The Risks and Outsize Rewards of Political Branding

In a time of unprecedented political partisanship, the risks and rewards of corporate political messaging are amplified. Viral marketing strategies including Nike’s partnership with racial justice activist and football star Colin Kaepernick, Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad, and Chick-fil-A’s stances on LGBTQ issues rally political sympathizers to a brand’s side and alienate ideological foes.

Street Fight checked in with Jen Capstraw, director of strategic insights and evangelism at growth marketing company Iterable, to get a sense of how significant the benefits and drawbacks of political branding are, which ideological direction political ads are predominantly taking, and how strong the evidence is for the efficacy of partisan messaging.

Could you tell me about some of the data indicating that taking a political stand or aligning your marketing strategy around your values is benefiting brands?

The best data we have is right from the horse’s mouth. There’s one brand founder who’s been bold enough to tell the world that his very vocal political stance is paying off in spades. That’s Bill Penzey of Penzey’s Spices. Speaking out on social issues is something Penzey has done since he founded his company in the 1980s—starting with his direct mail catalogs—but since 2016, he’s been tying anti-Trump administration screeds to product promotions to great financial success. We know this because in 2018, in an email newsletter with the subject line “This is what democracy looks like,” Penzey revealed how this strategy is boosting his bottom line.

And for the rest? Anyone who knows how to harness the power of Google can have a look at year-over-year revenue records in action for the brands best known for their political and social stances, such as Nike: Up and REI: Up. (Macrotrends.com is good for data points.)

Even Proctor & Gamble, parent company of Gillette, is showing quarter-over-quarter growth since its maligned January 2019 advertisement on toxic masculinity.

And while liberal-leaning brands dominate political and social marketing messaging and its benefits, this trend is not left-exclusive. Perhaps the brand best-known for its conservative point-of-view, Hobby Lobby, remains solid year over year according to estimates, stealing market share from arts and crafts stronghold Michaels.

Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, is the third largest restaurant chain despite widespread criticism of anti-LGBTQ stances. Sales were up 16.7% in 2018. That’s massive growth. And while the chain isn’t getting traction overseas, it remains untouched in the US.

The fact that Chick-fil-A is pulling out of the UK due to protests, though, is noteworthy. Conservative companies are shyer about their politics, and recent news that the company is moving donations away from anti-LGBTQ organizations reveals a shift and possibly the start of a bigger trend.

Where should a political stand come from? Does it have to come from the CEO? From the CMO?

Naturally, it depends. In the case of private, family-run companies, political and social stances originate with founders and other top brass.

At large public companies, the origins of these POVs are not necessarily clear. Board rooms, PR agencies and marketing organizations probably all play a role.

But certainly, buy-in must come down from the top. Today’s consumers are more informed—and more critical—than ever before. And political and social positions that don’t appear to come from a place of authenticity will be rejected.

How do brands taking political stances navigate the risk of alienating some consumers and their own workers, including high-level employees?

It’s not just a risk. It’s a reality.

But according to Bill Penzey, it’s a risk worth taking because it will pay off in the long run. His July 2018 newsletter reveals he believes he’s on the right side of history. And alienating some conservative folks today will simply rally not only those in his base who align with his perspective but also inspire new customers both today and tomorrow. Even in my own network, I’ve seen folks who were likely pretty indifferent about spice manufacturing in the past start staging impromptu photo sessions of their Penzeys hauls for sharing on social media—eliciting a wave of likes and comments. We’re talking about pictures of shakers of lemon pepper. And pumpkin pie spice. And Italian herbs. It’s a real testament to Bill’s ability to connect with the like-minded.

While there are brands that have taken conservative stances (Chick-fil-A, for example), it seems to me more brands are taking progressive stances. Firstly, is this accurate? Secondly, Scott Galloway, for example, has argued that progressive branding is a no-brainer for more upscale brands given that the much coveted millennial, upwardly mobile urbanites who work for and shop at those brands tend to be left-of-center. Do you agree that for brands seeking that audience and maybe most brands today, progressive politics is good business? 

Yes, generally speaking. We are definitely seeing exponentially more liberal messaging during this divisive period.

What is the risk consumers see political branding as a disingenuous stunt? How can that be avoided?

Consumers—especially young adults—are more informed, and more suspicious, than ever before. Inauthenticity is certainly something to be concerned with. It could backfire. Less stable brands could be taking a risk given today’s “cancel culture.”

As for the strongholds? Eh, not so much. Just have a peek at Pepsi’s big Kendall Jenner fail.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Follow him on Twitter @joe_zappa, and shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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