The Power, and Pitfalls, of Politicizing Your Brand

April 29, 2019
Author: Erin Leedy

There was once a time when even the most provocative brands may have sat on their hands and remained silent on hot-button political and societal issues. However, in today’s modern, globally connected landscape, the pervasiveness of social media has made this kind of discourse a necessary part of the conversation for brands.

It’s easy to see why. Examples such as Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign starring Colin Kaepernick have shown the power of harnessing a political stance to thrust your brand’s message into the public spotlight.

But brands don’t always get it right. Recent high-profile missteps from Dove and Gillette have shown the uproar that occur when brands attempt to piggyback powerful political discord.

So, what do brands need to understand when politics come into play?

Know your history

One of the keys to successfully pulling off a politically charged brand message is to really understand the historical politics at play. It may sound simple, but often organizations’ best intentions are undone by a simple lack of clarity around the conversation they are attempting to partake in.

Dove apologized recently following a particularly tone-deaf version of an ad that appeared on the company’s Facebook page. The online campaign showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath, a clip that was a shortened version of a 30-second TV spot that includes more than seven women of different ethnicities and ages. The aim, which comes across loud and clear on the TV spot, was to use the women’s differences to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness. Sadly, that message was lost in translation in the online clip.

The connotations of the ad instantly drew negativity and led social media users to draw parallels with racist soap adverts that were prominent in the turn of the 20th century.

The three-second clip turned into a long-running nightmare for the brand, and Dove was forced to remove the ad and apologize after the social media outcry started to dominate the news cycle.

In a tweet the brand explained, “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.”

But despite Dove’s apology, the damage was done. The social media backlash against the company continued, with many users calling for the public to boycott the brand. Indeed, the hashtag #BoycottDove was quickly trending at the same time media outlets were devoting thousands of column inches to the scandal.

Clarity is key

While Dove’s misstep showcases the danger of getting it wrong, a recent campaign from Gillette has demonstrated the potential pitfalls of failing to say anything at all.

Gillette’s recent ad revised its famous slogan, calling out toxic masculinity to ask customers, “Is this the best a man can get?” A deliberate attempt to enter the conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement, the company explained on its website, “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”

It’s an honorable sentiment. But the problem is that while Gillette’s intentions may have been good, the company stopped short of actually making a statement on the issue. Instead it felt like the company was merely piggybacking a current social issue rather than actually attempting to affect any kind of positive change. As a result, Gillette alienated both its customer base and the public at large. Indeed, the ad hit front pages across the globe and brewed a social media storm in the process.

The YouTube video of the advert, which has been viewed over 30 million times, offers a snapshot of the reception the brand received. To date, it has received 1.4 million “dislikes” and over 400,000 comments, mostly negative.

Managing backlash

One key thing that brands need to consider if they are going to take this approach, is that their statement is going to make a splash no matter what. You can’t please everyone, especially in the partisan world of social media. So, it can sometimes be difficult to decide how you should respond to any negative conversation surrounding your campaign.

Do you clarify, apologize or double down on your message? A lot depends on your original intent—after all, if you missed something, your approach would differ dramatically from the one you’d take if you had intended to make a statement.

Nike’s “Take a Knee” campaign, for example, caused outcry from figures such as President Trump and spurred viral videos of fans destroying the company’s products. Nike never apologized for its approach, however, and despite the backlash, saw sales increase by more than 31% after the campaign went live.

Nike’s success, alongside the missteps of Dove and Gillette, provides a lesson for brands that want to engage in this arena: the value of being able to quantify the impact of negative coverage. Without understanding how the discussion might impact your brand’s health, it is impossible for decision-makers to get ahead of the issues.

At Escalent, we are often asked, “Does negative press coverage really impact our brand health? And if so, can we quantify that impact?” Our Technology team conducted self-funded study to answer these questions, revealing the real impact of negative press coverage for some of the most prominent companies today.

Erin Leedy
Senior Vice President, Technology

Erin Leedy is a senior vice president of research and consulting in the Technology Research division of Escalent. She has been conducting technology research since 1996, focusing on the development of new hardware, software and services for the consumer and business markets. On the qualitative side, Erin is a skilled focus group moderator who specializes in observational and contextual site visits, modified ethnographic approaches, out-of-box and beta testing and product placements in consumer and business environments. Her quantitative expertise includes customer profiling, market exploration, segmentation and choice modeling. She graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree in industrial design. When not at work, she’s working hard to live up to her Twitter bio, which currently reads: researcher…designer…mommy…foodie…modernist…mixtapeologist…blogger.

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