decorative blocks display 2017 on them

2017: The Year Brands Got Political

— Ian Denning, Marketing Content Program Manager 

Politics in 2017 were divisive, unpleasant and nearly inescapable. It was hard for even the most nonpolitical brands to stay out of them — and some brands were dragged into partisan fights against their will.

Our Brands in Motion research starts with the assumption that brands operate in a world of constant motion and external factors like the regulatory environment, economics, political crises and the cultural zeitgeist all have an effect on the way brands communicate. Within that context, we learned from surveying more than 32,000 people in six markets around the world that consumers want brands that balance product functionality with purpose. In fact, 52 percent of our survey respondents said they expect brands to take a stand on important issues.

2017 gave them plenty of chances. Here are three notable intersections of brands and national politics, along with some resolutions for brands that find themselves in similar positions in the New Year.


Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land”

After the White House announced in December that it would reduce the size of Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Patagonia replaced its homepage with a black screen and the headline “The President Stole Your Land.” Days later, they filed a lawsuit to protect the monuments.

Although brands like Papa John’s and Keurig were shamed for taking what consumers saw as partisan stances, Patagonia went out of its way to argue that conservation is an issue that affects both sides of the aisle. In a statement, the retailer quoted Teddy Roosevelt and noted that 98 percent of the comments received by the Department of the Interior expressed support for keeping the monuments their original size — or even expanding them.

Reframing the conservation debate is familiar territory for Patagonia. Back in January, when Utah state officials began the process for reducing the size of the Bears Ears National Monument, Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario stated, “Conservation is really a bipartisan issue. It doesn’t have to become so polarized.”

2018 resolution: Look for consensus

Patagonia is very wisely calling back to an older, less divisive environmental conservationism, and in doing so mitigating the risk that consumers will see this as taking sides. As of this writing, its strategy has been largely successful — response on social media has been generally positive, the loudest critical voice is that of Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and consumers are responding to Patagonia’s call to action: The week after the lawsuit was announced, Patagonia saw a significant uptick in sales.


Facebook’s fake news

In 2017, Facebook experienced a rough backlash from the previous election season. Not only did Russian-controlled accounts purchase more than $100,000 worth of ads, but users spread hyper-partisan and often false news articles, creating a climate of hysterical misinformation on the social media site.

At first, Facebook refused to acknowledge the problem. “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way—I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Mark Zuckerberg said shortly after the election. By early 2017, however, as evidence mounted that groups had gamed the site’s newsfeed to deliberately spread misinformation, Facebook was forced to act.

The company was slow to implement solutions, and when it did, they didn’t work as planned. In September, Zuckerberg admitted he should have taken Facebook’s fake news problem more seriously. They are still testing solutions to the problem.

2018 resolution: Understand your influence

Facebook’s early response to the fake news crisis assumed that it was at heart a tech company, despite the fact that billions of people around the world get their news from their Facebook feeds (Sheryl Sandberg was arguing they weren’t a media company as late as September). Looking at the platform only as a technical product limited Facebook’s understanding of how it affects the national discourse and serves as a great reminder to analyze your brand and its environment through multiple lenses.


Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

After enduring an online howl of anger and mockery, Pepsi pulled its Kendall Jenner-starring advertisement only one day after its release. The beverage company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding” in the ad, which featured Kendall Jenner leaving a photoshoot to join a protest, then offering a Pepsi to a police officer. Critics derided it as a tone-deaf appropriation of Black Lives Matter and protest imagery, often singling out a visual reference to a famous photo of Ieshia Evans standing her ground against Baton Rouge riot police.

“No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest,” said Elle Hearns, a former organizer for Black Lives Matter. “That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”

“We did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” Pepsi wrote in a statement. “We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

2018 resolution: Understand what you’re appropriating

If your brand is jumping on a political bandwagon or using politically charged imagery in ads or communications, make sure you understand the implications of doing so. And don’t reduce the complexities of the issue in order to make it more brand-friendly, as Pepsi did with its ad’s overly generic protest signs (“Love,” “Peace,” “Join the conversation”).

The intersection of brand communications and politics is messy. Brands may have good intentions in theory, but alienate a portion of their audience in practice. To successfully take a stand, brands need to find consensus among their consumers, understand their place in the conversation and acknowledge the complexity of the issue. Without that mindset, they risk losing control of the story — and the brand itself.