Mark Ritson: Opposing Trump means sacrificing sales for brand values

American marketers have an exquisite dilemma: should they stand against President Trump’s policies and risk alienating half their market, or stay impartial and weaken their brand values?


Just over a week ago, farm mechanic Lars Tollef was enjoying a cup of coffee in his home town of Tolga in Norway. To the 27-year-old’s complete surprise the local paper approached him and asked him to answer a few questions for its regular feature ‘Over Kaffekoppen’, in which a local person answers a series of harmless questions over a cup of coffee.

One of the questions was: “Who you would like to be stranded on a desert island with?” Lars took a long pensive swig of his coffee and then replied: “Donald Trump.” When his answer was met with a quizzical look he explained: “Da tar jeg en for laget” – I will take one for the team.

Chances are you chuckled like me when you read this and then thought of Lars Tollef as a rather benevolent, open-minded Nordic dude. Anyone who takes the piss out President Trump, especially in such a delightfully sardonic way, must be cool. Right?

READ MORE: The risk and rewards of brands taking on Trump

And he’s not the only one. In America, a country which is traditionally far more reserved and respectful towards its elected officials than we Brits, the last seven days has witnessed an explosion of anti-Trump rhetoric and political jostling from billion-dollar organisations and world-famous brands, the like of which we have never seen before.

Brands v Trump

The approaches range in both tenor and impact. On one end of the extreme are brands like Dove, which gently mocked Trump and his team’s invention of “alternative facts” with a campaign in which Dove makes a series of unsubstantiated and fanciful claims about its antiperspirant (it increases your IQ, first used by Cleopatra – you get the idea). The gentle humour and the fact that the campaign is, at least primarily, only being run in the UK ensure it’s on the mild side.

American marketers have to choose between a stronger brand with a smaller target market or a bigger market with a weaker offer.

In contrast, coffee chain Starbucks was earnest and explicit in its response to Trump’s recent ban on immigrants entering America. “I write to you today with deep concern, a heavy heart and a resolute promise,” explained CEO Howard Schultz last week.

“We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question.” Schultz went on to announce that Starbucks would find jobs for 10,000 refugees across the globe in its various coffee shops.

In between these two extremes were the brands that got caught out and caught up in the cultural melee that surrounded the immigration ban and the subsequent media fallout. At first Uber stayed silent and used surge pricing when cab drivers in several major cities went on strike supporting immigrants trapped at the airport.

But the sudden explosion of #deleteuber tweets combined with the clever manoeuvring of rival firm Lyft, which donated $1m to the American Civil Liberties Union as soon as the crisis began, left Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick changing course faster than a limo driver looking for their last pickup of the night. Suddenly he was all about his immigrant employees and a few hours later Kalanick had withdrawn from Trump’s advisory board too.

Budweiser was caught in a similar position, albeit heading in the opposite direction. Their beautiful Super Bowl ad at the weekend was the tale of an immigrant – Adolphus Busch – who lands in America and forges a path to greatness thanks to a chance meeting and a big idea about beer.

READ MORE: How the Trump era is shaping this year’s Super Bowl ads

But the ad, which had been thought up and produced long before President Trump’s inauguration or his subsequent ban on immigration had been announced – presented Budweiser in an unintentionally liberal light to an audience of more than 100 million Americans – around half of whom take a very dim view of anything that deviates from the Trump doctrine.

So while Travis Kalanick and Uber were rapidly backing away from supporting the new president, Anheuser-Busch InBev the global brewers of Budweiser, were quickly moving back towards Trump and denying their ad had subversive content of any kind.

“There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country,” Ricardo Marques, AB InBev’s most senior marketer told Adweek after the new spot aired. Rather, Marques claimed it was “a universal story” and certainly not one specifically referring to this current moment.

Standing up for brand values

So what was all this manouevring really all about? Well there have always been two ways to communicate what you stand for to consumers. The traditional method for positioning is to talk about your values and beliefs and hope they resonate with the target market. The alternative is to pick out an enemy or rival and oppose them in order to communicate you stand for something totally different.

