Taking sides: should brands get political?

2 December 2016 | By Sign Salad

Last month, the leader of the French far-right party Le Front National, Marine Le Pen, revealed that it had appropriated a Banksy mural as the inspiration for its 2017 campaign logo.

The mural in question is one of Banksy’s most famous: a young man wearing a baseball cap and hiding his face with a kerchief prepares to throw a bouquet of flowers like a grenade, in order to communicate the artist’s agitated cry for peace. Le Front National has replicated the mural and tinctured the bouquet with blue to match the colour of its party. Despite the party’s protestations about what meaning it sees within the mural, it is well known that Banksy’s artworks implicitly critique the mistreatment of migrants, and is therefore at odds with the intention of Le Front National’s usage.

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The appropriation of signs and symbols for political gain is a process that its originators often have no control over. Not even brands are exempt from this. When consumer brands take on newfound political meanings, it can make matters very sticky indeed.

An expression of support towards president-elect Donald Trump by the Vice President of New Balance on Twitter spurred division amongst the brand’s customers. Through social media, the event snowballed as a Neo-Nazi blogger declared New Balance trainers the “official shoes for white people”, while other customers voiced their rejection of the brand by burning their own NB trainers. Since then, New Balance has had to vociferously reassure customers that this political point of view was out of context and did not represent its entire company, and that the implication of hate and bigotry were against its brand values.

In similarly compromising predicaments, Tic Tac and Skittles both had to publicly dissociate their brand with political allegiance when during Trump’s election campaign, the candidate and his son referred to their brand products in dubious contexts.

It is usual practice for a brand to refrain from proclaiming political allegiance, but is it ever strategic for a brand to embrace a politically motivated point of view, or does it always risk alienating customers?

Ben & Jerry’s is an interesting case study for political communication. Already known for launching its own “Empower Mint” flavoured ice cream to raise awareness of the difficulties affecting low income and minority voters, the brand released an advert after the election result depicting Trump supporters as bitter lemons. Other brands, such as the Mexican beer brand Tecate which built its own wall at the US-Mexico border, countered campaign rhetoric to promote broader values of inclusivity and anti-xenophobia.

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As younger consumers increasingly choose their loyalties based on a brand’s social and environmental values, there is little reason why it couldn’t extend to the political realm. After all, Generation Z is often credited as more politically engaged than their millennial counterparts. And as brand activities are becoming increasingly transparent, a brand’s consumers – and by extension their employees – will be able to see exactly how it operates and aligns itself on political issues.

Going forward, brands will have to interrogate their own values and decide whether to engage politically with their consumers or remain totally neutral. If consumers continue to perceive political meaning and therefore support in a brand, it might be within the brand’s interest to tread softly and go with the flow rather than fight against it.

It’s worth mentioning that in response to New Balance’s imbroglio, Reebok took advantage of the chaos by offering free pairs of trainers to angry fans that disposed of their NB shoes. Perhaps this indirect route could be the best of both worlds: engaging in a relevant, political moment without explicitly taking a side.

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