Is it worth brands being political?

It might be tempting to make known your opinion known when political tensions rise, but doing so can change consumer perceptions of your brand and is therefore something to consider carefully

-- By Lucy Tandon Copp and Patricia Mansfield-Devine

What do Unilever, Illamasqua, Lush and Dr. Bronner’s all have in common, aside from being cosmetics companies? Over the past year they have all launched advertising campaigns or messaging that conveys a political stance.

Trump has been a common theme, although other socio-political issues have also filtered through to consumers.

Back in February, Unilever ran a print advertising campaign in The Times and The Guardian that mocked Trump’s administration by publishing a list of its own #AlternativeFacts related to its Dove deodorant brand.

Meanwhile, Illamasqua went as far as saying that it no longer wanted Trump supporters wearing its products and that it would not knowingly sell products to Trump backers.

A post shared by LUSH Cosmetics UK (@lush) on

Lush, no stranger to human rights and cruelty-free campaigns, took a stand against Trump’s immigration ban and displayed a message in its store windows that promoted freedom of movement.

Away from Trump, Lush has also advertised its position on the death penalty, openly campaigning to end capital punishment.

And Dr. Bronner’s has continued its efforts to campaign for fair pay and has re-emphasised its support for marijuana reforms. It also reacted to Trump’s election, donating $50,000 to the National Immigration Law Center shortly after the immigration ban was enforced.

Weighing the risks

But what do companies like these achieve – or risk – when publicising their socio-political stances?

According to the 4A’s, a trade association for the advertising agency industry, the majority of consumers do not like it when brands ‘get political’.

In a survey by the 4A’s and research partner SSRS, it was revealed that 58% of consumers dislike it when brands get political.

Speaking to Cosmetics Business, Alison Fahey, Chief Marketing Officer of the 4A’s, described an example of when a brand suffered for getting involved in politics.

“Naturally, Pepsi comes to mind and you saw how that sparked major backlash against the company for what many consumers felt was appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement and using social justice to sell soda.”   

Millennials vs boomers

But it seems not all consumers are opposed to brands sharing their beliefs.

According to French trend predictor PeclersParis, political and social engagement is the key to attracting and retaining millennials.

Speaking at a conference in Paris on 18 May, Emma Fric, the company’s Director of Research and Prospective, introduced the company’s concept of ‘emotional innovation’ as a response to the recent upheavals affecting society.

She characterised these as defiance of information, withdrawal into oneself and the search for more transparency and authenticity.

“Fifty-one per cent of millennials appreciate brands that engage politically in their advertising campaigns, against 22% of baby boomers," said Fric.


Three Pillar Approach

French trend predictor PeclersParis proposes a three-tier strategy for brands when considering political advertising.

It advises that brands should firstly embrace ‘authentic plurality’ because younger generations accept the concept of having differing and multiple identities, and are looking for both spontaneity and authenticity along with a pluralistic definition of feminism.

  She also said brands should ‘join the resilience’ in terms of making their research open to others, reinvesting in human universality and re-appropriating a collective identity. 

‘Living in symbiosis’ should be the third pillar with a strong emphasis on nature, having an ecological conscience, awareness of overproduction, a focus on the provenance and quality of products and acknowledging the desire to see more nature in the city.

Incorporating such themes into their business strategies enables companies to take “more authentic and committed positions” in order to gain and regain consumer confidence, said the analyst. 

A fine line

Talking about what brands hope to achieve by aligning their opinions on current affairs with product advertising, Fahey added: “I think some brands feel they need to make a statement on certain important issues because their customer base cares about those issues.

“But if the messaging is not true to the brand’s DNA and in line with the values that brand has historically expressed, it’s often a bad idea.”

In some cases, such as Fahey’s Pepsi example, the stunt can do more harm than good. “They risk alienating consumers who disagree with their views and also consumers who may agree, but still think it’s opportunistic and inappropriate,” added Fahey.

So how should brands, intent on running a politically-charged campaign go about it in the right way? 

Fahey advises: “Consumers are savvier than ever and they insist that any social or political messaging be authentic to the brand. 

“Brands need to have established credibility around that topic. The brand Patagonia is a great example: this is a company that has always addressed environmental issues and they speak up consistently when they see a threat to the planet.

“They have “permission” and credibility to do so because, first they sell outdoor gear and second, protecting the environment is known to be a core value of the company.”


Speak out vs stay silent

“Consistency is key”

“With the rise of social media, today everyone has the ability to make their opinions known to the world with the click of a button. But, to coin a phrase, with great power comes great responsibility. Brands need to remember that what is posted online will create a ripple effect on social media. Once a brand has hit ‘post’, someone, somewhere, will have screenshotted or circulated it, making a retraction or deletion powerless. That’s not to say that a brand can’t be successful with a political hat on – but it takes effort. If you are shaping your brand as one that is actively engaged in social and political events or campaigns, then consistency is key. Dr. Bronner’s and Lush are good examples of brands that have consistently campaigned for different causes – working towards reform is their lifeblood. But for a brand to just dip its toe in at the first sign of political upheaval is a risk that could make a brand look unprofessional both among its employees and consumers.”
Lucy Tandon Copp, Editor, Cosmetics Business

“It’s not worth it for brand longevity”

“Beauty is a form of escapism. Whether it’s an intimate moment in the morning or part of a relaxation process before bed – a beauty routine is precious to many. Those moments are a time for consumers to be in their own bubble away from political turmoil. It’s no wonder that consumers dislike it when brands get political. Who wants to start their day thinking “my moisturiser is produced by a racist” or “my favourite lipstick brand publicly ridicules my political views?”. On top of that the brand is also at risk of word-of-mouth deterioration and consumers feeling ashamed to take out the product in public. It might be tempting to for brands to join the political buzz, to get more hits or followers, but it’s not worth it for brand longevity, especially when the press might run a list of outdated adverts.”
Sarah Parsons, Reporter, Cosmetics Business

“Ask yourself important questions”

“There have been many examples in recent months where brands have been political and voiced their beliefs with consumers, most prominently the response to Trump’s immigration ban back in February. Perhaps the most controversial from the beauty sector was Illamasqua’s Anti-Fascism Pledge, but while it was asking consumers to support freedom of expression, equality and diversity, it was also met with backlash from some who felt the company’s demands were fascist. Today, brands need to be more than manufacturers of product. They need to offer meaning and authenticity, and have a purpose, and in this way they can deliver more value. But is getting political the right way to go about doing this? Brands need to ask themselves some important questions before they take the step. Would it actually add positive value to your brand? Could it shift the focus away from your brand message? Treading carefully is the best approach here.”
Jo Allen, Editor, Cosmetics Business Market Report