It has not been politics as usual in 2016. Instead, it has been a year that left pollsters scratching their heads when the unexpected became a reality. Britain is on its way to leaving the European Union and Donald Trump is preparing to make the White House his new home. For brands, big cultural moments have always been easy wins when it comes to marketing. Flagship events such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl are ways to capture a large audience already consumed with the event and share the brand's message with them. Yet politics is normally out of bounds as companies attempt to appeal to the widest consumer base possible. But increasingly, as more companies aim to be lifestyle brands and part of consumers’ daily lives not only through products but through values as well, some are beginning to enter the political fray.
Ben & Jerry’s has long differentiated itself as a brand with a social purpose that tends to skew towards the left and liberal. It has launched flavours that support gay marriage, environmental issues, and more recently, voting rights. But its One Sweet World campaign sought to bridge feelings of division after a tumultuous year. Launched in the European market in response to Coventry University’s study on negative narratives in the press, the animated short shows a lemon with Trump-style hair cut espousing alienating rhetoric to crowds of cheering lemons. After a lesson in inclusion, it ends with the message: ‘We don’t live in a one-flavour world’ and promotes dialogue over division.
Inclusivity seems to be the key message from brands that are dipping their toes into political discourse. Amazon, Airbnb and Apple have all recently released ads that promote togetherness and open-heartedness. Despite the fact that each was developed before Trump’s election victory, they are a response to the months of political agitation and feelings of alienation that a particularly brutal campaign fostered.
But is a gentle message of inclusivity all that brands can and should do? Is it possible to cross the line when it comes to politics? In the UK, the Stop Funding Hate campaign has been pressurising brands such as Waitrose, John Lewis, Sainsbury's and Co-op to remove their advertising from media that spread messages of hate. Lego, which had also been targeted by the group, was the first to respond, announcing on Twitter that it will end its promotional activity with The Daily Mail for the foreseeable future. But John Lewis has said that while it fully appreciates the strength of feeling on the issue, it never makes an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper, and some commentators have declared that the campaign is tantamount to political censorship. That’s the difficulty – by pulling advertising from The Daily Mail, not only is Lego passing judgement on its content, but also on its readership, and that is more than two million potential customers it risks offending.
Perhaps the tactics of Ben & Jerry’s after Trump won the election are a place to start. Moving away from the inclusive yet placating tones of the One Sweet World video, it adopted a more explicit stance. It posted an open letter to him on its website, stating: ‘During your campaign, you gave voice to many Americans who feel left out and marginalised, and today we challenge you to hear the voices of all Americans… We want to honour all of our nation’s experience.’ The tone is careful, respectful of the fact that Trump has been democratically elected, while acknowledging that not everyone is pleased with the result. It doesn’t just pay lip service to messages of hope and inclusivity. It acknowledges that while Ben & Jerry’s is a company that wants to get its ice cream to as many people as possible, it is also full of people who have different opinions and beliefs. It both congratulates Trump and challenges him.
It used to be easy to be a Brandstanding company that promoted causes that felt universally important such as the environment. But if the US election and the Brexit vote have taught us anything, it is that a huge number of people feel ignored by politics. They probably feel ignored by brands as well. Ben & Jerry’s acknowledges this group while standing by its own values. Now is the time for other brands to do the same: uphold their values and reconsider how they talk to consumers beyond the aspirational urban elite. It's time to become a little political.