Global politics is looking not so much like an upset apple cart as an entire fresh fruit market careering round an Alton Towers twister. In this time of fake news, alternative facts and dubious agendas, are people looking less to politicians to define and defend their values, and more to brands?
Over the last few weeks the CEOs of companies including Google, Apple, Levis and UBER have distanced themselves from Donald Trump’s increasingly protectionist policies. Cynics would argue that an inward looking insular approach to commerce is simply bad for business, but these are brands who have values at their core diametrically opposed to Trumps lockdown vision of beautiful borders and bad hombres. Sitting on the fence (or looking down from the top of a ‘yuge wall’) is no longer an option. If community and interconnection are your foundation stones, your brand is worth nothing if you don´t step up to defend these ideals when they´re threatened. Marcel Marcondes, vice-president of marketing for Budweiser, said in a statement regarding their pro-immigration Superbowl ad that it was not intended as political commentary; but he did, however “Recognise that you can’t reference the American dream today without being part of the conversation.”
The weird thing about the ‘conversation’ is that brands seem to be behaving like politicians — releasing considered statements and respecting legal institutions — while politicians themselves seem to be behaving like (bad) brands; living on social media, reinventing language and taking a swipe at the ‘competition’ (judges, people with opposing views etc.) at every opportunity. How did this role reversal come about?
In the 90s, Tony Blair orchestrated a ‘rebrand’ of the labour party with a single mission: to get it elected. What use were socialist values — went the thinking — without being in a position to get them implemented? New Labour was a branding success, until the shine wore off. The original values that had underpinned the Labour Party were lost in the marketing spin, and the ‘voters as consumers’ approach just led to a lot of people who bought into the packaging, but were let down by the product. All they want now is ‘change’. Like a new cologne.
Applying the toolkit of brand marketing to politics can turn complex issues into simple consumer choices; ‘Together’ or ‘Take back control’. No surprise then that there’s no room for facts, or experts to complicate things. As for the quality of slogans, its a downward slide, especially when looked at in a brand context. It´s hard to imagine ‘Nike means Nike’ ever making it onto a billboard.
So if politics had the ideals but sold them badly, can brands approach from the opposite direction – shifting values as well as units – and make it work? the ones that try and make it work for them, rather than their customers, are usually the first to trip up. New Balance burnt bridges — and a lot of their own trainers as it turned out — over their apparent support of the new president. What they actually supported was opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal, which would have damaged their 100 year old family business by allowing the US to be flooded with low tariff imports. Brands are accountable in ways that politicians aren´t; if they get it wrong their public won’t be a bit miffed and consider switching allegiances in a few years time, they’ll have your product put through a shredder on Instagram before you can say #backtrack.
The ability to express a brands values elegantly, and eloquently, depends on how deeply rooted those values are. Watching a short, silent film of how to assemble an award winning temporary home for refugees, developed by Better Shelter and the Ikea Foundation, says more about Ikea’s true ideals than any amount of political posturing.
Right now, brands — big and small — must give their ‘social responsibility’ some real consideration, because what they say and do matters. Whether political activism represents acres of advertising space at the cost of a cheap bit of sloganeering, or a real opportunity to put genuine values into action, is down to them. People listen to whoever says it like they mean it, and right now, when it comes to Politicians vs. Brands, the latter are trumping the competition.
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