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Should Brands Wade Into the Political Fray?

5 minute read
Pierre DeBois avatar

In a recent post for CMSWire, I wrote about the risks for brands when they are exposed to consumer activism. These days though, brands face an additional risk when it’s their ad content itself that customers find objectionable.

Should businesses even try to plan content that responds to political commentary online?

Many Responses to Social Issues

The answer is complex from both technical and social standpoints. Discussions on social issues vary in tone based on the group or individuals involved, and because of that, they can drive a variety of responses.

Digital content has become a part of our daily lives. People read posts and share videos on all sorts of topics, and that ability to micro-target advertising has driven marketer investment in trying to refine that usage. And personalization is indeed effective, as eMarketer noted in a survey in which over 40 percent of respondents indicated “personalized content converted more customers.” 

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Nor are the platforms on which people discover content always purely commercial. For example, social issues and the lively political debates surrounding them, thrive on social media.

But if marketing has a golden rule, it’s not to comment on political or social issues that might antagonize customers. Coming across as political forces customers to assess their beliefs and decide if a business fits their interests. Ultimately, those customers vote by deciding whether or not to purchase from that business.

No Market for Bad Ethics

However, that rule is slowly bending as consumers begin to consider the ethics of the companies where they shop and do business. In 2015, eMarketer noted in a survey that customers did not want to reward companies with bad ethics.

As this trend has accelerated, businesses must now decide how they can earn client and customer trust through values. The results to date have been mixed, from successful campaigns to skirmishes where businesses have been publicly humiliated and defeated.

Dunking in the Dark

Today’s unpredictable cross-currents of politics and business also mean that Agile marketing’s 70/20/10 rule — which states that brands should spent 70 percent of their marketing budgets on planned content, 20 percent on SEO-driven delivery, and 10 percent responding to timely news — should be applied not only to positive messaging opportunities but to crisis management as well.

Oreo‘s now infamous “Dunking in the Dark” tweet during the Super Bowl 2013 blackout is a good example of commenting on an event without generating controversy. That’s because the blackout moment may have been surprising, but it didn’t pose a challenge to personal values.

Moscow Mules and Ties to Russia?

Today, though, marketers must plan their responses to events that often do touch upon values. Sometimes risky good humor works. Take the recent ad from vodka maker Smirnoff as an example.

Tying into former FBI director James Comey’s recent congressional testimony about possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the tongue-in-cheek ad featured a Moscow Mule cocktail and noted that although Smirnoff was made in America, it would be “happy to talk about our ties to Russia under oath.”

Miracle Mattress’s Marketing Fiasco

But marketing that parodies serious issues can backfire and create backlash, such as that faced by San Antonio-based mattress retailer Miracle Mattress.

Learning Opportunities

According to CNBC, the chain’s ill-conceived ‘Twin Tower Sale’ sale, which played off the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, provoked such fierce nationwide outrage that it resulted in Miracle Mattress going out of business.

4 Tips for Timely but Effective Advertising

For a marketing team who wants to create timely advertising without that advertising ending up as a magnet for unwanted social or political commentary, here are four tips to help keep your company’s messaging from attracting attention for the wrong reasons:

1. Decide what issues to promote

Consumers hold brands to higher ethical standards these days, but may appreciate a brand’s stance when it is related to their core business in some way. For example, Starbucks was praised when it used its ads to highlight the issues of fair trade coffee and clean drinking water. It was criticized, however, when it tried to foster a discussion about race — an important issue but not one directly related to its product.

2. Highlight issues that promote your values

Addressing issues that have no obvious connection to your operations can be tricky, but the key is to note how an issue challenges your company values. 

For instance, last January The Detroit News reported that Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford and President and CEO Mark Fields spoke out against the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions by noting that the policy went against Ford’s values of inclusion.

3. Study trending hashtags

If a brand’s campaign hashtags are spiking in search volume or trending suddenly or for no apparent reason, it may mean that an ad has touched a nerve and demands a response. You can do a quick search on Twitter to determine how a hashtag is trending and being used. If you see slang or shorthand, the site Tagdef can show which terms are used and whether their use raises any red flags about ad content.

4. Examine affinity reports

Use your analytics solution to see which subjects consistently draw people to your website or app. Such an analysis can reveal ideas for where and how to proactively capitalize on that interest with company interviews, videos, ads and statements.

Plan, But Verify

Maintaining your brand’s integrity means evaluating how the brand mentions your customers see can upset even your best-laid marketing plans. On the other hand, remember that a robust effort to verify facts and respond to comments can also protect your brand’s integrity and earned customer loyalty from the shifting winds of political statements.

About the author

Pierre DeBois

Pierre DeBois is the founder of Zimana, a small business digital analytics consultancy. He reviews data from web analytics and social media dashboard solutions, then provides recommendations and web development action that improves marketing strategy and business profitability.

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