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Should Brands Get Involved In Politics?

It goes without saying that 2016 was quite the year for politics. From Brazil and South Korea impeaching their presidents and a failed coup in Turkey, to the release of the Panama papers and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, it wasn’t just Trump and Brexit that shook up the international status quo last year.

With 2017 showing no signs of slowing, and with conversation swirling around Trump tweets and the tragic scenes in Aleppo, how should brands conduct themselves in a world focussed away from consumerism and towards important political events?

At December’s unBound conference in London, a panel was pulled together to answer precisely that question – should brands get involved in politics. Having representatives from Stylus, Iris and Imagination in discussion with a former special advisor to David Cameron, the debate was sure to tease out some contentious issues.

The panellists were passionate about the importance of organisations staying true to their mission, and making sure they are taking a stand for what the brands represent. It seemed that the general consensus among the marketing community was that it was good to polarise, by incorporating politics into social media plans, or indeed entire campaigns, as long the brands stick to what fits their values and ‘fight for what’s right’ as it were.

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But the missing piece of the puzzle was the focus on the consumer. It’s all fine and well to think about what’s right for a company in terms of what they get behind, but surely what’s more important is getting it right for the public?

Take a step back and ponder how brands get their values. Sure, there are the legacy brands with fascinating stories about their rise through history and how they have always fought for civil rights, but the vast majority of brand values are formed by agencies and marketing teams in a bid to get the right angle in communications. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – after all, ‘authenticity’ is a much better trend than ‘greed’ – but when it comes to deciding what political issues are worth getting involved in, the importance should lie on what’s right for the public as a whole, not what fits into your mission statement.

When you look at the most damaging issues facing communities nowadays, and which ones brands tend to align with, you don’t see much of a connection. With suicide being the leading cause of death for men under 50 in the UK, and the rise of in-work poverty leading to unprecedented numbers of employed homeless people, you’d expect brands to be lining up to support mental health charities and food banks.

The problem is, these aren’t as easy to talk about. They aren’t as marketable as Climate Change or being Anti-Trump. You can’t ‘get behind’ these issues just by tweeting about it – so support for these wide public causes has to go on behind the scenes.

But surely that’s what getting involved in politics really means – campaigning, lobbying, writing to your MP, launching petitions, and enabling others to get involved. Not jumping in with a branded tweet when a spike is spotted on your social media-monitoring dashboard. Not writing a new emotive manifesto for your website landing page. Not having a media outlet write a ‘candid’ interview with your CEO about their thoughts on the most recent political upheaval. These things are marketing, not politics.

If brands really want to get involved in shaping society – and they should as long as they play an active part in it – they should start with the people. They should ask questions like ‘what is needed’, ‘what is going wrong’ and ‘what is really affecting the lives of millions in the places where I operate’. And then brands should identify what it is that they can do that’s meaningful, and what will actually drive real change. They should not question which things look best in their content plan.

Effect must come before marketability.

The world is always changing, but we can agree that we are living in tumultuous times where everyone needs to work out what role they must play in this divided landscape. Corporates need to sell – that goes without saying – but surely creating a healthier, more affluent and more connected society is much better for business than merely getting a few thumbs up.




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