The politics of branding

Paul Chappell

  • Partner and managing director, Brand + Story
  • Website
Paul is co-founder and strategic partner of Brand+Story, a branded content + entertainment consultancy based in Sydney. He and creative partner, Josh Whiteman, have spent a combined 40 years in broadcast media, digital advertising and branded content production. Paul was previously co-founder and executive content director of The Story Lab Australia, part of the Dentsu Aegis Network. Seeing an opportunity to do away with the expensive and outdated agency model, the two now concentrate on working with select clients to develop high quality branded content and entertainment solutions while also developing their own feature film and TV projects.


There have been some real doozies lately. I’m speaking of campaigns where brands have dipped their toe in - or jump straight into the deep end – of the political spectrum, aligning with social causes that seem to be the flavour of the day.

Pepsi is the most recent brand to have tried and failed spectacularly to shake the bucket of social change. It got people talking about it but for all the wrong reasons. My LinkedIn newsfeed was buzzing after the Pepsi launch. It was like a caffeine hit that came to a shuddering halt.

As it turns out, not all publicity is good publicity. Pepsi pulled its ad the day after it launched, apologising for the offence it created among minority groups (including advertising people with self-proclaimed better judgement) and has gone back into its own creative department shell to rethink its stance on making the world a better place. One Pepsi-coloured placard at a time.

The fault with Pepsi’s approach was a glaring omission of authenticity. The brand responded with an articulation of the campaign’s creative strategy, saying "Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologise.” Pepsi’s intention was good. The apology was important. And the admission that it misappropriated an important function of democracy – a protest march - was the most erudite feature of this campaign.

Closer to home, Coopers recently gave a large percentage of its fan base something to belch about with its online video starring two politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum discussing the merits of the Bible over a couple of Coopers beers. It was way off brand for Coopers, which has built a highly loyal fan base with its quirky sense of humour and artisan approach to beer making.

The mistake was allowing the Coopers brand to be used as a delivery mechanism for the religious convictions of the company’s owners and its marketing partners. This was clearly at odds with customers and it left the brand with a hangover that saw not just customers abandoning the beer, but many hospitality venues and outlets as well.

So why do some brands go to heaven for their involvement in political and social issues while others go straight to hell?

Building a brand construct

The answer lies within the construct of the brand itself.

Perhaps one of the most well-known brands to have trodden the political path is fashion brand, Benetton. For the past 50 years, its shocking and often overtly political ads have been making headlines. Provocative and at times gut-wrenching, Benetton’s advertising could be easily mistaken as political propaganda with campaigns that have sought to address issues of social injustice and intolerance around same sex marriage, diversity and religious tolerance – often with the product missing or barely seen in the ads.

Benetton boldly launched a brand campaign supporting the Women’s Movement in 2015 (prior to many other brands) with its ‘Collection of Us’ campaign that included initiatives to support an end to violence and better access to health and education for women. A very noble cause, but by fighting the good fight over the past half a century, the brand’s social commitment started to impact revenue. The brand had almost forgotten the customer in favour of the cause and sales suffered as a result.

I can imagine a lot of CFOs reclining in their ergonomic chairs right about now feeling vindicated all this brand stuff is puffery and wondering when we can all get back to making some profits. But before you get too comfortable shuffling your EBITA statements, it’s worth noting Benetton’s financial situation is very much on the up and up since 2014, it has refocused its efforts on social change and aligned it to the business model.

It’s interesting to note Benetton’s three core brand priorities: Knitwear expertise, colour innovation and social commitment. When the latter is such a strong feature of its communications, how does the brand manage to balance all three seemingly competing interests? The answer is simple enough. They focus on linking the product to the message – and the message to the marketing.

All three core values become complementary and mutually beneficial. They are the three strands of the brand’s DNA that must all work in harmony for the brand to be of value to, and meet the expectations of its loyal customers.

