Risky business for brands that get political in marketing and advertising


In an era when much of the American public is increasingly divided by politics, some businesses have put their brands in peril by attempting to find commonality in political or social events.

With viral protests against cases of sexual harassment, racism and anti-equality fueling the media discussion on the web and over the airwaves lately, marketing and advertising agencies must help businesses protect their own brands from being caught up in the snowball of negative media commentary.

Some companies have incorporated politics with critical success rather than pushback. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has famously built advertising campaigns focused on humanity and diversity, including its iconic “Hilltop” commercial from 1971 and its Super Bowl companion “The Wonder of Us” earlier this year.

There have been several recent examples, however, of brands that entered the political fray with severe turbulence. Such cases include:

  • Pepsi’s campaign featuring reality TV star Kendall Jenner who offers a can of the soda to a police officer monitoring a public protest. The company pulled the ad after many critics suggested it lessened the importance of protests against police brutality, which was hotly debated at the time.
  • Uber received backlash when the company continued to operate while New York City taxi drivers protested by refusing pickups after President Donald Trump ordered an immigration ban in January 2017. Public pressure quickly mounted against Uber, followed by protests on social media suggesting its customers should “#DeleteUber.” Meanwhile, Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, said it would donate $1 million to the ACLU in response to the ban.
  • In November 2017, Papa John’s founder John Schattner questioned the leadership of the NFL over the league’s response to players’ protests during the national anthem. Soon after the Super Bowl, the NFL named Pizza Hut its new pizza sponsor.

Despite the consequences of these decisions, a Sprout Social study revealed that 66 percent of consumers, regardless of political affiliation, believe that brands should become more politically active. The study also said more than half of all consumers think such activity should take place on social media.

So how should agencies help businesses protect their brands when politics bleeds into their advertising and marketing campaigns? Before showing the world where the brand stands on a particular issue, businesses should consider these measures:

Be relevant but use caution. Your brand should be authentic in what it stands for when it comes to political issues. But those issues should directly affect the business. Don’t post about an issue on your brand’s social media channels just on a whim. Take a firm stance if it has an impact on your business and your customer base.

Act like a journalist. There are few ways to cause more trouble for your brand than to lie. If you take a stance with your brand and present evidence to support your position on an issue, then you have an obligation to fact-check before you share your message with your audience. If you risk lying, then you risk your brand become untrustworthy, and that may mark the end of your business.

Know who is receiving your message. If you know your brand’s customers well, then you’ll likely know the type of commentary that will garner the most positive response. Pay attention to how your customer base feels about or discusses an issue. Finding the loudest opinion may help you shape and deliver your brand commentary to an audience.

Ask yourself, “Is this worth it?” You can’t please everyone. By taking a stance on a political or cultural issue, you’re choosing to risk a negative reaction. Some customers and followers may decide to stop paying attention to your brand for a long time, if not forever. On the other hand, it’s possible your brand may see a net gain of customers and followers because of the position it takes on a public issue. Decide how much emphasis you want to put on politics in your messaging and be willing to accept some losses in response.

Have a sounding board. Brands can’t trust that they alone know best. Agencies that specialize in advertising, marketing and public relations have a unique ability to serve as a sounding board for ideas. Hiring such a service can help preserve a brand’s strength and integrity at times when it becomes part of a public conversation.