2017 brought major changes to what was once considered the political status quo. A new president with questionable tweeting habits, back-to-back sexual harassment scandals – the list could go on for ages. Suddenly, all conversations have become political.
All these changes have had a profound impact on the way businesses conduct their everyday affairs, the way governments work, and the ways in which people react and vocalise their opinions. Needless to say, brands have started aligning and readjusting their strategies, both for internal, and external communications.
Around this time last year, I came across this insightful article by Alex Holder, about the end of sexually-charged advertising, and the dawn of activism-infused advertising.
First, it was Lyft vs Uber, and the latter’s surging fares during the days of the protests against DJT’s immigration ban. Uber’s mishandling of the situation, and lack of social sensitivities, led to allegedly 200,000 members abandoning the service. Then it was Starbuck’s pledge to hire and train refugees, along with AirBnB’s free accommodation offer to anyone not allowed in the US, or affected in any other way. These activist campaigns stemmed from the aforementioned executive order and both brands were lauded for their firm solidarity stance.
As the aforementioned article points out,
[quote]It’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they are helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation. They can see that allocating their marketing budget to good causes has a better reach than spending that money elsewhere right now.[/quote]
There have been major eff-ups along the way. Who can forget Pepsi? The brand, in a rushed attempt to look relevant, went out on a limb and trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, brands are getting more and more vocal about their opinions, and their world-theory. In fact, they are picking sides. Some of them do so gracefully – like Patagonia for example – but others have left us puzzled over their way of hijacking the political news agenda.
The latest example that sparked a vivid discussion on our Facebook group was the famous Trump “my-button-is-bigger-than-yours” Tweet and the way KFC jumped in the conversation to deliver a seething attack directed at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s leader Ronald just stated he has a “burger on his desk at all times”. Will someone from his big shoed, red nosed regime inform him that I too have a burger on my desk, but mine is a box meal which is bigger and more powerful than his, and mine has gravy! #nuclearbutton
— KFC UK & Ireland (@KFC_UKI) January 3, 2018
I must admit that I found it very engaging as a copywriting study; hilarious. You could see me cracking a mischievous smirk. However, experts were quick enough to point out how this content strategy could fail miserably, and what the reward in terms of engagement would eventually strip from brand equity.
Hussein Dajani, General Manager of Digital Marketing for a Fortune 500 automaker, reckons that brands have a lot to loose from miscalculated steps for the sake of getting political:
[quote]This is too sensitive and political for a brand to jump on. I think McDonalds had the utter upper hand here with not replying back to them. Even if the original tweet went off the charts in terms of engagement rate, we need to stop looking at “reactions” quantitatively but qualitatively.[/quote]
Amplifying this stance, Tim Polder, Strategy Director and SXSW speaker says:
[quote]I would have never allowed this to go out. For all those reasons, and probably it not being befitting of any social media strategy I would have ever written. In this instance, KFC went in house, that shows they are just high jacking the latest news cycle. [/quote]
It’s undeniable that political commentary is no longer optional, it’s almost a prerequisite. The extent of it, though, constitutes the thin red line which separates a brilliant execution from a mediocre one, and brands should be conscious not to overstep the rather fuzzy boundaries. For when a brand gets political, the stakes are higher; Brands may create a niche, but they may also alienate their target audience once and for all.