The lesson from Benetton is not in simply being provocative enough to overcome the might of its competitors like Proctor & Gamble. The lesson is that for a brand to stand for something, it must be genuinely involved in the cause and be prepared to be measured on that involvement.

At Benetton, it is not good enough to simply have a commitment to social change. They actually hold themselves accountable for achieving social change as most brand managers and CMOs would be accountable for achieving sales and financial targets.

It puts Pepsi’s recent efforts into perspective.

There are many other brands that have purpose built into their business models. In a study last year by Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer for P&G, it was reported 50 brands that outperformed the market over the past decade were all purpose-driven brands. That is, they were businesses that had a purpose greater than just profit. And this purpose has, by effect, created even greater actual value for these companies because of the contribution the brand makes in the communities in which they operate.

The social side of branding

The 2016 WARC 100 analysis revealed several of the top 10 brands were focused on addressing social issues in their marketing communications. Campaigns such as #LikeAGirl by Always and the ‘ugly fruit and vegetable aisle’ tactic developed by French retailer Intermarche both achieved knock-out results for the brand with a purpose-driven message. In fact, Intermarche reported a 5 per cent growth in retail sales during the course of the campaign. How’s them for ugly apples.

Ice-cream brand, Ben & Jerrys, has an enviable reputation not just for ice-cream but for its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program based on the notion of ‘linked prosperity’. This brand pillar is about ensuring everyone and everything the company touches should benefit from the company’s profits. That philosophy has dripped down from the very top of the business through employees and across supplier and distribution networks to ensure sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships are nurtured and protected. “Peace, love and ice-cream” seems to be a brand motto that tickles everyone’s tastebuds, but the brand ensures it lives up to the promise of doing good in the communities in which they exist.

Aline Santos, EVP/global marketing at Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, spoke at last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on the need for brands to move beyond trying to change consumer behaviour and start encouraging individuals to turn purpose-driven intentions into actions.

"Often we say that one way forward is really to start creating content for our brands. But you can only create content for your brands when you have a story to tell. And it's very difficult to tell a story if you don't have a passion point – something that is beyond your product. Because telling a story about your product is going to be a very short story. But talking about a passion: that can last forever."

And Unilever is not just speaking out about the need to invest in purpose-driven brands, they are actually doing it.

"Fifty per cent of Unilever's growth today is coming from brands that are acting on their purpose," Santos said. "And the growth that we are getting from these brands is 30 per cent higher than the brands where we didn't crack the purpose.”

That’s a pretty compelling argument to get your purpose on. But the question is, how do you engineer your brand to exist beyond the confines of a traditional finance model ruled by fiscal imperatives, stakeholder expectations and annual targets rather than long term brand objectives?

Well, it starts at the top. It requires buy-in from the CEO, the board, and the senior management team that will be the shepherds of this purpose-driven brand strategy inside the business. We’re not just talking about a nice new set of core values or a mission statement that includes the words “social good” and “renewed commitment to corporate social responsibility”. That misses the point all together.

To be a truly purpose-driven brand that is empowered to speak out against social injustice, or to pioneer a movement that replaces draconian legislation, or to encourage voters to vote down or vote out political regimes that create division and hate, the brand must be built upon a foundational belief system or ideology.

There is resistance to such a bold brand strategy approach. We see this all the time with our clients who are ready to embrace a revitalised brand that offers real purpose and substance. But the strategies presented often don’t even make it to the executive team. There’s too much at stake for the CMOs and brand directors – personal reputations, career advancement, internal politics, financial targets, inter-departmental agendas... sometimes just a fear of being wrong. That’s understandable, and very human. But it creates brand stasis and protects the very thing you’re trying to battle against every day: Irrelevance.

To overcome this issue, it’s vital purpose is built-in to your business, not bolted on. That requires a whole-of-business commitment starting from the top, and a brand champion to drive this fundamental shift in the organisation.

If ever there was a reason for all the business heads to come together and to bang said heads together to work out the core values and purpose (or reason for being) of the business, then this is it.

Tags: corporate social responsibility, brand strategy

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