, LGBT, African American and white consumers their perspectives on different brand purpose initiatives from leading U.S. brands. Here are a few lessons we learned:

1. Regionality plays a large role in defining social context.

Regionality seemed to impact consumers’ brand perspectives as much or more than ethnic or sexual orientation: Regardless of the group identities we interviewed, the general attitudes toward the brands and their social outreach efforts were heavily influenced by the individual’s location.

We also learned that most of the brands were seen by consumers as profit-driven actors. Therefore, social actions need to be acknowledged by brands, or it’s likely consumers will find motives to be self-serving. Brands that expect to be treated as selfless entities are unlikely to succeed in that approach and might even be perceived as cynical in their intent.

2. There are certain things a brand should consider before taking a stand.

Before taking action, it’s important for brands to take into account brand equity, a brand’s current social context and other dimensions that relate to what consumers believe and want from a brand. Ask yourself: What does my brand currently stand for? How do we make money, and how do we acknowledge our self-interest? Are we seen as currently contributing to the social good, or are our actions going to be seen as trying to manipulate opinion? Are our brand purpose efforts aligned with why we exist, mission-wise, as well as commercially?

These and other considerations should go into the deliberation on what will be an effective brand purpose.

3. Brands must be aware of the consequences.

By no means should a brand taking a stand on an issue limit brand leadership, but rather provide an informed approach to knowing what tradeoffs are being made and for whom.

For example, Nike just made a decision to “take a stand” with Colin Kaepernick. How does this fit with Nike’s brand essence? Is shifting from on-the-field athletic performance to an off-the-field social stance consistent with its brand mission? Will Nike be seen as leading a social conversation, or cynically trying to capitalize with younger consumers on the basis of notoriety? My guess is that Nike has thought this through, certainly more so than Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner. But one never knows.

In our client work, these insights became the framework to navigate brand purpose from brand politics in creative executions of all kinds — digital, social, broadcast and print.

The guideposts in social conversations are frequently shifting. Consumers of all stripes are not necessarily interested in having a brand engage them in social or political issues (Starbucks’ failed race conversation, for one). Brand purpose can easily run into pitfalls of poor execution, perceived lack of authority or misinterpretation by outside groups that are reframed in ways unintended.

Given our increasingly polarized political climate, brands should be extremely thoughtful and not assume consumers’ opinions are easily classified. We found huge surprises in our work. The conflation of “doing good” with being purposeful seems to happen with some regularity.

In a climate where there are fistfights over Walk of Fame stars and MAGA hats, brands taking positions — progressive or conservative — could be recipes for strong consumer reactions. Brands and their leaders should rely on deeply considered consumer-centric guidelines when taking stances or may risk their branded hats sparking headlines or fights outside their stores in the not-so-distant future. We have already seen a spate of consumer boycotts already.

Consumers will tell you either way.

Brand purpose can be transformative, impactful and commercially viable, but as the market shifts and more brands are looking to fill the brand purpose space, it should be done with consumers in mind and fully live up to the promise.

Purpose-driven work can work well, and it can be inspiring, such as Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld, which did a nice job humanizing cultural hot-button issues. The more heightened our politics get, the more the lines blur between purpose and politics. Don’t forget your consumers along the way.

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