I can try and impress someone by telling them how much I support gender equality or I can find an overt sexist and pick a fight with them in front of the person I intend to impress. Or in many instances I might try and do both.

Avis famously built its brand by positioning against Hertz and suggesting that as the number two brand it would work harder than the established leader in the car rental market. Virgin Atlantic built its reputation by spending the 1980s continuously at war with British Airways for no other reason than that the easiest way to show they were value, fun and innovative was to pick a fight with a UK conglomerate that was none of the above.

Similarly, Apple rebuilt brand equity in the UK by showing a literal personification of a PC (David Mitchell) next to a cooler, less nerdy persona of its own brand (Robert Webb).

Trump is currently towering over most of the discourse, media and news in America. It’s almost impossible for brands – particularly those that now espouse the importance of brand purpose above all other things – to avoid being caught in the shadow of his increasingly disturbing and authoritarian ideology.

The problem for marketers is that despite many of his alarming policies and comments Trump continues to retain the support of almost exactly half the American population. So while brands want to position against Trump to make their own values clear, they desperately don’t want to lose half their potential market in the process.

It’s a desperately difficult situation for American marketers because they almost have to choose between a stronger brand with a smaller target market or a bigger market with a weaker offer. Short of a desert island and a philanthropic Norwegian farm mechanic, American brands are going to have to work out how they dance between these two extremes for the next four years and perhaps beyond.



There are 13 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. John Douglas 8 Feb 2017

    What if brands just sold to their strengths and ignored the low hanging fruit of populist politics. Just for the next four years. See how that goes.

  2. Darren Paterson 8 Feb 2017

    Come on Mark. The ad market needs you focused on issues closer to home (UK/Aus). As one of only a few brave (sane/real/cynical) voices willing to call BS on the very “murky” and complacent industry, this article is a waste of your soap box. N’est pas?

  3. Jonathan Cahill 8 Feb 2017

    This is a completely fictitious dilemma. Consumers may feel contrary but they rarely translate it through.

    It’s just over a year since VW was caught cheating on diesel emissions. There was a lot of guff written at the time about erosion of brand value, as if it was an objective fact as opposed to a subjective value. VW has just become the biggest car manufacturer in the world – this doesn’t appear like erosion to me. Interestingly this fact seems to have escaped all the publications, such as this one, which made portentous statements at the time as to the great damage done to VW.

    It would be more constructive if commentators could pontificate about what happens in the real world rather than make hollow observations.

  4. Chris Blythe 8 Feb 2017

    Mark – two observations. One; at least this dynamic should encourage clearer targeting. Two; in most cases a strong brand with a smaller (but in all likelihood, more passionately committed) target audience has a much greater chance of success. And profitability!

  5. Nigel Costello 8 Feb 2017

    Interesting article Mark, although the brands mentioned are global – so while they may be choosing between pro and anti-Trump audiences in the US, they are also thinking of global sales and global brand image by being either side of very divisive policies.

  6. Andy Haywood 8 Feb 2017

    Interesting topic with no obvious answer. If major brands have been openly exploiting labour laws, evading taxes and countless other value-contradicting actions for years, there is a good chance they’ll avoid too many irreparable PR scandals.

    Less than a month in and you can almost hear the clenching of buttocks as brands pray they aren’t called on for an answer and I can’t deny the sadist in me is secretly enjoying seeing the spin doctors cyclone to find the perfect response.

    I’m all for brands standing up for values, especially if it results in more “good deeds” – it is the age of the celebrity-entrepreneur after all (one even made it to President). Will be interesting to see how all this develops and if anyone can actually win…
    In the meantime, more witty comebacks, please.

