Now that President D.T. Barnum is in office with his Greatest Show on Earth, it’s difficult for business stories to capture our attention.
One story that did manage to break through recently was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick‘s resignation from the President’s economic advisory council. The controversy leading up to his decision allowed Lyft to smartly gain some exposure and acquire some new customers.
Perhaps Lyft should adopt a new tagline: “Lyft. Only One Small Vowel Away from Left.”
This had me pondering an age-old question: Do politics and brands mix? Should brands bravely take political stands, or should they seek to be apolitical?
For most of my career, the answer to this question was clear. Brands were to stay away from politics at all costs. We brand managers used to cower in fear whenever a single, handwritten letter would cross our desks from CHASTE (Christian Housewives Against Satan’s Tools & Exploits) or some similar wacko organization.
But things have changed.
The Changing Role of Brands
The primary role of a brand used to be as a guarantor of quality to the consumer. When faced with the risk of buying something new, especially a high-priced product, a widely-known, well-respected brand provided us with valuable reassurance.
The ironic thing about that reassurance is that it usually came from the brand itself–in the form of advertising. This never was, nor could ever be, the objective truth. Instead, it was a sales pitch full of half-truths, myths, and misdirection, kind of like my marriage proposal.
Why did we accept this blarney as useful? Because it was the best thing we could get. Before the Internet, we couldn’t easily access objective information (e.g. product reviews; consumer testimonials) about a brand’s experience. Today, with that information so easily at hand, advertising sales pitches are far less useful to us.
So does that mean brands are dead?
No, definitely not. Some brands have always served a second useful purpose. Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” in his The Theory of the Leisure Class, a book I’ve never been able to finish, but nonetheless feel free to frequently cite. Veblen suggested that we are compelled to consume lavishly, if we are able, so that we can signal to others how important and successful we are.
Luxury brands have understood and exploited this phenomenon for a long time. A Porsche 911 is a great sports car, but a big chunk of its utility to its buyers is as a signaling platform to others, a declaration that the driver is wealthy and sophisticated. This allows Porsche to charge a large price premium over equally capable cars.
And don’t even get me started about Louis Vuitton handbags.
But it doesn’t always have to be about money, and that’s where the opportunity for many other brands exists. Brands can signal that their owner is hip and socially conscious (Starbucks), creative and tech savvy (Apple), outdoorsy (Patagonia), or doing their part to save the Earth (Tesla). On the other end of the political spectrum, brands can communicate that their buyers are authentically American (Budweiser; Jeep) or traditionally masculine (Marlboro; Jack Daniels).
All these brands are strong because millions of consumers want to use them to broadcast signals about themselves to others.
Today, if you want to have a strong brand, you should provide your consumers with a message they want to project.
Checklist for Getting Political
Strong brands stand for something. And when you stand for something, that means you stand against something else. While it may be possible in rare cases to do this without becoming political, it is difficult.
To be clear, by “political” I don’t mean identifying your brand as Democratic or Republican. I am instead talking about communicating a set of values that have political dimensions, or that some portion of the population will interpret as political. For example, if your brand is for “environmental sustainability,” it’s against tar sands pipelines. Some people will like that, and some won’t.
But before you break out your quill and parchment and spend all night composing your brand’s Declaration of Values by candlelight, I would recommend you go through this quick checklist.
Be honest with yourself—is your product or service naturally political in any way? Some products and services are inherently apolitical. I used to manage the Bisquick brand. There’s nothing political about Bisquick.
Some other apolitical categories quickly come to mind: ballpoint pens, dining room tables, toothpaste, and muffler shops. Introducing a political dimension into categories like these is likely to confuse and turn off consumers.
Just be careful about lulling yourself into complacency on this one. Things change quickly. A few years ago, I would have never said that parkas or peanut butter cups could be political. Now, it’s much less clear. Consumers who wear Canada Goose parkas or eat Justin’s peanut butter cups are probably trying to send us all signals.
Is your product or service used publicly? If nobody will see a consumer using your brand, then it will have no signaling value. Few people witness what toilet paper I use or what carpet cleaning service I employ, so those brands will not help me project messages to others.
Are you ready to leave some consumers behind? Strong brands create passionate advocacy in some by stirring distaste in others. Every strong brand, no matter what it is, has a group of people who detest it.
Many business people, and your boss is probably one of them, have an aversion to leaving behind ANY potential consumers. This is why most brands swim in circles in tepid pools of meaningless mediocrity, hoping that someday everyone will like them.
So go ahead and get political with your brand. Just make sure your career politics are in order first.