Brands and politics: Thinking inside the ballot box

Taking a political stand has long been taboo for brands, but consumer expectations that companies have a greater social role is encouraging some to speak out.

Earlier this month, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz published a blog post calling for businesses to put pressure on the US government to come to an agreement over public sector pay: “I hope you share my view that it is our responsibility to address the crisis of confidence that is needlessly being set in motion,” he said.

The coffee chain also called for leaders in Washington to end the fiscal crisis and launched a petition in its stores for the US Government to pass a long-term budget deal by the end of the year. The petition attracted 1.5 million signatures including from corporates AOL, Caterpillar and Marriott Hotels.

But what benefit does this kind of political action have for brands? According to Rohit Bhargava, professor of marketing at Georgetown University, making political statements is being used by businesses to their advantage.

“For a long time, one of the most basic rules of marketing was that you never talked about politics or religion as they were taboo topics. 
But two trends have caused brands to start looking at [commenting on politics].

“First is the idea that customers want to know more about the companies behind the products they buy. Second is companies are taking a stand, for example, towards the pro-side of gay marriage. They have been able to say they are pioneers, ahead of the curve in terms of supporting customers and [those kinds of activities] have turned into a positive PR result.”

For example, pasta brand Bertolli took advantage of comments from the chief executive of rival Barilla about prefering to portray a ‘classic family’ in its advertising.

In September, Guido Barilla told Italian radio: “The concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company. I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals, who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak 
to is a classic family.”

Barilla did apologise, but Unilever-owned Bertolli had already posted an advertisement showing ‘pasta and love for all’ on Facebook, with similar-shaped pasta holding hands.

However, having a political point of view can be dangerous, says Bhargava. “While it is no longer taboo to have a view, it doesn’t remove the potential dangers. You might upset the people on the opposite side of whatever issue you jump into.

There is a risk that when a brand comments on something, people might question what makes that brand the one to tell people what to believe 

“The other downside is that you comment on something [when you as] a brand don’t necessarily have a credible voice. People [might] question what makes that brand the one that should be telling anyone what to believe.”

Brands that have a long history of using political imagery in advertising can credibly continue to use it, he says, for example Benetton’s ‘Unhate’ campaign, which featured presidents from a different viewpoints kissing, such as Barack Obama and former Chinese president Hu Jintao. However, as Benetton is about inclusivity, this type of creative works for the brand.

Simon Miller, Telefonica O2’s deputy head of public affairs, says that political statements can work for brands such as Starbucks but companies must be careful not to align themselves with 
one party.

He says: “It is difficult to disagree with the sentiment [urging the US government to come to an agreement]. I think it is important that brands are not put in a position where they are seen to be of a certain political hue or colour.”

O2 has relationships with politicians across the political spectrum. “We have 450 stores and employ 11,000 people in the UK across the full patchwork quilt of political colours and we need to have a dialogue with those audiences,” adds Miller.

Although O2 does not make political stands, it has, like many companies, lobbied politicians regarding policies related to its sector. It is using talks with government to highlight its role as a champion of enterprise through its work with start-up incubator Wayra, says Miller.

“We are on a transformational journey as a business from being a digital operator to a fully-fledged digital communications business. To do that we have to embrace enterprise, entrepreneurship and digital innovation and drive those to the heart of our business. 

“Promoting and supporting those sorts of projects are things that the government is keen to support as well. So there is a happy alignment where what is good for UK plc is also something the government feels strongly about.”

Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg launched Wayra UnLtd, an accelerator for start-ups that use ‘technology to solve social problems and deliver social benefits’.

Virgin launched a celebratory campaign when same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK, an issue it had campaigned for

“Supporting young people and those under-25 who are out of work has been a longstanding commitment that pre-dates the coalition government. We work with them on digital 
skills and other areas as well as the very technical issues such as the 4G auction and the cost of spectrum fee [the charge to operators for renting airwaves, which Ofcom wants to quadruple],” says Miller

Natasha Pearlman, deputy editor of Elle magazine, agrees with Miller that companies should tread carefully if they want to get involved with politics. “If brands find a campaign that is right for them, then I think it is appropriate. I don’t think lots of brands will be rushing in to be involved with politics and I don’t think that politicians would necessarily welcome that.”

Elle is campaigning for women’s salaries to match those of male colleagues. It has worked with agency Mother to develop a ‘Make them pay’ campaign, highlighting the fact that British men are on average paid 17.4 per cent more than women. This was also picked up by Clegg who said this month: “The gender gap is a stubborn problem. Although progress has been made, government and businesses need to do their bit too. We are introducing equal pay audits which will force employers who break the law to change.”

Pearlman says the campaign has been designed because she and editor Lorraine Candy are passionate about equality – and that the political support is a bonus. “We did this as an issue we believe in and we couldn’t have predicted the political support. We speak for women – that doesn’t mean we are automatically going to become a campaigning magazine. We do things we believe in and that resonate with our readers.”

Like Miller, she says it is unwise to state an allegiance to a particular party. “The intent was not to position us to the left or right, it was simply to raise awareness.”

For Bhargava, issues become unpalatable when they involve money. “In the US, where it starts to get tricky for the brand isn’t when it does a Facebook post saying ‘we did this versus that’, it is when the brand says it has donated millions of dollars to this guy’s campaign instead of that guy.

“That is when you could get into real difficulty – what are you going to get back from the money you have donated? That is the bigger moral issue, and as a marketer and a person in society I worry about it.”

He says it is more likely to be companies owned by one or only a few people that get involved in political donating, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which donated nearly $60,000 to President Obama’s 
re-election campaign last year.

“Whoever has the biggest cheque book is 
going to get the policies and the direction 
they want If there is an ethical concern over branding, marketing and politics it is that,” Bhargava concludes.

Brands taking a political line

Virgin: Richard Branson supported same-sex marriage as part of a series of videos made by campaign group Out4Marriage, saying ‘everyone should be able to get married to the person they love’. When same-sex marriage in the UK was legalised in July, Virgin Holidays ran ads stating ‘Same sex marriage bill. Passed. Time for a honeymoon.’

Starbucks: Chief executive Howard Schultz openly supported Barack Obama during the 2012 re-election campaign. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy he said: “We saw the very best of President Obama, not only leading, but leading with a deep sense of humility. And as a lifelong Democrat, it wouldn‘t surprise anyone I‘m supporting and voting for the President.”

Marriott Hotels: The Republicans’ 2012 US presidential nominee Mitt Romney rejoined the hotel chain‘s board of directors last year. Brothers Bill and JW Marriott donated $1m each to Restore Our Future, Romney‘s political action committee, which fundraised for his campaign.



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