  7. Jason Chastain 8 Feb 2017

    The smart business move is to stay out of politics, and just motivate people to buy your product on it’s merits, imagine that! America is a divided nation, half traditionalists, half socialists. Businesses picking sides are going to alienate half the nation. Dumb move. 84 Lumber just paid $10 Million to send half of America to Lowe’s. Very stupid move, and if I were a shareholder, I would excoriate them for it. Inserting politics into business is for fascists. Inserting politics into every facet of life is a fav communist tactic the left love. The smart business would just recognize that all people can buy [ice cream] without picking a side, regardless of “Brand Values”. P.S. Trump is not Hitler, despite the paid attempts to smear him as such. They said the same about Ronald Reagan; he became America’s greatest President in the modern age. Relax. Just step back and enjoy life.

  8. dinger 8 Feb 2017

    I still think Trump and Brexit could be the John Lewis chrimbo ad of global economy – how’s that for a fix…

  9. Mark Pilipczuk 9 Feb 2017

    “Inserting politics into business is for fascists” says the trump troll on the day the president had a hissy fit when his daughter’s brand was dropped for poor sales by Nordstrom. In my view, although it’s best to stay out of politics, the brand message has to reflect the core values of that brand. If they offend people–even an authoritarian president–so be it. Just be true to the brand. And don’t fake outrage if all you care about is the almighty dollar. Your customers aren’t stupid and can smell hypocrisy.

    • Jason Chastain 9 Feb 2017

      “Our core values” is leftist code speak for inserting politics into business. If you sell ice cream, jeans, clocks, etc., there is no need to go fascist. The capitalist ideal is sell what they want to buy; win/win. BMW is “The Ultimate driving machine”, that’s their brand, so they have no need to insert politics. That’s how it is with most businesses. So Forbes magazine says Audi failed in their offensive superbowl ad that got far more dislikes than likes on Youtube. It was seen as a clumsy attempt to connect their brand to the controversial “equal pay for women” movement to profit from it. Some dumbass will certainly make justifications of “it’s our values” which really means “it’s our politics, and we’ll screw our profitability by injecting politics into business.” Bad judgement, and the pervasive attempt from the left to politicize every aspect of life is beyond tiresome, it’s offensive in a very real sense. (Not the phony “offensive” lefties claim if a male happens to be “manspreading” in a public seat.) Profitability for the prosperity of the employees, and the growth of the company (to make even better products that we love) is not worshiping “the almighty dollar.” It’s called thriving. Improving the lives of people around the world. The leftist hate of capitalism & progress is spiteful and irrational. Even hypocritical, as they buy and use what they profess to hate.
      And Mark, Trump calling out Nordstrom for dumping his daughter’s perfectly good product is another Prime example of stupid business moves based on political hate. Dumb move again. Watch them sink like Macy’s.

  10. Nigel Hollis 12 Feb 2017

    Just for the sake of accuracy, let’s remember that less than 60% of eligible voters bothered turning out which means that about 95 million people chose not to do so. So the risk of alienation is less than half. That said, unless your principles dictate otherwise, surely the decision comes down to who is likely to buy the brand? Urban, higher income consumers will likely appreciate an anti-Trump stance, rust belt middle class not so much.

  11. Campbell Andrews 12 Feb 2017

    I don’t agree with the premise of this article. There are some unusual consumer brands – such as Uber – which have been caught up in the Trump phenomenon for specific reasons. The vast majority of brands, and their brand values/promises, are A-political. And if they’re smart they will stay that way.

  12. Sandra Pickering 14 Feb 2017

    It’s rarely appropriate for brands to take a political stance. (Of course, what brand owners do behind the scenes is another question.)
    Jonathan Cahill and Nigel Hollis both make good points.
    Consumers don’t make purchase decisions purely on brand values and many (most?) consumers have no idea or indeed interest in the corporate ‘person’ who owns the brand.
    See VW, polluting oil companies, banks, the various companies who supported or opposed Brexit.
    Let’s be honest about our own behaviour: I know for sure that I buy products from companies whose corporate values are completely opposed to my own and I certainly buy products from companies when I have absolutely no idea of their values.

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