How Brands Can Better Navigate A Highly Charged Political Landscape

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Written by Clair Bergam, Associate Director, and Erynn Hughes, Strategist, The Media Kitchen

In the age of value-motivated boycotts, contagious Twitter rants, and radical transparency, many brands are rightfully fearful to wade into the murky waters of politics. The unfortunate truth, however, is that brands must be prepared to participate in the political conversation.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the need for brands to show their true colors and back up their values with actions, especially when those actions affect their employees.

And, while this certainly doesn’t mean a brand should proactively distribute political messaging, it does have implications for how it communicates its values and interacts with its customer base – particularly during a presidential election year paired with a public health crisis the current healthcare system infrastructure can’t support.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind in an increasingly political consumer environment.

Be prepared for consumers to assign political values to your brand

In today’s media-intensive political environment, consumers quickly form opinions about a brand’s political leanings based on a variety of inputs, ranging from how brands profit to publisher partnerships and advertising messages. Because of this, it’s best that brands be proactive instead of reactive when the time comes to stand up for their values. A great example of this is Patagonia, a brand that embraced its political beliefs and used them to its advantage.

Make sure your message is genuine

Remember the calls to boycott Equinox and SoulCycle last year after it was revealed that their parent company’s chairman hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for President Trump? In this case, the senior management’s actions didn’t match corporate initiatives like “powered by pride” or “LGBTQAlphabet.”

In a politically charged environment, a brand has to be careful to ensure business practices match the values it espouses. Brands are expected to be genuine, taking special care to craft a perspective specific to each situation, as opposed to the “insert here” templatized response.

Get involved where it makes sense

Brands should focus on political support where it makes sense. That means sticking to issues that relate to brands’ mission statements, consumer audience, and business sectors.

Media agencies can help brands determine realistic opportunities to pair messaging with the consumer mindset and ensure a campaign is consistent across all touchpoints, even in these uncertain times.

For instance, The Media Kitchen helped a financial services client quickly pivot, contextually targeting market peaks and valleys content — especially the valleys, with messaging focused on long-term goals. That meant making it clear that the client was able to act as a partner to help ease some anxiety around investing. This is an area brands may consider “not safe.” But remember, brands don’t have to have all the answers. In this case, the client was able to provide the answers they did have for their customers in their time of need.

Be realistic

Consumers don’t expect brands to solve the world’s problems, but they do expect them to pay attention to what’s important to them.

One good example is Khloe Kardashian’s denim company, Good American. With a mission to bring stylish denim to women of all sizes, the brand recently admitted it could do more to advance sustainability. A website announcement said, “We know there are still areas where we can do better – like sustainability… We knew that creating eco-friendly jeans was the most important first step to do our part in leaving a smaller footprint on the planet… We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re committed to this challenge.”

Establish brand safety guidelines

Advertisers can begin by establishing brand safety guidelines. Anyone working with a brand in any capacity should understand the boundaries the brand is comfortable with. That includes media publications or formats where the brand should and shouldn’t appear, especially during election years when political leanings are under a microscope.

Media agencies can help establish a brand safety policy that goes beyond a DNA (do not air) list. Brands should lean on agencies to strike the balance between brand safety and inventory scale as they work to reach campaign goals.

Getting started

A good place to start is gathering all of your company stakeholders together to understand what issues connect your target audience with your brand. From there, companies should evaluate their current policies and business practices for effectiveness, fairness, and areas that may need to change. Consider if you need to communicate that initiative to your consumers like Good Americans chose to do. Once you’ve completed your internal discussions and alignment, then you’re ready to execute.

It sounds like a lot of work. But, remember, consumers will assign political values whether you like it or not. If you do the work ahead of time, you can take control of your own narrative and avoid the damage control.

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